THE current buzz words in public university education are financial sustainability, income generation as well as cost-cutting and rankings. This is because it is no longer tenable for the government to provide 100 per cent funding for the universities, prompting it to reduce the subsidy by a third.
As a result, the universities have to generate income to meet the shortfall. Universities have embarked on cost-cutting measures, one of which is to terminate contract professors, reduce the intake of new lecturers and make it mandatory for academic staff to retire at age 60 .
The number of support staff — manual, technical and administrative — has been trimmed. Procurement of equipment has become more stringent and research grants are slashed.
In their efforts to generate income, universities are focusing on disciplines that could produce products for commercialisation as well as papers in indexed journals that would boost their ranking.
Thus science, technology, engineering and mathematics hold sway.
The humanities, social sciences and visual and performing arts, which are rooted in theory and aesthetics (visual and written) and not functionally oriented are of a low priority.
Currently, universities are concerned with positioning, branding and ranking. So, to improve these criteria, they concentrate on the number of high-impact factor articles and citations.
The universities, too, have changed from serving the greater needs of humanity to focusing on the needs of the industry.
As such, the authorities are gearing to produce graduates for new types of jobs in the new emerging digital and robotic industries.
How does this shift affect traditional disciplines like history, literature and other related arts subjects, including the visual and performing arts?
Would they suffer the same fate as philosophy and be phased out, or left as token elective subjects as they would be deemed irrelevant in the digitalised and robotic world?
According to the World Bank Lead Education specialist, the challenge for the universities is to ensure that students have the capacity to memorise, process, disseminate information as well as be critical thinkers.
To meet this challenge, universities must not be too obsessed with the number of papers published, ranking and income generation, but to expend more effort into developing students who are equipped with critical, creative, analytical and explorative attributes beyond the current mode of knowledge transfer.
We should focus on these attributes to enable them to integrate disparate elements into a meaningful whole.
To realise this objective, we need to unshackle our prejudices of arts and sciences and view them as a matrix of knowledge transposition that would develop an analytical and explorative mind.
University education should celebrate the diversity of knowledge without condescension to those disciplines.
To this effect, it is important that the leadership of the universities is not skewed towards either the arts or the sciences, but accommodative to both, which requires them to be knowledgeable in both streams of knowledge to be able to fathom the imperative of these disciplines and their transcendent nature.
This would alleviate universities from being mere mechanised entities to ones that celebrate the diversity of tangible and intangible knowledge of life’s many faceted expressions.
MOHAMED GHOUSE NASURUDDIN
Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang