Thursday, March 30

The Big Picture


For the past couple of days, together with about fifty others, I’ve been stuck in a seminar room, listening to a few Malaysian ‘experts’ using big words like ‘accreditation’, ‘objectives’, ‘performance’ and ‘outcomes’.

It has been quite a hoot listening to others lecture rather than having to do the lecturing myself. It did leave me wondering though, listening to a couple of the speakers rambling on, whether the good food served and the ‘accreditation’ we all received at the end of these long days were worth the pain.

Indeed, I find it amusing at best, and, at worst, annoying, when an engineer boasts about his teaching style and the need to incorporate ‘the big picture’ in our lectures, yet can talk about the Highland Towers tragedy and the collapse of the newly-built Trengganu Stadium simply as consequences of ‘fundamental engineering errors’.

And just leave it at that, without addressing what I would think is the real ‘big picture’ of local corruption and the abrogation of duties by various parties.

But I guess such an approach would be typical of someone who speaks so highly of government politicians and policies; someone who sees the academic as being merely someone who implements and executes government policy. Unquestioningly, uncritically.

And many like him, sadly, also see the main ‘stakeholders’ as simply being the government and/or industry. Hence, for them, the role of education, particularly higher education, is principally to prepare graduates, like mere workers, for these stakeholders.

Such an approach, unfortunately, fails to acknowledge that there are more than just these two stakeholders in society.

And while it is perhaps necessary these days for universities to think about preparing graduates for the market (or the industries), that really cannot be their only purpose.

Too much has already been said about higher education, including university education, providing ‘factories’, ‘degree mills’, ‘labour’ for the market and also the civil service. And the very real problems and limitations with such an approach.

Indeed, if we look around us these days with a critical eye, survey the many, many institutions that have sprung up within this still-loosely regulated industry called the education industry, we will notice that this obsession with catering to the government and the market has really contributed to the lowering of standards.

Until someone convinces me otherwise, I would say that the politicisation of education has been at the core of our failure to address the fall in educational standards overall.

And in workshop after training workshop, meeting after planning meeting, this issue of politics is all too often sidestepped or quickly glossed over.

Hence, when directives are given that wider policies – the very policies corroding the system – are supposed to be implemented and not questioned, or when such policies are assumed to be non-negotiable, the outcome becomes predictable, possibly, worse, disastrous.

The ‘big picture’ really isn’t about making technical adjustments to teaching methods; it isn’t simply about tweaking curricular.

It is about, among others, the philosophy of education driving the country’s education policies and strategies.

A philosophy that, while claiming to build a whole, humane person, really seems to be more concerned about economic returns and the bottom line.

It is about a recruitment policy – for academics and potential students – that is discriminatory and geared towards, among others, the perpetuation of a system that leads to greater inequality in various sectors of Malaysian society.

It is about the provision of an economic system that arguably is manifestly unfair and doesn’t really encourage creativity or non-conformity.

Indeed, in that seminar room, while listening to well-meaning rants about the need to seriously consider – and apply – ‘outcome based education’ (OBE) in higher education, many of us couldn’t help wondering how this could be made so much easier if the shackles of conformity surrounding Malaysian education from primary level onwards were removed first.

Indeed, surely this ‘big picture’ of political control and legislation would really need to be looked at and removed first in order for education to be truly progressive and liberating?