VARSITY professors are increasingly under scrutiny, especially from the public. It is not just about the growing mismatch between graduate skills and what industries need, or the negative publicity of research not generating enough benefit for society. It is more than that.
This increasing apprehension of professors may have arose from the growing democratisation of knowledge. With the advent of the Internet, one does not need a high education to be informed.
As they say, “Just ask Dr Google”, and you are bound to obtain answers.
But, the information explosion on the World Wide Web is not without risks. Not all answers are accurate. If one is not careful, one can end up with fake information. Some even talk about cure-all medicines. Others promise instant wealth through some investment. The net is flooded with such get-rich-quick schemes. Can professors be the ones to clear the facts for society? But, are professors communicating enough with the public? Or are they still limiting their communication to only peers?
These and many other issues came up for debate at a recent forum hosted by the International Medical University (IMU). I asked for a review of the chapters in IMU’s new book that it plans to release soon.
One chapter discusses the changing practice of scholarship, while the other deals with the changing roles of professors. In deliberating on scholarship, reference was made to that landmark report by E.L. Boyer called “Scholarship Reconsidered”. He has defined scholarship as consisting of four dimensions — discovery, integration, application and teaching. Though there was consensus at the forum that the definition remains relevant to this day, most agreed that the advancements in technology, especially digital technology, have impacted the practice of scholarship.
Consequently, the expectations of universities have also changed. Instead of giving equal emphasis to the four dimensions, concerns were raised at the forum that in the current higher education system, there seems to be overemphasis on technical competency in preparing graduates for the job market.
There is insufficient support to groom students to be the next generation of scholars, equipped with critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The forum agreed there is a need to enhance the effectiveness of teaching methods to stimulate active learning and critical thinking.
In the intensifying debate on scholarship, the roles of professors are being question. It has been suggested that professors should communicate regularly with the public and policymakers, through research and studies, on emerging issues that can pose threats to the nation or present new opportunities.
This, unfortunately, is not happening. Even the professorial role to critically evaluate the country’s development programmes has been described as dismal, according to the analysis of forum participants. Professors are not to blame, though. Their university’s key performance indicators, which put too much emphasis on publishing in peer group journals, are more to blame. The question raised was, will this societal role for the public good be diminished or increased in future?
Add the fact that the university is impacted by not only increasing corporatisation, commercialisation and globalisation, but also by competition for students, research funds, academic staff and ranking, and one can understand the constraints on professors.
Globalisation, marketisation and other factors are transforming the nature of universities. These roles, as in the functions and responsibilities of professors, need to be re-examined due to the evolving trends in higher education.
One of these trends is the evolution of the concept and function of universities. Another change is the view of a professor as primarily a teacher in universities, and this, in part, is influenced by the changing behaviour of learners. Another trend, which alarms certain quarters, is the shift of the culture of the institution from teaching and research to entrepreneurial zeal both on the part of individual professoriate and by the university itself.
Professor Datuk Dr Ahmad Ibrahim, Tan Sri Omar Centre for STI Policy and Strategic Studies, UCSI University