Why excellence must be the default in local academia

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The Gerak meeting with Education Minister Maszlee Malik

The leadership in universities must be an embodiment of excellence to inspire others on campus to strive for academic excellence and meritocracy, says Mustafa K Anuar.

University reform is long overdue as the malaise associated with local public universities has been festering for years.

And the unprecedented electoral triumph of Pakatan Harapan provided the much-needed impetus for concerned academics and others to broach the reform agenda with a new government that has promised to mend our education system as a whole.

The recent suggestion from Prof Syed Farid Alatas of the National University of Singapore to replace vice-chancellors and remove politically appointed officials of universities constitutes a heightened call to the authorities, namely the Ministry of Education, to get cracking on the long journey to rehabilitate local universities.

Syed Farid’s appeal echoes one of the 10 proposals academic group Gerak (Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia) submitted to Education Minister Maszlee Malik recently.

It is understandable why both Farid and Gerak have urged the government to replace the current leadership in public universities as the vice-chancellors are supposed to carry the vital responsibility of steering the institutions in a direction that is academically progressive in nature.

Vice-chancellors, who are, to quote Farid, “political animals”, are a hazardous lot to the overall wellbeing of universities because politicians who don the academic garb are inclined to seek ways to please and appease their political masters in a way that may be inimical to academic objectives and ethos.

The university leadership must necessarily be an embodiment of excellence to inspire others on campus to relentlessly strive for academic excellence and meritocracy.

READ MORE:  10 proposals for higher education reform

Such leadership would have the intellectual mettle and confidence to present ideas and steer the university in a direction that may not necessarily please the powers that be but instead help reinforce intellectual freedom and academic dynamism.

At a town hall meeting on 23 July between Maszlee on one side and Gerak members, academics and students on the other, the minister was found to be agreeable to the recommendations for improvement in the universities and for such consultations to be conducted regularly.

But given the prevalent and entrenched academic culture that may not easily embrace such planned transformation, it was felt that the reform initiatives needed to be taken step by step.

There are a few doable things, though, that can be done in the short term. For starters, universities could further develop the culture of discussion and debate in the form of seminars and forums, and here the encouragement of an enlightened university leadership would be a fillip.

Forums and even seminars on what are considered “sensitive” topics have been in some ways outsourced to think tanks and other institutions. Universities should now reclaim these intellectual platforms as a way of making themselves socially relevant and as a means to de-sensitise certain academics who – in their warped thinking – regard many things as “sensitive”. There should also be less red tape involved in the organising of forums.

The topic of a public transport system, for example, may interest the public. Experts in the related fields could share their informed views in a vibrant university forum on the approaches to be taken in the spirit of trying to solve the problem of public transport in a country like ours.

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Moreover, public universities owe it to the taxpayers to enlighten the general public especially on issues that have an impact on their daily lives. This is part and parcel of the democratic process where dialogue and consultation should prevail over administrative fiat, violent protests and rabid hate speech.

Forums may well be one of the ways to encourage people, including academics, to not only voice their opinions freely and critically but also to appreciate and celebrate a diversity of opinions and ideas. And it is in this that students should actively participate.

There is another item that is doable in the short term: eradication of the age-old issue of plagiarism and cheating among academics and students in the larger context of the university’s pursuit of academic excellence.

Those found committing academia’s cardinal sin should receive severe punishment to clearly send a message that unethical and lazy behaviour and mediocrity have no place in university.

Academic papers that are supposedly jointly written by academics and students will have to be vetted closely to ensure that lazy and exploitative academics are not “riding pillion” on the hard work of students.

Academics who plagiarise and cheat should not find themselves to be a convenient template for wayward students.

Striving for excellence should not be an option in an institution, where the pursuit of knowledge and truth is its raison d’etre.

Source: The Malaysian Insight

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