Monday, October 10, 2011

University ranking and intellectual honesty

University ranking and intellectual honesty

AB Sulaiman
1:45PM Oct 10

COMMENT The Times Higher Education World University Ranking has recently announced the results of its survey and the ranking of universities from all over the world for 2011-2012.

In the past some of our universities have done modestly well, slotted in the low 200 -300 positions.

But for the first time none did any better than 400 this year. We Malaysians have every right to be stumped. What has gone miserably, pathetically, pitifully wrong?

university students graduation and study 020805We all know that in this country, education as an institution has broken down, but surely not this badly!

Many concerned citizens like (DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang, usually the first to highlight the issue to the public domain) have voiced their opinions.

They cite the application of the quota system, Malay-only vice-chancellors policy or practice, poor funding for research, etc.

azlanBut here I am not about to collate or reiterate and summarise these reasons, plausible as they might be. Rather, I wish to present another and more fundamental explanation which might have escaped the attention of commentators.

The reason to me is that our collective approach to higher learning is off tangent from universal practice in that it encourages and nurtures close-minded and not open-minded thinking.

A quick check with the visions and missions of three top ranking universities namely Harvard, Cambridge and the National University of Singapore, would amply substantiate this point.

Harvard and Cambridge are consistently among the top ten, while the NUS hovers at around the forties or higher. They are among the crème de la crème of world universities.

First, Harvard. Its webpage says:

‘Harvard strives to create knowledge, to open the minds of students to that knowledge, and to enable students to take best advantage of their educational opportunities. To these ends, the college encourages students to respect ideas and their free expression, and to rejoice in discovery and in critical thought; to pursue excellence in a spirit of productive cooperation; and to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal actions. Harvard seeks to identify and to remove restraints on students' full participation, so that individuals may explore their capabilities and interests and may develop their full intellectual and human potential.'

Note some key governing phrases, namely ‘to respect ideas and their free expression', ‘to rejoice in discovery and critical thought', and ‘to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal actions.'

Cambridge University has its own mission statement as well:

‘The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence.'

This university's core values are as follows: Freedom of thought and expression, and freedom from discrimination.

national university singapore NUSNUS in its turn aspires to be ‘a bold and dynamic community, with a "no walls" culture and a spirit of enterprise which strives for positive influence and impact through our education, research and service.'

All three universities seem to have virtually the same vision and mission namely to make their students to think openly and even courageously.

These august institutions are aware that the human mind works best when it is free from encumbrances and pre-determined parameters, or the ‘walls' of NUS. They know that only with this complete and total freedom can the mind explore the smallest atoms and the farthest reaches of the universe.

Their approach to learning thereby is to develop and encourage original cutting edge thinking, of daring to explore, of initiative and creativity, of developing an open mind free from conservatism, conformity, prejudice, myth and dogma.

Wrong vision

I believe our universities are not looking into education in this time-tested way.

For this I'd highlight the vision and mission statement of the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM). Its charter says it seeks to protect the sanctity and supremacy of God, and to put theory into practice.

It also strives to promote the Malay language. I remember reading about this some time ago. A quick check on its webpage indicates this vision is basically unchanged.

A closer examination of this vision indicates that this university does not teach its students to ‘respect ideas and their free expression, and to rejoice in discovery and in critical thought' as articulated by high achieving universities like Harvard.

malay muslim girl students tudungInstead it stresses its students to protect the sanctity of Islam, and to champion the rebirth or strengthening of the Malay language and culture.

Now, I have nothing against the protection of Islam or any religion. Nor do I have any aversion to the vision of nurturing the health of the Malay language and culture.

Only that they are far and away from open, objective and critical thinking.

Instead, this thinking puts encumbrances and limitations to the pursuit of ‘excellence in a spirit of productive cooperation; and to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal actions.' They are in fact the symptoms of the closed or ethnocentric mind.

In a nutshell UKM does not go for truth, but instead for what the authorities want the truth to be. It does not go for intellectual honesty.

No analysis is encouraged, but what is encouraged is the passive acceptance of past wisdom and prejudices.

All these do not promote proper thinking, but they propagate value judgments: prejudices, doctrines and dogmas, speculations. They are discriminatory.

History written by the victors

The present issue of history text books would amply illustrate this government-sponsored ‘truth' and its agenda of pushing for this truth to the minds of the younger generation.

To the authorities, history is to be written by the victors and they have rewritten school texts to suit the government's ‘victorious' views.

History is to be made a compulsory subject in schools thus forcing the young to absorb and internalise these doctored views.

To reiterate I have no qualms about any person championing the welfare and well-being of his race or religion, for I suppose any reasonable person would have an affinity and love for his race and religion.

But this should remain as a personal trait and remain there. To make it into an overt university vision and mission statement is too much. Why? Because by doing so the university is consciously and deliberately propagating racial and religious preferences.

Race and religion are emotive and subjective and are far and away from objective principles.

It becomes understandable to state that UKM does not educate its students in intellectual honesty, but instead its antithesis i.e. intellectual deviousness and dishonesty.

It is for this that I feel no Malaysian universities are ranked among the top in the world, but instead will slide down further and further as the years go by. I think they deserve this.

I might be accused of being anti-Malay and anti-Islam for saying the above. My detractors and critics might counter by saying that surely Malaysian university education is not all that bad?

For this I refer to two articles written by Susan Loone in Malaysiakini on Oct 6. The first is her report on a presentation made by Professor Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin, former mufti of Perlis and an outspoken critic of conservative and conformist Islam.

NONE"Professor Mohd Asri Zainal Abidin has attributed the lack of intellectual development in the Malay community to the 'restrictions imposed by the authorities' on their freedom of thought and expression", writes Loone.

She continued by quoting Mohd Asri (left) as saying that "Knowledge should not be dependent on political power as control of people's thoughts can ‘kill' intellectual discourse."

Mohd Asri said if the authorities continue to "control and direct" intellectual content, the rakyat would never be able to obtain the right facts.

Loone's second article carries the headline ‘Historian: We are trapped in an intellectual coffin'.

This time according to her, a Malaysian historian (Ariffin Omar, a lecturer) bemoaned the disappearance of cultural and political freedom as reasons for the stagnation of the nation's intellectual development.

Omar said (Loone writes further) that a nation needs a healthy dose of culture, politics and knowledge if it wants a steady growth of intellectual discourse from issues ranging from mainstream to ones considered ‘sensitive'.

"But what happens here is that when you speak your mind, you are persecuted as a traitor of the nation. Why is there no maturity in politics?" he queried.

The two thinkers have bravely and frankly voiced out this glaring weakness and we owe them a vote of thanks for speaking out.

In addition we should thank Loone for her part in sharing and spreading their views to the public domain. For my part I am assuming she ‘allows' me to virtually reproduce her work here and to thank her for it.

Decay of intellectualism

The country is suffering from the stagnation and decay of intellectualism which in turn is reflected in the poor showing of Malaysian universities in the THE survey.

We see the products and symptoms of this stagnation and decay every day, as highlighted by the following short list:

a. Incompetence instead of professionalism in the public workplace. The ratio of civil servants to the population is among the highest in the world.

b. Intellectual dishonesty instead of personal integrity. A Judge for example is under public suspicion for plagiarising a judgment. The breaking down of the rule of law and the rise in corruption are other illustrations.

hudud lawc. Fracture and cleavage in between different ethnic groups. The Malays are asserting their ‘Malayness' at the expense of the other ethnic groups.

d. Religious intolerance. The leaders are determined to implement hudud law despite the constitutional objections to such a ruling.

It's painful to add more into this list although it's too easy to do so.

To conclude, a friend, Paul Laine, from Finland, imparted to me a saying from his country: ‘The rotting of a fish starts from the head'.

I remember this now as I see the rot in the university education producing mediocre leaders who then drag the country intellectually downhill. Thanks Paul, for your wisdom.

AB SULAIMAN is an observer of human traits and foibles, especially within the context of religion and culture. As a liberal, he marvels at the way orthodoxy fights to maintain its credibility in a devilishly fast-changing world. He hopes to provide some understanding to the issues at hand and wherever possible, suggest some solutions. He holds a Bachelor in Social Sciences (Leicester, UK) and a Diploma in Public Administration, Universiti Malaya.

1 comment:

  1. The actual problem has nothing to do with hudud or one's religious inclination. It is just that our universities are being run by people that are parochial minded but at the same time very egotistic. They feel that they are the very best in the world and others are of inferior quality. Thus, they won't listen to constructive suggestions but rather succumb to what they feel is right.

    Benchmarking technique is also an obvious weakness among the senior executives of the universities. Instead of learning what top universities do, they opt to copycat what the inferior universities do. Princeton, Cambridge, Harvard, Oxford, UCLA and even NUS have many things to offer but they would rather arrange visits to Taiwan, for example.