Update (Sept. 15, 2010): A modified form of this article was published by New Straits Times (NST) newspaper today.
Malaysian universities today are very different from those ten years ago. Today, greater emphasis is placed on research output, a measurable quantity that supposedly indicates the overall quality of research that is done at a particular university.
Consequently, university lecturers are pressured to publish as many as papers as possible at a rapid rate. Furthermore, lecturers are seen as successful researchers if they can patent or commercialize their research findings. A lecturer’s quality in research work is measured by the number of papers that has been published and where those papers had been published. So a publication in a prestigious, often Western, journal carries much more weight than that published in, say, a local (or from some backwater country) journal. Recently, there has been some talk to introduce two more indexes: number of citations and the so-called H-index. These two indexes indicate the number of journals a lecturer has published and the number of times the lecturer’s work has been cited (referred) in other researchers’ work.
In other words, there might soon be a “pecking order” where every lecturer would be ranked from no. 1 (top researcher) to the last (worst researcher). I find this worrisome because one of the reasons I became a lecturer and not some salesman is because I hated the ubiquitous use of “salesman ranking” in the sales sector, where every salesman has not only a sales target (quota) to achieve but also to be the top dog. No salesman (or lecturer) would want to see their names at the bottom or near the bottom of the league.
Recently, remarks from Prof Datuk Zakri Abdul Hamid, the science adviser to the Prime Minister, appeared in an article in NST about the irrelevance of university rankings. A Malaysian university, rather than competing with other universities (local and overseas), should aspire to excel in its practical contribution to solving problems in Malaysia and abroad. In other words, a successful university is one that puts theory into practice to solve actual, real problems. Matters such as research output, though important, distracts universities from what is actually needed today.
Academic teaching in universities appears to have been unfairly sidelined and has become a secondary importance (even a distraction) to research.
The primary purpose of a university (be it a Malaysian or foreign university) is to help in the development of intellectuals. The university is the highest level from which knowledge can be taught (or learned). Consequently, a successful university is one that passes down the latest understanding from the knowledge frontier.
More importantly, however, a successful university is one that changes and shapes the thinking of students, from a thinking that is narrow and prejudice to one that is broad and tolerant, from ignorance and aversion to cognizance and appreciation, and from phobia and illiteracy to science to passion and strong proficiency in science. These students, after graduation, are forever altered and in turn, contribute in their own way to the positive development of their country and society. A university can thus be regarded like a mental gym where students enroll to exercise and build their mental muscles, so that after graduation, these students carry with them a stronger, more effective, and more potent mental prowess to solve problems around them.
A country full of intellectuals is a successful and peaceful country, in contrast to one that is cursed with irrational, narrow-minded, intolerant, scientific-illiterate, and ignorant thinking people.
The development of intellectuals has been the core purpose of universities in the past, but somehow this noble purpose has been diluted since then. Today, universities are seen instead by the public as “pre-job training workshop”. Universities are supposed to train these people so that they can “hit the ground running” on the first day of their respective jobs. Yes, I agree that universities should provide the necessary training for students for their career interest, but this training is done as part of the students’ intellectual development rather than solely for their future jobs.
Imagine this following scenario: A student has been trained for civil engineering at a university but later decides to be an entrepreneur, opening a restaurant instead. With our current perception of universities, this engineer-turn-entrepreneur is said to have wasted his or her time and money at the university, studying for something not used to earn a living income.
So if you are a member of the public, you see a successful university is one that produces top-notch, ready-to-go job workers, and if you are a member of a university, you see a successful university is one that produces lots of research papers, and patents and commercializes research findings. Both views are correct but not entirely comprehensive, as they miss the fundamental purpose of a university; that is, the development of intellectuals for the good of the society and nation.