THE topic of university excellence has risen again in response to the initiative of the Government, particularly the Education Ministry, to propose a new higher education blueprint following the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 (covering pre-school to secondary school).
In principle, the blueprint aims to produce holistic and integrated values-driven talent in line with the National Education Policy.
Enhancing the quality of universities is definitely a more challenging task compared to schools. It is the most crucial level of education where ideas and theories are seriously put forth, with most of them translated into policies to be implemented in various fields.
University students are the main participants at this level and active recipients of these ideas and theories. Most of them go on to play a role in implementing such policies once they graduate.
Thus, any discrepancy at this level of education would surely implicate the future of the country and the world as a whole.
The question at hand is, with hundreds of higher learning institutions mushrooming in the country and producing thousands of graduates annually, are we satisfied with the quality of our higher education?
The increasing number of institutions is not necessarily an indication of better higher education. Unless its quality is strengthened, the negative impression of the university’s role will prevail.
For example, Harry Lewis, a professor at Harvard University, criticised his own university’s administration in his book Excellence Without Soul (2006).
Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th US president, represented a more sceptical view on the quality of university when he said: “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car (wagon) but if he has a university education, he may steal the railroad.”
It all goes back to the meaning of the university and its role. Simply put, how do we develop a good university? What are the criteria of a good university?
Cardinal John Henry Newman, an important figure in the religious history of England, began his monumental book The Idea of a University with the important assertion that university is “a place of teaching universal knowledge”.
In his book Islam and Secularism, contemporary Muslim scholar and thinker Prof Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas pointed out that a university must reflect the nature of man since the word “university”, which is derived from the Latin universitatem, reflects the original Islamic Arabic term kulliyyah, meaning faculty or a power inherent in a person’s body.
The views of these Muslim and Christian thinkers can shed light on the nature of a good university.
The first view implies the intellectuality and universality of a university, while the second emphasises its organic and integrated nature.
The first view is important as it reflects the unique character of higher learning, which is being intellectual. Since the target group of higher learning is educated youths with a greater ability to think and contemplate, they need to be inculcated with universal knowledge or wisdom that enables them to look at things from a wider perspective or from an eagle’s eye point of view.
Universal knowledge approaches reality from a more philosophical level so as to position reality in its proper place. It is against knowledge that is too specific and technical, with the effect that students are neither able to look at reality from a wider perspective. Worse still, they place things in the wrong places and cannot connect one discipline of knowledge to another.
Ethics and religion, if understood in a proper manner, play the role of universal knowledge. They project a worldview that is universal in nature, encompassing the complete way of life in this world and the hereafter.
Currently, some universities lose the nature of teaching universal knowledge when all sorts of specialised knowledge are taught and not balanced by universal knowledge. The perspective becomes too narrow, rendering students unable to look at things in a proper and comprehensive manner.
The second idea put forward by Prof al-Attas is important since a good university must reflect human nature. Just as people have many faculties which are guided by their intellect or rational soul, a university must also have a faculty or group of knowledge that leads other disciplines of knowledge in order to ensure a systematic and integrated approach in all its faculties.
In Islam, this integration is represented by the dynamic relation between the fard ‘ayn(prerequisite) and fard kifayah (collective responsibility) knowledge.
A university should not only be driven by its general vision and mission, it should also specify details to be integrated into the curriculum and translated through all courses in the university irrespective of field and specialisation.
Just as man has intellect, each university should have a centre that serves as a point of reference concerning all the principles and values that will be shared by all other “organs” of the university.
This is so that the university can move and “think” in an organic way, as reflected in its role as a man with a “universal mind”. Similar to man’s faculties, a university’s faculties will move in a unified, consistent and systematic way.
The Quran mentions a group of people who are given a heart and other faculties but do not use them properly: “They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not and ears wherewith they hear not.” (Al-A’raf, 7:179)
Just as a universal man should have harmonious relations between his heart, reason and other faculties, a good university – which is a macrocosmic representation of man – should also take the same reminder from the Quran to develop a more universal and organic nature of its curriculum and administration.
Dr Mohd Farid Mohd Shahran is Senior Fellow/Director of Ikim’s Centre for the Study of Syariah, Law and Politics. The views expressed here are entirely his own. The STAR Home News Opinion IKIM Views 18 Mar 2015