Thursday, 19 January 2017

Justifying funding for higher education

Brave New World (The Star)
18 January 2017


I GREW up on the Universiti Sains Malaysia campus because my father worked there. Our house was a short bike ride away and my brother and I used to cycle all over the place. It was really a beautiful campus with old colonial-era buildings set on hills overlooking the sea.
We swam in the old pool with its high diving board and we had school concerts in its halls (using our insider connections). On Fridays and Hari Raya, we would pray in the university mosque.
So, I am very fond of the place.
I am therefore relieved that the university chose to cancel a seminar on black magic.
Now, having an academic seminar on black magic is not by itself a bad thing. Whether we like it or not, people believe in the thing and as such it is worthy of sociological and anthropological study. However, the seminar in question was dealing with it as though it is a scientific fact with medical repercussions.
It is one thing to study what people and communities believe; it is quite another to give such belief scientific credence when there is no evidence whatsoever to indicate that these “beliefs” are “fact”. If one were to be charitable, one could say that such an endeavour is of questionable academic merit.
And yet this is not the first time that public universities have done such things. We have had a university produce “possession kits” to help those taken over by spirits, for goodness sake.
Why would institutions of higher learning be doing such things?
Well, the answer is obvious. There are academic staff in these universities who believe in such things. They believe in spirits and possession and spells. And this is not surprising at all.
Malaysians are a superstitious people and although no study has been conducted (now, there is an idea for a true academic study), I am certain that the majority of our people think that magic (black or otherwise) is real.
Now, I am not here to criticise what people choose to believe in. As long as you are not hurting anyone, go ahead, knock yourself out and believe what you want.
However, universities must be places where personal belief systems must not be confused with what makes a topic worthy of academic study.
Universities must take their research and other academic activities seriously, otherwise they run the risk of not being taken seriously.
As it is, Malaysian universities are under serious threat as our funding has been cut to the point where, over time, we will have difficulty even paying our staff.
As such, the work that we produce and the graduates that we produce must be as good as possible so that the Government won’t have the justification to cut our funds any more.
It is said that in terms of percentage of gross domestic product, Malaysia is one of the countries that spend the most on institutions of higher learning and yet, in terms of international recognition, we don’t do so well. The question, then, is why this is so.
Clearly, there has to be proper investigation as to where the money is going. Is there wastage?
For example, in infrastructure development, are we paying what ought to be paid?
Apart from firming up on the types of academic endeavours we take part in and smashing any corruption if it exists, universities can do other things to improve. Here are some suggestions that will cost no money whatsoever.
First and foremost; stop harassing the students. If they have a point of view and they want to express it, then let them do so.
If you treat university students like school children, you will get school children graduating.
Secondly, if the staff want to use their expertise to give their opinions publicly, let them do so. We are often accused of staying in our ivory towers and yet university management don’t like us speaking our mind to the public at large.
As public universities, our money comes from the people.

Our responsibility therefore is not just to our students and the academic community, but also to the people, and what we can do best is share our knowledge to try to deal with problems of the day.

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