Universities are engrossed in achieving high rankings. (FILE PIC)

THE university — as an institution that explores the many facets and meanings of existence through its manifestations of knowledge, and its efforts to imbue its charges with the critical and analytical faculties to fathom the multiplicity of creations — is a thing of the past.

This institution is no longer a sanctuary to explore esoteric ideas and thoughts, and engage students in critical and dialectical discourse in exploring the physical, metaphysical, metaphorical dimensions of knowledge.

It used to be the institution where discourse in dialectics and rhetoric challenged the mind and examined the realm beyond reason, looking beyond the multiplicity of empirical manifestations.

Knowledge is pursued in a raw mechanistic manner without its divine and cosmic vibrancy or its aesthetic beauty, ethical or moral precepts.

It is commoditised. The transfer of knowledge through joyful and creative interactions is no longer the primary objective. The quality of delivery and receptivity of students are secondary to the production of articles in high-impact journals, which have become the criterion of academic excellence. All other writings have been downgraded.

For example, books, which used to be the standard of excellence of an academic, have been relegated to a nondescript position, notwithstanding the fact that it takes years to publish one from initial research to publication.

It escapes the universities’ leadership that books form a major part of knowledge repository in their libraries.

Books are used as texts, while articles are for references that may elaborate or amplify texts.

In addition, verbal and non-verbal creative and literary output are not given due recognition because universities consider them as non-intellectual pursuits and, therefore, will not publish them. More important to the universities, creative and literary efforts are not considered in the ranking process.

This, therefore, relegates the arts, literary, philosophical and aesthetic efforts to the lowest position of the knowledge hierarchy.

Such an attitude only reflects their ignorance of the spectrum of non-verbal knowledge, which appeals to the soul and mind, and activates one’s perception, cognition, memory, recall and intuition towards a holistic awareness of phenomenal existence.

Universities are morphing from a place of intellectual pursuit to a commoditised knowledge factory with business models to promote their products. And, they have to advertise and market their products by achieving high rankings, having the most cited lecturers and the most influential scientific minds.

Competition among universities to achieve high ranking has changed them from a place of
solace in the pursuit of knowledge to a pressurised cooker that
intimidates lecturers to meet their yearly output of articles in high-impact journals or be penalised.

As such, lecturers have to prioritise research and publications over teaching, supervision and other administrative duties. When hard pressed to meet the key performance indicator, some lecturers may resort to fraud,
plagiarism and doctoring data,
as what happened in some prestigious universities in this region.

In addition to the need to publish or perish, lecturers have to source research grants locally and abroad. Woe betide those who fail to meet these requirements.

Besides the condescending attitude towards the arts, humanities and social sciences, glorification of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and total submission to ranking protocols, universities are now subservient to the demands of industry.

The authorities are patterning university curriculum to the needs of the industry and suggesting that traditional curriculum that is not relevant be re placed with ones that fit the industry’s needs.

This will remove universities from their traditional enclave and integrate them into the industrial matrix.

To cement this subservience, there have been suggestions that practical industrial training be a core part of the curriculum and that 30 per cent of academic staff are industry practitioners.

The danger is that universities will become a polytechnic turning out workers for specialised fields as dictated by industry.

The original function of the university — to develop critical faculties, an inquisitive mind and a sceptical attitude in evaluating and applying knowledge in real and hypothetical situations — seems no longer tenable in this current obsession with STEM, industry, digital and robotics revolution.

To this effect, university leadership has been replaced with one that does not exhibit the aura of fecundity, but more of managerial mundanity that seems to suit the contextual pretence of academia.

As a consequence, universities will slide further into the industrial mould and will be run like a mechanical set-up focusing on product manufacturing rather than producing astute minds with critical and creative faculties that could serve technological and non-technological aspects of our lives.

In essence, universities should develop holistic individuals, irrespective of whether they are in the arts or science, and expand their horizon of cognisance beyond factual and numerical knowledge.

It should prepare them to be willing to accept challenges and to explore the less-trodden path, and be imbued with a sense of justice and fair play in seeking knowledge.

But, sadly, today’s universities are sacrificing such ideals and eroding the humanising mind and soul of academia.

They are enamoured of rankings so that they could soar upwards in a trajectory that, in the final analysis, could be lost in self-indulgence.

The writer is an emeritus professor of Performing Arts in the School of Arts at Universiti Sains Malays

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