The Soul of Higher Education

Extract of Vice Chancellor’s New Year Address

As Malaysia strives to be a leading knowledge hub in the region, there is a need to reflect on the true meaning and essence of knowledge and education beyond just numbers in terms of achievements in rankings and ratings. This is what drives me to highlight the importance of the soul of the academia in my New Year Address 2013 as we continue to strive for quality and excellence in an increasingly challenging global educational landscape.

Of course, there is a deeper meaning to knowledge acquisition than merely getting certificates as a sign of our accomplishments and success. Knowledge is not just a mere “commodity” or “method” to achieve short terms goals. With the mushrooming of universities and university colleges in the country, how can we ensure the graduates we produce have real substance and value than just paper qualifications.

The higher learning community at all levels – students, academic staff, non-academic staff and alumni – should often reflect on these questions: Do we understand the aims, concepts, and philosophy of higher learning? Have we genuinely understood and appreciated the philosophy, vision and mission of our institutions of higher learning? Do we understand the outcomes and outputs that we wish to generate through our sacrifice and service in academia? Has the role we played sufficient to uphold the excellence of higher learning? Would the output and outcome of our efforts thus far, qualify Malaysia to be among the top in terms of the world’s best universities, thus symbolizing the excellence of the nation? Should our universities strengthen their Institutional DNA for continuous growth, visibility and relevance?

We need to genuinely understand the “meaning”, “philosophy” and “role” of higher learning. And to achieve this, I strongly feel that developing the right Institutional DNA will steer and drive academic excellence of an institution towards the well being and sustainability of higher learning in general, and ultimately the nation and continuous existence of civilisation as a whole.

Let us become a committed, dedicated and accomplished academic community. We should talk less and work more. We should complain less and contribute more. We should lessen mundane, routine activities and increase meaningful, high impact activities that would make a difference in our strive for excellence.

Let us together provide a fresh dimension to the culture of knowledge and not be confined to the conventional and rigid knowledge focus through the New Academia concept UTM is adopting. Let us appreciate knowledge as an embodiment of the true value of education and learning, allowing us to achieve wisdom amidst a fertile and vibrant knowledge culture and intellectual ecosystem.

As a normal practice everywhere, academic institutions of higher learning are driven by Key Performance Indicators (KPI) as universities strive to achieve better in terms of ranking as a symbol of our academic excellence and quality of our scholarly accomplishments. What is important is for us to understand and appreciate the KPI not just as numbers and figures in terms of achievements. Let us look at KPIs as intangible ‘amal’ indicators, referring to good deeds that would lead to eternal benefits (or ‘pahala’ according to the teachings of Islam) to the organisation, society and the universal good of mankind. Let us  refrain ourselves from a narrow thinking that views our service as a mere worldly deed limited only to formal work expectations and requirements. Let us look at our service and contribution as a tool in enhancing our good deeds through our excellent service.

Let us together expedite our ‘amal’ sincerely to the best of our ability, including excellent execution of duty and trust entrusted upon us as income earners of the organisation, offering to implement various academic programmes to advance the organisation; giving endowment contributions to promote academic excellence; nurturing innovation for the good of society and the country; assisting the weak and those with less knowledge, guiding the less experienced and providing facilities and services the best we can to students regardless of race, creed, religion and gender.

Let us together reflect, think and understand our respective roles clearly and with acceptance, as a knowledge community grounded in the New Economic Model, based on creativity and innovation. Let us re-emphasize our roles in order to remain relevant for the sake of elevating the dignity of the race, country and universal ‘ummah’.

Let us embrace the academia as a knowledge community having the mindset of being innovative, entrepreneurial, and global. We should drive excellent achievements through commitment and genuine appreciation of knowledge as depicted by past learned figures whose contribution had illuminated various civilizations and era, amidst intense global competition.

Change in mindset is the first step that must be accomplished before we progress further. Change in mindset is also the most difficult and challenging, compared to other aspects of change. To make a difference, we need to distance ourselves with other universities that are forever mired in routine issues like “employability of graduates,” “soft skills,” “mastery of the English language” and “insufficient operational costs”.

Proactive minds should be the driving force. We should always find ways, means, approaches, and room to progress forward, and be result- and high impact outcome-oriented, despite having to face obstacles and challenges. Proactive minds see problems as opportunities, rather than weaknesses that need to be avoided, complained about, or mourned. The best reward is an eternal one, which cannot be measured by any organisational management.

Another important dimension is the role of innovation in an increasingly competitive world. Innovation is not merely a form of discovery in laboratories, inventions of scientists, and production of sophisticated goods. Innovations have transcended technical and scientific boundaries, generating significant patterns in the economic, social and education system. Thus, the “innovation economy” is growing rapidly as a form of new pattern in the development of a nation, particularly among developed economies. Through innovation economy, the core of progress or “wealth” creation is achieved through innovation. The term innovation in this context refers to the positive changes that create high value,while economic innovation incorporates financial model with an element which Leif Edvinsson termed as “intellectual property”. It should be highlighted that the future economic progress depends on our ability to produce Malaysian citizens who are creative and innovative.

What needs to be highlighted is that the higher the quality, integrity, and commitment towards knowledge and knowledge culture among individuals at a particular university, the higher would be the quality and reputation of the university. Thus, progress will thrive in the form of new knowledge discovery, innovation, creativity, competitiveness, reputation and branding of the university.

It should also be noted that brand name is the value resulting from the essence of high quality, exemplary characteristics, and continuous excellence. Brand in the context of higher learning, for instance, is a sign of excellence and distinction of the Institutional DNA of a university. In other words, the best brand is a mark of quality, reliability, reputation, value for money and prestige.

One’s status in an academic and intellectual community is dependent upon one’s commitment to the demands of knowledge, the awareness to improve and develop one’s discipline of knowledge, the continuous effort to promote the results of research for the benefit of the wider public, the inculcation of adab and contribution sincerely made without any expectation of popular recognition and immediate rewards.

We should be proud and happy to be part of an institution of knowledge and of higher learning. Proud because we can contribute in a meaningful way for the betterment of society and the development of the ummah. Happy because we can, with confidence, discharge our intellectual duty and obligation to knowledge which can be considered as one prophetic mission towards creating a community of wisdom, dignity, high value, ethics and moral obligations that would have significant impact on the development of the nation and universal civilization.



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