In the 1960s, beginning with Universiti Malaya, institutions of higher education were modelled after the elitist Oxford-Cambridge (Oxbridge) tradition.
The elitist tradition was evidenced in staff and student selection, assessment methods and teaching strategies.
With the expansion in the last twenty years, the elitist tradition shifted, and the policy of the democratisation of higher education was emplaced. The elitist and democratic models exist side by side.
Criticism levelled at higher education does not make distinctions regarding the two traditions. While various institutions offer degrees using the same designations, critical and in-depth questions are not asked.
Notwithstanding the excellent work being done by agencies, like the Malaysian Qualifications Agency, to ensure that programme standards are met and degrees by local universities have equivalency, a question often asked by academicians in the field is as follows: do the degrees offered by the Faculty of Economics of, say, Universiti Malaya in the 1960s mean the same, and do they have the same quality of content and process knowledge corpus as those offered by newer universities with younger lecturers and non-selected students?
Globally, universities are ranked based on various criteria. Several Malaysian universities are in the top 500 of the world ranking, with aspirations for continuous improvement. In the nation, public and private universities aspire to be recognised as leading universities.
One aspect of this aspiration is the distinction between research and non-research universities. Another distinction is between universities with self-accrediting and non-self-accrediting status.
Also, particularly important for public universities, is the distinction of being autonomous or otherwise, regarding finance, research and academic decision-making.
Universities are institutions that are the pride of the nation and have contributed to raising the level of education of the citizenry. As there is the realisation of full enrolment at the primary level, the universalisation of education or the idea of full employment, there must be the aspiration of universal higher education as a mission of the advent of civilisation.
The journey is taken by the declaration of the policy of democratisation of higher education. However, the journey is long, hazardous and chequered.
Although more and more people are getting highly educated, with compulsory programmes like higher-order thinking and entrepreneurial and holistic education, oftentimes, the intellectual disciplines acquired in universities fail to be applied when there are intellectual confrontations in society, particularly in matters of race, religion, language and ideology.
Beyond the university, does social media play a significant role in increasing intelligence and maturity or does it reverse the process of higher-order thinking acquired in ivory towers to the herd mentality?
This is a test of the sustainability of the thinking processes of rationality, as opposed to propaganda manipulation, ethnic instinct bias and religious doctrine, etc. In the real world, do people continue to care for dialogues and discourses or do they take myopic, journalistic views of events now, without the perspectives of historical accountability?
Universities have to be watched closely, and the impact of the curriculum tracked meticulously. So much is spent on universities, that what is learned should be the turning point of irrational thought processes to rational thought processes.
If family, cultural, political and social media biases controlled the thought processes of university graduates, then, the rational academic disciplines of scientific or pseudo-scientific teachings in university for truth-seeking have failed university populations.
University curricula and learning strategies have to be reviewed continuously to ensure the lifelong sustainability of the content and thinking processes learned.
With the offering of massive open online courses by top universities around the world, the next phase of the evolution of universities seems to be the advance of digital degrees in a digital civilisation.
This shift will be a challenge to governments, employers, families, learners and civilisation itself, especially when the monopoly of knowledge by universities moves to relevant and practical knowledge creation in industries, non-governmental organisations and communities themselves.
The best of thinkers and knowledge generators may no more be from universities, but from homes, communities and industries. The present and future are very exciting challenges for academicians, as well as learners enamoured or disillusioned by universities as institutions of academic knowledge leadership.
Datuk Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid NST Columnist 28 August 2015