Tan Sri Arshad Ayub, a giant in the educational reform of the nation, remains an icon who charted a historic odyssey.
TODAY is the 84th birthday of Tan Sri Arshad Ayub (pic) who is one of the foremost educational innovators this country has known. He was the first Director of Institut Teknologi MARA (now UiTM) and led it with courage and vision for one decade from 1965 to 1975.
Arshad was personally entrusted by the late Tun Abdul Razak with the challenge of remedying the under-representation of bumiputras in the professions. To match the magnitude of the task, Arshad abjured well trodden paths and blazed new trails.
He assembled a multiracial team of educational renegades with the right mix of courage and passion to do things not done before. He told his staff that everyone is educable. He believed that among the young there are many late bloomers who the educational system tends to discard. He was going to give them a second chance. He believed that entry points into tertiary courses should be flexible but exit points must be well regulated.
How a student ends the race is more important than how he began it. On training students who did not have the best of results, Arshad felt that a committed teacher should not only seek to polish gold, he must also endeavour to mould ordinary clay into works of art.
This was, of course, quite different from other centres of learning which prided in admitting only the best applicants. In contrast, Arshad devised many specially tailored, remedial, pre-university programmes to upgrade students who would not otherwise qualify for professional courses. He established multi-tiered programmes from certificate level to advanced diplomas. Students who successfully navigated one level became eligible for upward mobility into the next tier.
To address public and professional concerns about educational standards, Arshad internationalised. He hired expatriate lecturers and external examiners. He made ITM the first Malaysian institution to embrace UK external programmes like LLB (London), ICSA and ACCA. Decades before other institutions, Arshad pioneered “twinning programmes” with Ohio and Kentucky universities in the USA.
On the domestic front, Arshad commenced scores of courses in engineering, applied science, mass communication, business, management, architecture and hotel and tourism.
His critics were often sceptical about the relevance of some of the courses but Arshad was adamant. He was planning for the decades ahead.
He set up branch campuses in the remotest parts of the country from Jengka in Pahang to Machang in Kelantan. Instead of rural students coming to the city, the city was going to go to the rural hinterland to provide a catalyst for growth.
For working adults Arshad pioneered an Extension Education Programme. He initiated executive development and entrepreneuring courses that are commonplace today but were rare in the early seventies.
He empahsised the importance of languages, specially English and set up the country’s largest language centre to train ITM students in foreign languages. Under his leadership, ITM was in perpetual, creative ferment and always a decade or two ahead of the times.
Arshad’s forays into unchartered territories did not often go down well with the bureaucracy that expected unquestioned compliance with policies, goals, targets and criteria established by the Government. Despite the resistance, Arshad did not buckle.
He was a man who marched to his own tune; he was fixated to some polestars of his passionate conviction. He took personal risks, did a bit of rule bending, capitalised on opportunities and acted with creative non-conformity.
Arshad’s relationship with his staff was informal. He knew thousands of employees by name. Thity-six years after he left ITM he can still identify them correctly! He used to walk the campus on foot, eat lunch with the students in their dining hall; visit faculties unannounced and single out anyone, no matter how junior, who he felt could accomplish a needed task. His talent pool was never confined to elite officers.
He built a strong multi-racial team to strategise the best ways of achieving ITM’s goals. His leadership was tough enough to demand high standards of everyone yet tender enough to endear him to their hearts.
While running an institution devoted to bumiputra education, his transcendence was remarkable. Many of his Heads of Schools were non-Malays. The academic staff was more than 50% non-Malay. He used ITM buses to ferry Christian students from East Malaysia to churches in Klang. Forty years before the 1Malaysia policy, Arshad epitomised it in his actions.
He addressed his young wards frankly and frequently. He inspired them to dream more, learn more, do more and become more. He told them that he believed in their talent; that it was his job of unlocking their potential. The students heard his call and thousands of bumiputra corporate and professional leaders today owe their career success to the inspiration infused by Arshad.
In time, Arshad was the deserving recipient of many sterling domestic and foreign accolades. But above all of them is the enduring legacy that the institute he cradled from 1965-75 has grown into the nation’s largest university. Thirty-seven years after he left, UiTM still is, and will remain for a long time to come, an extended shadow of Arshad Ayub’s towering personality.
The nation, in turn, will always remember him for one of its most successful experiments in social engineering through education.