Has education gone weird?

SIXTY years after Merdeka, and more importantly 30 years of the National Education Philosophy, the state of (mis)education can be summarised as weird, viz, westernised, economic-centric, industry-led, reputation-obsessed, and dehumanising. How so?

"Westernised" is not about denying the contributions of the West to "modern" education system per se. Rather it is about the neo-liberal slant that many, even scholars in the West, are critical about. Yet we missed this academic debate in trying to understand where we are heading in shaping up education for our citizens or in our own mould as per the preamble of Wawasan 2020. Consequently, we naively embrace it unconcerned of the serious ramifications as argued below, that is by being:

Economic-centric. This derives directly from the neo-liberal worldview, materially defined and focused. It distorts the "real" purpose of education by commodifying knowledge through "for-profit" models. In countries where the government failed to provide adequate access to public institutions, the model proliferates. Like all businesses where "the customer is king", education is placed in the hands of those who can "buy" so-called "quality" (mis)education. It skews once again the meaning and practice of education as illustrated in a CNN production entitled The Ivory Tower (2014) which questioned the business model of higher education, its cost and value.

Industry-led. Premised on (mis)education as a vibrant industry, it is dictated overwhelmingly by economic logic. Education institutions are perceived as "assembly lines" that churn out "products" to grease the economy in maximising profits. Hence, not all products are welcome, only "profitable" ones as determined by market forces and deemed relevant, referred and respected (read employable). Many of the non-sciences are sidelined as "useless" (think philosophy, history, literature). Even among the sciences only some are desirable, especially STEM.

Still the final call is based on market sentiment (is this scientific?). Unsurprisingly, as reported by Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) last week, "job outlook for Malaysia is bleak with over 50,000 expected to lose their jobs this year due to the economic situation." If the prediction is proven "inaccurate" why are we "industry-led" then?

The irony is authorities are quick to jump at the crack of the industrial whip, right or wrong. The latest preoccupation is how to kick start the 4th Industrial Revolution. Yet warned MEF: "Automation will continue to be a factor for job losses." Is this another false news? That an increasingly jobless market is not a cause to worry about for the future.

What is clear, however, is that education led by businesses is more for economic profitability rather than for nation-building based on the education philosophy as explained below. While Malaysia "progresses" economically, it slides ecologically, ethically and socio-culturally but we care little that education is losing its "soul". We only tweak here and there and become weird instead.

Reputation-obsessed. This gives way to a game change for "name" and "fame" as integral to "branding" or "marketing" like in all commercial enterprises. It demands to be ranked as "top" institutions by piggy-backing on some (dubious) criteria devised by business entities that set the rules. At once it imprisons the minds of academics into a paradigm straitjacketed by industry ranging from its (corporate not academic) governance right down to (the value-, not values-based) outcomes.

Many take immense pride to be sub-texted as "world-class". Some pay a fortune for this, never mind the ethics or having to forsake national and local priorities to our own detriment in the longer term. A write-up in Times Higher Education last week captured this issue well in highlighting (the lack of) local intellectual life in Singapore.

The game change is a major shift from "accreditation" as determined by nationally sanctioned bodies as the custodian of quality assurance and development. It is now usurped by self-appointed "rankers" that claim to be the "experts" in (mis)education and begin to (re)define "quality" in their terms. As nation-states slacken in defending education as public good, the industry bulldozes its own standard of quality. The general public especially students and parents are (mis)led to believe that this is "the" gold standard to behold oblivious of the chequered stories behind it. It becomes "gospel" truth once the high priests of education are also duped into believing the same. The rest is history as universities get sucked into "adopting" it as the de facto standard. Consequently universities have no qualms in ditching the ethos of education to become even weirder.

Dehumanising. Nothing can be weirder than altering an ecosystem that is perfectly designed to nurture a person to one that creates a dehumanising "weirdo". For Malaysia the case is staring in our face for three decades in the form of Falsafah Pendidikan Kebangsaan (FPK, revised 1996). Unfortunately the FPK no longer commands our attention as we get lured by the weird world of (mis)education unintentionally or otherwise (my hunch is the latter). The proof is ubiquitous: how many of the present (higher) education institutions in the country have articulated in-depth the FPK, let alone strategically aligning its plan to it? More saddening: how many of the institutional leaders take the FPK to heart? Your guess is as good as mine.

What this essentially calls to question are the following: how balanced and harmonious is our education as accounted in the FPK not just in the context of economics but also the ecosystem, ethics and being egalitarian in ensuring the role of education as a leveller and unifier of society? The tide that raises and serves all boats equally.

What pedagogy is there to firmly root values (universal and spiritual) in the education that ultimately (re)humanises students? The FPK frames this as "kesejahteraan diri" – the root word "sejahtera" is uniquely Malay(sian). But how is this operationalised to further influence the societal (global) state of balance and harmony? It would seem that "sejahtera", though often used is least understood, worst still lived by; and at times at cross-purposes.

This stark fact alone hints at how disconnected the education system is with the FPK intended as a foundation to national identity (one of the six student aspirations). Instead we insist on an image of a "weirdo" that is fast getting "obsolete" (as represented by the letter "O").
That is how weird education is now.

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