Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Mind those shackles

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 about it.

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 this out?

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 qualification.

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 chambering master?

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 midst.

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