Brave New World (The Star)
23 January 2013
OUR university students have been in the news recently. The most high profile
coverage of course went to K.S. Bawani, the UUM law undergraduate whose attempt
at getting her views across at a university forum was rather unceremoniously
shut down by an overzealous moderator who apparently did not like what the young
woman had to say.
What might have slipped under the radar of readers were the opinion piece on
the poor standard of Malaysian graduates (in particular their grasp of English)
and also the story about the overall quality of our law graduates.
All three stories are inter-related but apart from the very specific issue of
English competency, the other concerns are vaguer in nature. A main critique of
our graduates is their supposed inability of independent thought and action.
First off, I would like to say that sometimes, maybe, just maybe, we can be a
bit too harsh on our young people. For goodness sake, most of us were absolutely
gormless and idiotic when we first graduated. We had to learn to be competent in
our respective careers, we had to gain experience and with that the confidence
to speak our mind and strike out by ourselves.
But apart from that little call for empathy, I do agree that our graduates
can be more assertive and independent minded. The question is what can be done
As a lecturer, I have always felt that one of our duties is to make sure that
our classroom environment is one where discussions and disagreements can occur
in a way that students feel safe and not intimidated. This is so they can
explore their thoughts in a nurturing atmosphere. Whether they choose to use it
or not is entirely up to them, but in my experience, it can and does happen.
However, the classroom is only a small part of the student experience. In
fact, I would go so far as to say that it is a miniscule part of their personal
growth. There is only so much life lessons that one can learn in an
Environmental Law lecture or a Calculus tutorial. It is life on campus where you
learn about independent living, self-governance, facing different ideologies,
politics and social interaction.
As much as lecturers would like to achieve in our classrooms, if life on
campus is stilted and controlled, then our students will not get the full
advantage of a university education. If universities are intent on controlling
their students (and they are believe me), then don’t be surprised if our
graduates are not all that you may want them to be. Unless what you want are
obedient and subservient workers.
This brings me to Bawani. The main point here is not the rudeness of the
moderator in grabbing the student’s microphone and talking about a variety of
long suffering fauna, the real point is the types of so called forums that
students are exposed to. Ideally, students themselves must be given the maximum
freedom to organise their own forums. Let them sort out who they want to hear to
speak and let them sort out the logistics. No need for the Student Affairs
Department to poke their long noses into it.
If we leave our students alone, bound only by the same laws that bind the
rest of us, free to express what they want and to govern themselves (with
unions, not some toothless council), then we are giving them a lesson in life as
an adult. Then we will see graduates who are far more than merely
twenty-three-year-old school leavers.
With regard to English proficiency, it is a problem which has to be dealt
with in the entire education system. Universities are not remedial centres, but
that is what we have become. I have students who have to attend English language
classes, when they should be using that time more constructively, like
irritating intolerant moderators.
I am not criticising my language teaching colleagues, they are very good and
dedicated. What I am questioning is the need for my students to have language
lessons in the first place. Shouldn’t primary and secondary school have sorted
Finally I want to talk about law education. First off, I want to say that law
schools and the legal community should and must work together all the time to
improve the quality of our education. But, the relationship must be one of
collaborators. We academics are not and will not be the coolies of the legal
community. We will not lie down while they tell us what they want.
Now, I am not being pugilistic and I am not itching for a fight with either
the A-G, or the Chair of the Bar or the Chief Justice (although that would make
pretty good reality TV), what I am saying is that there has to be an
understanding about our respective roles.
A law faculty’s job is not merely to provide lawyers. Our job is to provide a
university education and at the end of it our graduates have an academic
There is of course some grey area in “professional” courses like law. The
final year of our students studies, for example, have subjects which are much
more geared towards professional practice rather than academic study.
But this does not mean we are a vocational school and that we will produce
readymade lawyers. That is not and cannot be our purpose.
If we do our job well (and I believe we can improve a lot), then what we
should produce are thinking men and women, with a strong foundation in the
concepts of law and an ability to think for themselves and deal with the
challenges of their respective career choices (not necessarily in law).
I mean if you want a young lawyer to know how to do the technical stuff of a
law practice, surely some, if not much of that pragmatic type learning should be
done during the chambering period.
Surely the Bar must take some responsibility too. What are the duties of a
Are they bound to teach a set of knowledge and skills, or do they get away
with having our graduates make photocopies for nine months?
There is much to be done for our higher education and a lot of the things
that need to be done require some major systemic overhauls. But even without
that, we can still make headway.
If our students desperately need language lessons, then the university should
provide it, at least until things improve in primary and secondary schools.
If there is a disconnect between industry and academic institutions then we
must ensure that there is a constructive partnership between academia and the
world outside in thinking up ways of improving ourselves.
But at the end of the day, the most important thing to me is that we must
stop treating our university students like children; this includes the
university administration, us lecturers and anyone else who may wander into our