Academic dishonesty thrives in Malaysian universities. In fact, dishonesty is a trait that is found in many other corners of Malaysian society.
Acts of corruption at high levels of government are reported daily in our media.
In the education sector, the dishonesty I refer to is twofold.
First, there is the practice of forcing students to include their supervisors’ names in their publications.
The second is plagiarism.
These two phenomena exist in many other countries. However, I do not want to dilute the gravity of this problem in Malaysia by highlighting other nations. This would reinforce the kind of dishonest writing that I am critiquing.
Supervisors often take credit for students’ work, and mostly without having contributed to writing the research papers. It is very common that supervisors publish under their own names, lifting the data, analysis and large chunks of their students’ graduation theses (either a BA or masters thesis).
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Often, the supervisors list themselves as the sole author. If they do include the student, he or she is listed as the second author.
This is dishonest and is internationally classified as scholarly misconduct.
If this graduating paper or thesis is available online, this brings up another form of dishonesty. Since the student is listed as a second author, by default he or she is guilty of ‘self-plagiarising’ because both publications are considered duplicate, or two papers with similar content online.
This is not only scholarly misconduct and dishonesty but also academic bullying on the part of the supervisors.
Many supervisors insist on being listed as first author, when their supervisees are required to publish in accredited journals as part of PhD requirements. This attitude of entitlement, pulling rank and bullying students is very common in Malaysian universities.
A typical justification given is that the supervisor ‘supervises’. Their logic is that this is as good as writing their ideas down, and toiling over analysis and the writing of paragraphs.
Such stretching of the truth is not only shameful, it is unethical.
This is partly related to the global university ranking system, the worldwide ‘publish or perish’ culture, and the perverse neoliberal mantra that students are ‘customers’ or ‘consumers’.
This brings up a very important premise. The world university ranking exercise is premised on two phenomena – mainly intellectual imperialism and academic dependency.
Academic dependency arises because a global binary system exists in centres of knowledge production. To clarify this, let us look at the human sciences.
In the human sciences, this is sustained by an imperial-like control over knowledge-production centres. For example, there is a centre-periphery relationship in the production of knowledge in political science, sociology, history, philosophy and anthropology.
The US and the UK lead as knowledge ‘powers’.
What this means is books and articles in various human science disciplines are produced in the US and Great Britain. They also command widespread recognition, prestige and influence in other parts of the world.
As a result, the periphery, which comprises much of the developing world or Global South, seldom produces meta-theoretical or original works of theory in the human sciences.
The idea of academic dependency suggests that intellectually dependent societies in the Global South are dependent on Western ideas to elevate their respective prestige.
This includes research agendas, the definition of problems, methods of research and standards of excellence such as the global university ranking system.
Rankings are predominantly controlled by European and American standards. China is a relatively recent entry into the competition.
At the global level, ranking is really an intellectually dishonest game of hegemony.
To participate in it is equally dishonest, because every participant is knowingly a pawn in a supranational game of hegemonic control.
Furthermore, the emergence of global university rankings coincided with the acceleration of globalisation in the early 2000s.
In ‘world order’ or geopolitical parlance, it also coincided with 9/11, the “global war on terror”, and the consolidation of the idea of a sole superpower, with a single political ideology or hegemony to ‘organise’ world order. This organisation included deciding how knowledge should be produced, packaged, ranked and marketed.
The arrival of Shanghai’s Academic Rankings of World Universities (ARWU) in 2003 set off an immediate chain reaction and global competition in world university rankings. It coincided with the US-China geopolitical competition that we are still experiencing today.
The reactions of the public and our political leaders when the annual university ranking statistics are released, should not be applauded.
This is because they do not understand the relationship between a ranking, on the one hand, and what a university is and does for society, on the other hand.
Numbers, calculations, tables, visual devices and carefully calibrated methodologies in the global ranking exercises are there to convince parents that rankings are rooted in logic and quasi-scientific reasoning.
However, the ugly truth is that “If the numbers compute, you should not hesitate to invest huge amounts of money”. This goes back to the ‘commodification’ of education and the perverse assumption that the developed countries know best.
Therefore, when key performance indicators (KPIs) of Malaysian universities are set, they are inherently agreeing to being academically dependent and subscribing to an unjust global competition in education. In fact, it is as if countries like Malaysia are slavishly bowing down to intellectual imperialism.
Ranking is necessary, but not to the extent where nations at various stages of development feel obliged or even forced to participate, to the detriment of their own society’s development.
For Malaysia, we do not need more technical solutions to overcome our higher education crisis. Rather, we need human solutions. Our leaders must understand what modernity means for Malaysia.
For example, evidence suggests that climate change (global warming) is a creation of unchecked human activity. However religious or spiritual we may claim to be, we refuse to see how greedy we have behaved.
Despite this, education has not taught us how to reject imbalance or material excesses.
Education has also not taught us how to recognise exploitation and corruption, no matter whether the perpetrator is a VIP, a former prime minister or a religious leader.
Instead of succumbing to the current world university rankings system, our universities should revisit the benchmarking process. Global performance benchmarks are indeed necessary to identify areas for improvement.
However, our policymakers should gauge our universities according to countries facing similar socio-political and geopolitical challenges.
Also, we need to reform higher education in a responsible way. Scholars who are conscious of the current crisis in higher education must selflessly mentor the younger generation of educators.
It does not help when politicians and civil society pay lip service to rhetoric like “we need to phase out the old leadership and nurture young talent”.
The mentor-mentee system that currently exists in our public universities is an excellent initiative, but it is not taken seriously and judiciously adhered to.
Lastly, there must be discipline in the top administration of the university system. The boards should not be employed just ‘to have another job’; they should not be there just to rubber-stamp administrative matters.
Rather, they must assist in the overall direction of the universities, including the hope of more financial independence from the state, to keep in touch with sustainable development goals and to keep abreast of national problems.
Universities must also be up to date with discussions on the ground involving parents, the economy and aspirations of the youth concerning career choices and market trends.
However, this is not the major role of universities. Most importantly, the education ethos should be about harnessing the critical mind. – Free Malaysia Today