What does this academician, responsible for restoring UM’s reputation, have to say about university autonomy, the state of Malaysia’s higher education system, and its role in propelling the country into a high-income economy?
In this first of a two-part exclusive interview with The Nut Graph on 16 July 2010 on the UM campus in Kuala Lumpur, Ghauth shares his thoughts on creativity and innovation in higher education.
TNG: What are the major challenges facing the higher education system today in producing employable graduates and in driving research and innovation?
Ghauth Jasmon: On employable graduates, it’s been known for some time that the employability issue has much to do with students’ communication skills. Universities have to look seriously into curriculum that can overcome some of these weaknesses.
When it comes to innovation, we have to look at how Korea, China and Taiwan have embedded into their curriculum subject matters that will promote innovation and creativity. Tsinghua University in China gets multinational companies like Microsoft into their campus to do final-year projects for their computer science students. Students must do projects that are state-of-the-art in the industry. We need to do much more with industry in developing curriculum. When that happens, it solves both the employability issue and also improves students’ creativity.
How do you feel about political decision-making in higher education; for example, the appointment of vice-chancellors?
In Malaysia, the law is such that the power is vested in the higher education minister, whereas in the West, it is left to the university board. But changes are happening. The minister has established a search committee comprising prominent academics and industry leaders. I think there is much more openness now in trying to get the best person for the job. We have an independent committee that does the evaluation and then recommends to the minister. This is much better than how it was in the past.
The bottom line is that academics with good leadership qualities, plus a proven research and academic record, are chosen.
Are there other forms of political-decision making in higher education that are not conducive to academic freedom?
The recent revision of the Universities and University Colleges Act has actually given more autonomy to the universities to manage their own affairs. What is not allowed at the moment is political interference and political activities within campus. Other than that, the ministry has no problem with intellectual activities. In UM, we stand clear of all political activities, but we fully support any academic, research or voluntary activities.
Do you have a comment about the four Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia political science students who were trying to do political research outside the campus during the Hulu Selangor by-election, but then had charges brought against them by their university?
I don’t know the details of that problem. But for UM, we had a recent case where our seminar to discuss Barry Wain‘s book on Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was hot news for a week. Taking that as an example, I think the problem was clear misreporting by some people who attended the forum, because independent accounts that I got from people who attended it said there was nothing political about it.
It was an entirely intellectual discussion about the book. And that book is not banned in Malaysia anyway. So the problem was some misreporting by some people who wanted to create an issue out of it.
But on this subject, there is a fine line between whether a particular activity is entirely political or intellectual. Sometimes this very fine line is difficult to separate. It is for the university management and the academics concerned to examine that dividing line and to act responsibly.
With regards to creativity and innovation, which is the government’s theme for Malaysia this year, how can public universities adopt more of this culture?
Among things universities can do is to allow for more open discussion, more spaces for people to interact, and to get people of different backgrounds into the system. If there is only a certain kind of people in the system, creativity will be stunted. So if you can create an environment where people can have open discussion and where you can bring in industry, such an atmosphere will help creativity. Everywhere that I’ve seen creative people [are places] where there is an open system and people with different ideas can come together. This is the way forward.
The government wants Malaysia to be a high-income nation. What is the role of higher education, particularly when we are experiencing brain drain and a lack of skilled human capital?
Universities have to get into high-value, high-quality activity. Research done has to be state-of-the-art; it cannot be research done in the West 10 years ago. And universities need money to do high-quality research.
Academics must also be given freedom to work on the latest things. And from that work, they should produce intellectual property. This is the only way forward. All the top universities in the world move forward by doing the latest state-of-the-art work. You cannot be behind others. You need not only good people, but people who are at the forefront of that technology. When you are at the forefront, then you will definitely be creating intellectual property.
Is UM, or public universities in general, getting enough autonomy to do what you have just talked about?
We have the autonomy but we lack the funding. We need more money to do higher quality work. Because in order to produce high-quality output and intellectual property, we need high-end equipment, we need good people within [and] from outside. To bring in good people you need money. So autonomy, yes, but we definitely require more money to rise further.
As a research university, we get RM100 million a year, but if we look at Singapore, the National University of Singapore gets [the equivalent of] RM600 million a year. Nanyang Technological University gets RM450 million a year. Therefore, I think if UM can get between RM200 to RM300 million a year, oh, we can really do rocket science with the best academics brought into the system!
Many people feel the public education system has failed them. What needs to happen at primary and secondary levels to prepare students for tertiary education?
I think one of the weaknesses in primary and secondary education is grounding in the basic subjects, like the sciences and mathematics. When we talk about producing scientists, you need to be strong in basic math and the basic sciences, like physics, chemistry and biology.
I’m all for strengthening the fundamentals in schools. The higher-end work can come later. But firm, fundamental grounding needs to be properly sown into students at the primary level.
And if you want students to develop the ability to communicate well, the teaching of languages has to be better. There is a general problem with the command of English even among university students. The teaching of English needs to be better and this has to be addressed very quickly.
See also: Making UM the best again
The event will be hosted by The Nut Graph editor, Jacqueline Ann Surin, and will feature 3R executive producer Marina Mahathir, Five Arts Centre founder and educator Marion D’Cruz, and home schooling proponent KV Soon.
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