HUMBLE BEGINNINGS: The first doctoral thesis at Yale University in the United States submitted in 1861 had only six pages. This is a far cry from typical present-day postgraduate theses which can run into 500 pages.
One of the most esteemed Physics journals Physical Review started as a local publication in 1893 at University of Cornell. Its first issue had only 20 articles. Today, Physical Review has split into Physical Review A, B, C, D and E, each catering for a subfield of Physics.
In 1958, Physical Review introduced its sister publication Physical Review Letters, a journal which is deemed more prestigious by the Physics fraternity than Physical Review. They have grown to last.
Some local universities such as Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) had humble beginnings with small student enrolments and a ragtag of academic staff.
They were lean and mean. The pioneering batch of students at UKM numbered only 192 and at USM, a paltry 57. Today, they are among the top universities in Malaysia and Asean, a stark contrast to their serba kurang days.
It is good to start small for then the university can better keep track of its growth and development. It can plan better with a focused direction.
Today, most of the once-humble universities have grown big, some too huge in fact. When it is too enormous, budgets are a constant constraint.
How do you apportion limited resources fairly so that no discipline, faculty or institute feels marginalised? To increase the income, cash-strapped universities have to resort to fee hike as done by the British universities. They dare not ask their academics to take a pay cut.
As expected, students in Britain took to the streets to protest the almost three-fold increase in tuition fees. When the enrolment is 57 or 192, almost everyone can have a bursary or scholarship; almost everyone knows everyone.
When the enrolment reaches 20,000, the National Higher Education Fund Corporation has to step in, no mean task indeed!
Malcolm Tight, in his book The Development of Higher Education in the United Kingdom since 1945, foresees gloom and doom for higher education for the coming decade in his country. David Watson in The Question of Morale: Managing Happiness and Unhappiness in University Life has called upon mature institutions to cultivate a discourse that neither over-claim nor over-blame.
They must have the ability from time to time to laugh at themselves. This will bring a semblance of sanity to the hallowed halls of academe.
In such places we do tolerate insanity bordering on creativity to have a rightful place. After all, a modern-day university is more like a "multiversity". It is no more small and humble but big and intimidating.
By Koh Aik Khoon
Source: New Straits Times Learning Curve Comment 22 April 2012