Are universities ‘failing’?

LAST week a group of student leaders descended on the capital city for a meeting of the minds. They made up the Malaysian Students Group Alliance the world over led by Justin Lim, an engineering student based in Paris. To be among young minds ready to engage and be engaged intellectually is always exciting. No less rewarding, to see students from local universities taking part in the process as equals despite frequent prejudices unfairly thrown at them.

I was fortunate to be among them in a conversation about the idea of universities. It was timely to revisit the issue since generally students take little interest in understanding what the "label" stands for. Neither are universities keen to do so despite the rapid changes sweeping across education. So much so it has been so skewed by commercial interests that they are more of "human factories" serving the dictates of the marketplace following the weakening of nation states. Yet to many, including the powers that be, this is the de facto university – a one-size-fits-all model.

The session traversed through three major scenarios spanning more than two millennia globally. Beginning with the pre-modern period where "universities" were centres of learning meant to serve the very locale that created them in meeting the needs of the common people. They were inspired by a community of scholars who moved around to share thoughts and wisdom with the lay people in public places. These were done through dialogues, and exchanges on matters of utmost concern like what life is about. What is the higher purpose of living? Where does the universe come from?

Such searching questions spark new thinking in bringing new meanings and values in creating better and lasting civilisations that would later serve as reference points for others after them. Practically every culture and civilisation has its own context of knowledge and learning that contributed to the global repository of knowledge to be shared and exchanged. There was no intellectual property rights, patents and copyrights to hinder the flow of information and knowledge. This is in great contrast when such practices were introduced and accepted by the "modern" day universities in forging a market-like environment.

It all started in the 11th century when the word "universities" was coined and applied to the first university in the West predicated as a trustee of the European humanist tradition as one of the stipulated criteria. Many were surprised to learn this explaining why present day universities are "stereotyped" in the broadest sense of the word. Be it in terms of content, pedagogy, governance, even outcomes and excellence which is defined on provincial Western-centric experiences and cultural interpretations. It largely lost the community orientation and its inherent wisdom of yesteryears to that of an "ivory tower" image based on a business model serving mainly narrow economic interests of a smaller segment of community.

Concomitantly, education shifted from one functioning as a "leveller of society" to one that creates widening gaps and disparities as it is today. In other words, universities as understood currently are "failing" and are in a state of crisis so well reflected in the many other "failures" as experienced by the larger community be it ecologically, socially, economically or even culturally speaking. In a nutshell, the balance between the 3Ps of planet, people and prosperity is totally disturbed and has become unsustainable. So are universities framed within the "business" model today.

Indeed, we are at a crossroads so crucial in reinstating this vital "balance" under the banner of Unesco Education for Sustainable Development. This alone testifies how much universities and (higher) education have moved away from what they are intended to be in preserving and promoting human dignity and justice, besides maintaining the equilibrium between the 3Ps through genuine collaborative partnership. In fact, these are the six overarching outcomes that are specified by the Sustainable Development Goals, 2016-2030, launched by the United Nations. It at once breaks away from eurocentricity or the ensuing for-profit model to a more universal, just and equitable system of education deemed to be not only sustainable but also transformational in meeting the challenges of the future.

The implications of such a trajectory for the younger generations are immense. But only if they are able to appreciate and be aware of what the issues are, namely how universities, thus education, have become convoluted over time. And that they have the role to play in putting back the ethos of education as a leveller of society for the coming generations to live harmoniously with one another and their environment. Only then will there be a glimpse of hope for the future. In this sense, the Malaysian Students Group Alliance has take an important step in organising the 2017 summit and must lead to reshape the future that they want.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that "another world is possible". Comments: letters@thesundaily.com