Keep focus on education for life, not fanciful notions of multiversity


Free Malaysia Today

The latest comment by higher education minister Zambry Abdul Kadir about the “conventional” university becoming obsolete needs some reflection.

It is a matter of concern that any government, let alone Malaysia’s Madani government, would suggest replacing the traditional university with “industry-driven programmes” from an entity called the “multiversity”.

The minister announced a proposal for a four-year programme “entirely based in industry”, to enable more “flexible training and teaching methods”, and the eventual replacement of the term university with “multiversity”.

Essentially, the very concept of higher education, the purpose of the university, and the ethos of sustainable learning “for life” is being willfully ignored.

The minister has also declared that this transition reflects a “trend towards diverse and specialised education”, as different universities or faculties will offer “specialised areas of study”, and “students will be able to pick and choose their courses”.

This declaration is baffling.

The implied transition is not that new. In fact, the notions of a talent-driven economy, diverse and specialised education, and students picking and choosing courses have been evolving components of universities for decades.

In fact, it is claimed this transition began in the 1930s, first in Germany and then globally.

Free Malaysia Today

A term coined by a Berkeley don

Furthermore, the idea of the “multiversity” has been around since the 1960s. Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley coined the term in his 1963 book “The Uses of the University”.

His book has since undergone five editions. In the preface of the 1963 edition, Kerr’s cynicism about the transformation of higher education is clear:

Today, education, including higher education, is being scrutinised in all its aspects. This reflects the increasing recognition of its uses in economic growth, in international competition, in political and social as well as cultural development.

One can only wonder whether the university was a better place before people began writing and talking so much about it — before they became so conscious of its uses.

The first chapter of Kerr’s book has the title “The idea of a multiversity”. Kerr writes:

“The multiversity is not one community but several — the community of the undergraduate and the community of the graduate; the community of the humanist, the community of the social scientist, and the community of the scientist; the communities of the professional schools; the community of all the non-academic personnel; the community of the administrators.

“Its edges are fuzzy — it reaches out to alumni, legislators, farmers, businessmen, who are all related to one or more of these internal communities. As an institution, it looks far into the past and far into the future, and is often at odds with the present. It serves society almost slavishly — a society it also criticises, sometimes unmercifully.”

Dismissing the value of ‘learning for life’

Kerr’s views notwithstanding, murky statements which suggest substituting the term “university” for “multiversity” carelessly dismisses the value of “learning for life”, developing the human personality, and acquiring the philosophical, emotional, and ethical underpinnings which define us as humans.

Besides, all these goals are also reflected in Kerr’s original idea of the multiversity as outlined in the first chapter of his book.

We must not be misled into thinking that the “multiversity” is some novel idea meant to magically but myopically reach out to our “post-modern” industry and capitalist society.

It is also unnecessary and counterproductive to substitute the idea of the university for something else. It breeds confusion.

What’s the purpose of education?

Furthermore, whether we call it “university” or “multiversity”, teaching the fundamentals of education for life (not livelihood or lifestyle) must be the main focus. Most importantly, the concept of a balanced education must be emphasised.

On this point, Kerr would definitely agree with me. University or multiversity, what is more important is understanding the purpose of education and the role of educational institutions in advancing a progressive society.

The need to “educate” or the raison d’etre of higher education must be balanced.

It is both erroneous and superficial to erase the traditional concept of the university, merely to reflect a rapidly-evolving industry and economy. This is akin to acknowledging only one aspect of human existence, mainly the capitalist, consumer-driven and profit-chasing existence, at the expense of the human factor.

Apparently, we have forgotten that it is the human being who is at the “root” of any economy or industry. Economies and industries do not appear out of thin air.

Points for the ministry to consider

Rather than dangle fancy concepts in the hope of inspiring the rakyat, the higher education ministry should consider the following:

  • Please address the “publish or perish” culture rather than completely erase the idea of the university. While doing so, seriously consider our obsession with the global university ranking system.
  • Recognise objective scholarship which positively impacts society. Stop promoting politically correct knowledge, platformed as “new knowledge” merely to satisfy financial incentives, profit-driven elite capitalism, and ethno-centric politics.
  • Change the way universities are administered by transparently selecting vice-chancellors who will punish plagiarist academics. Expose professors who neglect their teaching responsibilities.
  • Repeal unfair legislation such as the University and University Colleges Act so that scholars and students can thrive and contribute positively to nation-building.

The Madani administration must seriously adopt this multi-pronged approach. If it wants to promote concepts like “multiversity” it should be more informed.

Also, let us adopt a more balanced approach to education, knowledge production, and national development. If we are committed to the idea that education is not meant to merely satisfy a “talent-driven” economy, we would push for an education that goes beyond “industry-relevance”.

After all, knowledge produced must contribute to both a lifestyle (whether capitalist, socialist, democratic or authoritarian), as well as nurture sustainable lessons for life and humanity. - FMT

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

Keep focus on education for life, not fanciful notions of multiversity