Theory and praxis in higher education

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Assaults on academic independence and academic freedom continue, even in the private institutions, laments Zaharom Nain.

Recently – in a British overseas campus that has the Broga Hills as its dramatic backdrop – an international conference titled Decolonisation, Leadership and Knowledge Democracy In The 21st Century University took place.

Granted, as with most of these academic conferences, the title tended to be quite a mouthful.

More simply put, the conference, apparently funded quite substantially by the Malaysian Ministry of Education, was the seventh in a series that looks at the `issue of “decolonising” academic curricula and ridding them of Eurocentric biases”.

By now, I am sure that, in this regard, many observers would have seen the irony of holding such a conference in such a campus.

Be that as it may, this one, more specifically, focused on “new work being done on alternate curricula and methodologies”.

In other words, these academics were looking for new ways, possibly exciting ones, of imparting and exchanging knowledge, particularly with regards to the young.

In a Malaysian context, however, all this could be seen by sceptics and cynics alike as attempts to reinvent the wheel and, possibly, to obfuscate the very real issues facing Malaysian higher education specifically, and Malaysian education as a whole.

Indeed, I say all this by way of a preface because, just as this conference was being declared opened, news was circulating quite widely that two deputy vice-chancellors (DVC) in Universiti Malaya, Malaysia’s oldest and, arguably, premier public university, were allegedly being given the boot.

True, one of them, Professor Rohana Yusof, the DVC of student affairs, in her Facebook page (ah, what will we do without Facebook?), has since refuted the allegation that she was dismissed. She points out that her extended contract was due to end in 2015 anyway.

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However, the other, Professor Mohd Hamdi Abd Shukor, the DVC of academic and international affairs until the end of December last year, was reported by The Malaysian Insider to have said, “I understand that the Education Ministry did not approve the extension of my contract after my name was submitted by UM”.

More than any other Malaysian public university in recent times, UM has been embroiled in controversy after controversy.

And for many, all these controversies point to two main – and related – issues: political interference and lack of academic freedom.

The most recent controversies evidently started with the non-renewal of Prof Ghauth Jasmon as UM’s VC in 2013, through to the ouster of UM’s Centre for Democracy and Elections (UMcedel) director, Professor Mohamad Redzuan Othman, in mid-2014.

This, in turn, was followed by popular and outspoken UM law professor, Azmi Sharom, being charged under the Sedition Act for making a couple of comments in his capacity as a law expert.

And then there was the lukewarm response by the UM bigwigs to his predicament.

Of course, following this, there was the much-opposed (by the UM authorities) visit to the campus by Opposition Leader, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, in October 2014, and the subsequent punishment meted out to the group of student leaders who had arranged the visit.

As The Malaysian Insider put it, “Complaints centred around the fact that UM had allowed Umno leaders on campus to give speeches and meet students, but the same courtesy was not extended to Anwar, a UM alumni and Opposition Leader.”

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Going by this chronology of events, and then, this apparent debacle surrounding the ousting of at least its DVC of Academic and International Affairs, it is quite evident that political interference continues unabated in UM.

And many Malaysians are aware that this is equally true of virtually all Malaysian public universities.

All these assaults on academic independence and academic freedom continue, even in the private ones.

Thus, perhaps it would be pertinent, and certainly not unkind, to remind the many international theoreticians – and even practitioners – gathered recently at the foot of Broga Hills, that all those theories do not exist in a vacuum.

Indeed, as one of the participants at the conference has suggested: “Malaysia shares with many emerging and developing and postcolonial nations the challenge and opportunity of forging new forms and directions in our education system. We must, of course, adopt and adapt those elements of the dominant, ‘western’ education systems which are of benefit and use to us.”

But while this may be a pertinent observation, as ongoing and related events in UM and Malaysian academia as a whole begin to unravel, we – and those gathered at the conference and elsewhere – really must ask: Who holds the power to do the adopting and adapting? And who benefits?

Source: The Heat Online

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