Evolution of education (Part 1)
THE education system, as a whole, has faced challenges that changed its traditional status quo of seeking knowledge and wisdom to unravel truth of the mystery of Man and his internal and external universe. For the tenets of education have been to contemplate the mysteries of life and existence and to develop man’s intellect to respond to and control the environment.
The acquiring, exploration and development of such knowledge began with the shamanistic exposition of existence and its attendant manifestations; to explain phenomena and mysteries of life by ascribing them to supernatural powers, namely the spirits. It later moved to the monasteries, madrasahs and mosques where people acquired knowledge to better understand the Almighty’s intention.
These thoughts and knowledge were embodied into various oral traditions, written treatises, oracles, and religious compendiums, epics such as the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Homer’s Iliad. The Islamic world prides itself with the development of knowledge as reflected in the works of Rumi, Al Farabi, Al Ghazali, Ibn Rushid, Ibn Khaldum and the Prophet’s Hadiths.
Such knowledge became the basis of ideologies that governed man’s individual and communal living. Early knowledge was religiously inclined, but with scientific principles veiled in esotericism.
This repository of early knowledge, but with scientific principles veiled in esotericism that began in madrasahs, ashrams and churches as spiritual and divine knowledge, has gradually turned secular as Man acquire the intellect to explain the natural phenomena as not the work of spirits, but due to scientific reasons.
Then, developed institutions of knowledge that were referred to as university with the purpose of educating for life and for a profession and, which was also later recognised as ivory tower, the citadel of knowledge.
As a result, the initial religious based knowledge changed from the philosophical rhetorical discourse to the functional and utilitarian. And with the industrial revolution, it further transformed the perception of knowledge from the divine wonderment of ontology and its reflections on daily life to the materialistic mechanistic application of living.
The concept of the ivory tower was a catalyst in the development of secular knowledge. Science and mathematics, which initially were couched in esoteric, mystic and celestial domain from the time of the Greeks in such works as those of Archimedes, came to the fore as secular scientific disciplines that began with Galileo Galilei in the 16th Century. It gained momentum in the 17th Century with Isaac Newton and with Albert Einstein in the 19th and 20th century, among other notables physicists and mathematicians such as Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking.
While Europe and the Islamic world were advanced in the quest for both religious and secular scientific knowledge, education and knowledge development were in its infancy in the Malay World including Tanah Melayu. It was mainly informal and experiential, acquiring knowledge for survival.
With the coming of the Arabic/Islamic influence to this region, education and the acquiring of knowledge was institutionalised in the religious schools called madrasah, where the Quran and other Islamic teachings were taught with Arabic and Malay as the medium of instruction.
The British brought in the concept of western education when they colonised Tanah Melayu and named it Malaya. The first English school, the Penang Free School, was set up in 1816, followed later by other grammar and technical schools. Alongside the English schools were the Malay medium schools located mainly in the rural areas but with a few in the urban vicinity.
Before the Second World War top local students pursued their tertiary university education in England while some went to Raffles College in Singapore set up in 1928. The best students pursued medicine at the King Edward College of Medicine in Singapore, which was established in 1905.
University of Malaya was established in 1949 in Singapore after merging The King Edward College of Medicine with Raffles College. The rapid growth of the university necessitated the setting up of two divisions in January 1959, one in Singapore and one in Kuala Lumpur. These two divisions became separate institutions when the University of Malaya (Malaya) was established in January 1962.
As a result of the establishment, more local students gained access to tertiary education which before was limited to the elite and a few bright commoners. Malay students who studied in Malay schools were then able to access English medium school through the two-year Special Malay Class as a transition to English medium instruction. However, madrasah and religious schools with Arabic as the medium of instruction existed alongside the Malay and English medium schools.
The focus of the curriculum then was on the traditional 3Rs, language and literature and science.
University of the future (Part 2)
AS Malaysian education became more demo-cratised, it expanded into new areas of learning beyond the traditional ones, with emphasis on science and mathematics as the core of studies for manpower planning. Arts subjects, however, were given due recognition.
During these early years after independence, universities were confined within their campus parameters, supposedly inhabited by the wise and the learned. It was an exclusive commune estranged from the larger community beyond the campus cerebral walls.
Between the 1970s and 1980s, the walls and facade of the Ivory Tower were slowly dismantled, and the university began to engage the community by extending its expertise in relevant fields and inviting the community to enter its hallowed grounds of knowledge. And, more important is the engagement with the industry.
University education was no longer for the elitist. It was democratised to accept students from various backgrounds and qualifications. At the same time, university education changed from equipping students with critical and creative faculties to one that is mechanistic and realistic to fulfil the requirements of the industry. Formalised education with a rigid curriculum became the norm; more conformity than explorative.
From a community engagement university that was perceptive to the needs of industry, the university morphed into an entity that is preoccupied with fulfilling external perceptions, such as ranking, citation, most influential scientists and the population of foreign students, as indicators of a world-class university.
The quality of a university is now reflected in these external determinants, which are based on Western criteria and perception of excellence in education. Malaysian universities are stepping over each other to play this numbers game. Teaching and research must be geared to achieve prominence in international and local rankings.
Meanwhile, the cut in government funding for universities saw the termination of almost 6,000 lecturers, many of whom are crucial in research and teaching. There are attempts to reemploy them through the non-monetary positions of honorary professors and a flexible honorarium scheme in teaching and research.
As a result of this financial dire straits, the universities have now evolved into yet another entity — the entrepreneurial institute of learning. It is no longer confined to generating and transferring of knowledge, but has an added function of generating income through purveying of its research products, services and rentals.
The days of contemplating and reflecting on the wonderment of creation and its myriad manifestations are over. Universities can no longer afford this luxury. They now have to contemplate ways and means to create revenue and realise the income to be accrued from research products and services.
In this new scenario, lecturers have to change their mindset, perception and modus operandi. It is no longer enough to be passionate about teaching and research. They must also be entrepreneurial to source revenue for the university.
Therefore, a PhD alone is no longer sufficient to serve in the new university setup. One must also need a business degree, preferably an MBA to allow him to function as an entrepreneur. He is required to source funds for the university. In addition, he must also fulfil his responsibility as a researcher par excellence. Not only that, he must be an adept researcher and be able to communicate his ideas through writings, like journals and book publications, and conference presentations. He would also be required to source external funding for his research as the university will be extremely selective in approving research projects. At the same time, he must be proficient in supervising postgraduate students, and shouldering administrative responsibilities. Lecturers will have to adapt to the borderless concept of “university of the future”. As such, they have to attend courses for retooling to equip them with digital technology, and to grapple with destructive technology.
In future the campus we know today may not exist. Teaching will be online, using virtual reality and life-like simulations. Students can take classes at their own time and pace. Physical interaction will be a thing of the past.
However, in certain disciplines, especially in the performing and visual arts, and those which focus on skill developments, such as surgery, direct physical instruction and engagement is necessary.
The future university education would move away from being mechanistic, focusing on data absorption and replication, to data dissection and reconstruction and their applications in real and hypothetical situations, even in fantasy and absurd configurations.
Developing a keen innovative intellect and creativity should be the goal of university education rather than a pursuit of meaningless paper qualifications. Future employment prospects will focus less on degree scrolls than ability, experience and creativity.
Current university graduation merely indicates a specified time spent in pursuing a programme. The gown and mortarboard that used to symbolise academic and professional achievement beyond the norm is today merely a ceremonial costume.
University education of the future will focus on the development of individuals of intellect who can dissect knowledge to perceive its architectonic structure, construct, deconstruct and reconstruct information and data into meaningful tangible and intangible spectrums, and apply and transform them in real life as well in hypothetical situations.