Thursday, June 24, 2021

The problem of ideas in higher education

Has higher education transformed into a global business?

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Algerian thinker Malik Bennabi (1905-1973) wrote that throughout history, every society goes through an arresting phase. At that point in time, society has two choices. It can climb back onto the path of development, or it can wallow in the sands of destruction. Leaders are critical at this juncture. They must have the moral integrity to expose the factors that are responsible for the destruction happening around us.

Bennabi’s philosophy focused on the backwardness of Muslim civilisation in the 19th century. He drew on the intellectual heritage of Ibn Khaldun in order to diagnose the sluggishness of Muslim leadership.

An important component of Bennabi’s thought is that Muslims must first change their spiritual condition before they can reform society or civilisation. However, Malaysia may already be the “sick man of Asia”. Our society is dominated by a Muslim leadership in pursuit of power and luxury. Bennabi’s “spiritual condition” is apparent when we consider our approach to higher public education.

First, academic fraud is not taken seriously. If there is a requirement for PhD candidates to publish articles during the course of their study, supervisors must make sure they are thoroughly involved. The idea that the supervisor’s name can be included in the article, merely because of the act of supervision, is grossly unethical. Acquisition of funding, collection of data or general supervision of the research do not constitute authorship.

There must also be a clear understanding that the supervisor can decline to participate in such an exercise. This allows the supervisee the option of choosing other co-authors who may be more inclined to the subject matter. Islam says there is no compulsion in religion. Similarly, the idea that there should be no compulsion to publish in an academic field other than what one is passionate about, must be actively pursued in our public universities.

Second, our public universities are consumed by the world-class fantasy of global university rankings. We slavishly bow to global academic demands (mainly Western) in the name of preparing graduates for “the globalised economy”. This is a myth created by a neo-colonial strategy in support of exploitative market capitalism.

The truth is that higher education has transformed into a global business. The trans-nationalisation of higher education has resulted in international branch campuses. It has also created stiff competition among local public universities, to attract foreign students. The business of education has strangled our universities and our nation’s leaders are caught in its domestic political spiral.

Third, our public university administrators have succumbed to robotic regulations that insult intellectual creativity. The inappropriateness of clocking in has already been highlighted numerous times. It should be abandoned, and replaced with a genuine trust of our academics who should be treated as intelligent and responsible adults. Added to this are the rigid quantitative demands for research and publications. This rigidity sacrifices quality.

The requirements for academic promotions across the public university system are based, in part, on the number of journal publications and research projects. It pays little attention to the details of the scholarly discussions, intellectual rigour, the interdisciplinary nature of the literature reviewed or the depth of analytical discourse. All that is considered is the final outcome, ie. where it is published, preferably in a Scopus, WOS or ISI indexed journal.

When questionable journals creep into the international citation database, academics see nothing wrong in publishing in these substandard outlets. Even if they have to pay hefty amounts, it makes up for the potential promotion, a higher salary scale, a possible professional decoration and a higher pension bracket.

Lecturers with a moral conscience, and who value scholarly contribution over monetary or titled rewards, will sacrifice their career advancement. There are many of such demoralised but ethical and highly qualified academics who remained in the system because of their teaching and scholarly commitments.

As far as research projects go, academics are required to apply for research grants through the Ministry of Higher Education online research portal. There is a section in the form dedicated to “intellectual property” (IP). The idea is for academics to patent their research, which will foster recognition and (possibly) financial benefit for the university. This practice is exonerated across the disciplines in five of our public universities, which are designated RUs (research universities).

For example, a scholar may apply for modest funding to conduct studies on decoloniality. Research projects on decolonising various academic disciplines are mushrooming all over the world, funded by top universities. The question of IP may not be a priority in this line of research. Yet, one is frustrated to get the research project approved online. The system rejects incomplete submissions, such as when researchers leave the section on IP blank.

Malik Bennabi’s spiritual condition mentioned in the beginning, is manifest in the three examples presented. The spiritual condition of our higher education psyche is fed by academic fraud, a mimicry of global excellence and a false sense of innovative research and knowledge production.

Sharifah Munirah Alatas is a lecturer in strategy programme at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.

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