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Academics lament ‘glorified high school teachers’ at varsities

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Lecturers have to remind themselves that they have a responsibility as scholars that goes beyond teaching. Mustafa K Anuar discusses the issue with a few prominent academics.

It would seem rather harsh the accusation that “most university lecturers today are like glorified high school teachers”, as expressed recently by a retired professor from Universiti Sains Malaysia, Dr Omar Shawkataly, in his outburst at a public forum.

But some academics do share his observation, indicating that it is symptomatic of the challenges confronting the country’s institutions of higher learning.

Dr Rosli H Mahat, formerly of Universiti Malaya (UM) and secretary-general of Gerak (Pergerakan Tenaga Akademik Malaysia), the independent academic body that organised the forum, felt that some academics did not know their real role.

“They are in universities not merely to grade term papers and set exams. Academics have the responsibility to teach, research and contribute to society.”

His contention is echoed by another lecturer from the same university who declined to be identified: the notion of “glorified high school teachers” refers mainly to the currently prescribed duties of university academics to just deliver set lessons, with lesson plans, objective and outcome prescribed, etc.

This departed, he added, “from the real function of university lecturers in facilitating inquisitive minds of future graduates rather than just to teach certain technical content courses.”

In making a vital distinction between a teacher and a lecturer, Professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid of USM said to be acknowledged for highly valued scholarship, “lecturers must do research and publish their research output as the main avenue to disseminate knowledge”.

“If they don’t do this,” he warned, “yes, then they do become glorified high school teachers, respected by students but hardly recognised by their peers and colleagues as experts in their fields.

“And there are indeed lecturers who rest on their laurels, publishing mainly in the easy ‘predatory journals’. Yet they get their promotions, media interviews, university posts etc.”

These “glorified high school teachers”, argued Prof Zaharom Nain of Nottingham University Malaysia, are mere transmitters of pre-given knowledge with no real input of their own.

“They teach an already-given curriculum or subject with little original knowledge added in,” he added.

He believes that no empirical research has been done to study the presence of “glorified high school teachers” in universities, but he contends that observations on university campuses would reveal that “there’s more than an element of truth here”.

Sticking to the books

Based on his experience of working in USM for two decades and looking at his academic field of media and communications, he said there was a tendency for the majority of the faculty “to just stick to textbooks they used as undergraduates and postgraduates in predominantly American universities, without querying or understanding the underlying ideological perspectives in those books”.

“Hence, a particular `brand’ of media studies was dominant. It was repetitive, tiring and supported the status quo.

“Despite the interventions some of us made over the years, there seems to be a return to the bad old days of grasping at (media) realities with little backing of critical theory.”

But teaching in universities also involves teaching students certain technical content courses that goes in tandem with the current philosophy of the education authorities which places emphasis on preparing students for employment and to cater to the needs of the industry.

“No!” said Ahmad Fauzi, who thinks that should not be the role of academics. Their role, he says, is to provide students with essential tools and mechanisms to help them face life in challenging times.

“We reduce [the] university to a factory producing white-collar workers or salaried professionals. If that is the be all and end all of university education, this is very degrading. But some university authorities are forced to adopt this view, being beholden to the state in the interest of continuing state patronage.”

A senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, Dr Lee Hwok Aun, said universities should equip graduates with basic, fundamental knowledge and abilities, chiefly thinking and writing, as well as specific skills and competencies pertinent to their studies and work.

“We should also be preparing graduates to contribute to the nation and society as citizens, workers and neighbours.”

Quick fixes

Lee, who is former senior lecturer at Universiti Malaya, felt that too often, people in Malaysian academia tend to address symptoms with quick fixes rather than addressing the root causes, which may require a more radical overhaul.

For example, he said, “Universiti Malaya reacted to the widely cited problem of graduates presenting themselves poorly at interviews by introducing compulsory courses that focus on narrowly defined ‘presentation skills’ – basically, doing PowerPoints.

“Now students are excellent at animating PowerPoints and even nailing the presentation.

“But ask them a searching question after their scripted delivery and they typically fumble to think on their feet and make coherent arguments. I’m sure employees are still finding Malaysian graduates do not fare well at job interviews because we have not addressed the underpinning problem of deficient thinking skills.”

The UM lecturer who declined to be identified felt that the idea of preparing students to be industry-ready is rather “scandalous as it suggests that graduates trained through ‘real’ university education would not be industry-ready”.

“University graduates with highly developed critical observation and thinking skills (together with the acquired technical knowledge) would be automatically ready to apply their expertise in any industry they are employed in, even in areas where their technical knowledge might not be the correct prerequisite for the job.

Zaharom said the idea of universities preparing labour for the market place was a capitalist spin that needed to be challenged.

Universities (and academics) may, indeed, provide access to and understanding of the tools of any trade. But beyond that, he cautioned, they should explain and debate the contexts within which those tools are forged and later used.

Dr Azmil Tayeb, lecturer of political science at USM, however, feels that teaching critical thinking and preparing students for employment can go in tandem.

“I don’t see the role of lecturers in preparing students for employment while teaching them how to think critically and work independently, for example, as being mutually exclusive.

“Employers value soft skills, such as good public speaking ability, strong writing and research skills, ability to think critically and unconventionally, work well with others, open-mindedness, self-confidence, English-speaking and writing, among others.

“Lecturers can develop these skills with their students in order to prepare them for employment later.”

Key political interference

Gerak believes that the root cause of these academic challenges were systemic. It said the situation now was due to political interference in the Malaysian education system, including higher education.

As a result, it added, local academia was always in a situation where the direction of institutions of higher learning was guided by “those with no real academic experience or vision.”

The group wants autonomy to be returned to universities, starting from the appointment of vice chancellors “with real consultation with the university academics, and not political appointees”.

Many of the problems faced by local universities are also blamed on the obsessive pursuit of enhanced Key Performance Indicators (KPI) and the desire to have good academic rankings.

Lee is concerned about the impact of KPIs on teaching quality.

“The quality of teaching has been basically reduced to student evaluation scores, which meet the ‘quantifiable’ requirement of the KPI mode, as well as the accreditation auditing system, which is also highly stifling.

“These systems also entrench standardisation – asking questions with model answers that perpetuate memorisation and regurgitation – and elevate form over substance. We became only concerned that the documentation is in order, not whether we were equipping students substantively and effectively.”

Similarly, Azmil said lecturers’ obsessive pursuit of KPIs for moving up the university ranking was a big problem.

“KPI is designed not to make an outstanding scholar out of a lecturer, but simply to satisfy the university’s need to move up the ranking. It strips the passion out of being a scholar since one no longer does something for the sheer joy of doing it – but for the sake of number-crunching.

“It robs academia of its soul and turns lecturers into automatons.”

Lee and Azmil’s views struck a chord with Fauzi, who said: “Many academics are not agreeable to this ranking business anyway, but they are pressured by the university authorities, who, in turn, act on cues from the Higher Education Ministry.

“The ministry rewards highly cited researchers based on foreign indices created by entities such as Clarivate Analytics, so at the end of the day we still subscribe to a colonial mentality.

“The arts, humanities and social sciences faculties find themselves under enormous pressure for allegedly not ‘publishing’.

“So yes, it is our own inability to overcome our own ‘educational cringe’ that has landed us into problems. Despite all the hue and cry over globalisation, we have in actual fact failed to become critical academic innovators.”

Indicators leading to plagiarism

The relentless pursuit of improved KPIs has also given rise to the problem of plagiarism in local academia.

But Fauzi said this was not just a Malaysian problem; it’s a global phenomenon happening even in the best universities.

He claims his work was plagiarised by lecturers from Malaysian institutions that label themselves “Islamic”.

“Is this not theft?” he asked.

“The intellectual thief then proceeds to benefit from his or her theft by gaining promotion, salary increment etc.

“Hudud enthusiasts should really study whether this type of crime merits to be punished under hudud if they insist on applying hudud in Malaysia.

“There are professors who, to my knowledge, have committed plagiarism at some stage of their career. They still get promoted despite the university authorities’ knowledge of their plagiarising.”

Zaharom believes the fault lay with the academics themselves.

“Let us not over-romanticise university academics, especially the young ones. I have met – and still meet – a number of young academics who spend more time trying to exploit the system, rather than working towards making it better.”

Lee witnessed the deterioration of academic integrity and ethical standards.

“Doctoral students and foreign contract staff suffer the most,” he said.

“Supervisors, heads of department or deans often free ride on the work of these students and staff, by compelling them to include their names as authors, even though they have not legitimately contributed to the work.

“Some policies have been introduced to check against this exploitation, but the behaviour has become quite rampant and embedded.

“It is difficult to instil academic integrity and to police plagiarism among students when the malpractice is so rampant.”

Responsibility beyond teaching

Academic freedom gives character to a university, said Rosli, yet this has become less of a concern for many academics, these days.

Zaharom said academic freedom was vital, “but because the role of universities and academics has been changed tremendously without so much as a squeak from academics and academic associations, many of whom are more concerned with prestige, political recognition and bread-and-butter issues.”

Azmil said lecturers had to remind themselves that they had a responsibility as scholars, which went beyond teaching.

“While teaching is indeed important and should not be scoffed at, contributing to the body of knowledge through research and writing, cultivating future scholars, sharing knowledge with the world and putting one’s knowledge into action are also crucial components of a scholar.”

It is in this context, he stresses, that lecturers were more than just “glorified high school teachers”.

Source: The Malaysian Insight

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a longtime executive committee member and former honorary secretary of Aliran, is, co-editor of our newsletter. He obtained his PhD from City, University of London and is particularly interested in press freedom and freedom of expression issues. These days, he is a a senior journalist with an online media portal
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18 Dec 2017 4.54am

I am not an academician but during my interaction with varsity lecturers, there are other puzzling observation I made. Some lecturers dont exude the aura of authority on the subjects that they are discussing, looks more like they parrot what is available in local newspaper, not even their peer journals. Some blabber about their family experience while accompanying them during their studies. I was prospecting for innovative R&D or technology discussion from their labs for collaborating and awarding them with research grants but I came back majority of the time sad and angry that I cant get any innovative research ideas from them.All they talk about is other research or products from foreign researchers (that I am already aware). So this is not just about a “glorified high school teachers”, but most of them are stuck in the mentality of a “glorified student”. It all boils down to the personality n character of the person. I had a friend who is afraid to leave the security of the university from his student days, applying for his masters and coming back get married going back to take… Read more »

17 Dec 2017 10.40pm

Yes, the problem is systemic. It is too late to address the issue of lack of creativity, critical thinking skills etc. of our students at the tertiary level. It should begin from the home-front and this will have a cascade effect. But children these days however learn the whys and wherefores in child-care centres -not at home- as both parents had to make both ends meet.

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