TUN Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a former minister of education, has on public stages in the recent past defined in very compelling terms the role of higher education institutions and their professional staff.
At last year’s National Academic Award event, for example, the prime minister underlined that, despite occasional criticism, the government is proud of our higher learning institutions and academicians, underlining that their achievements are known and recognised at the international level.
‘Academicians are the key people behind the development of talented future-proof graduates, who not only have a strong command of their respective fields but also have the necessary values and intelligence to face complex challenges.
‘Efforts to culturalise knowledge and moral values among graduates should not only rely on impressive institutional infrastructure and facilities, there must also be academicians who understand and internalise the country’s education philosophy by fully using contemporary teaching materials and using the latest learning and teaching modes,’ he said.
Dr Mahathir also pointed out the challenges faced by academicians, which include juggling responsibilities as educators while conducting high-impact research and producing academic papers and striving to become authorities in their respective fields.
At this year’s edition of the National Academic Awards Night last month, he noted the role of universities as platforms for creativity and innovation to fuel the nation’s economic growth.
In this regard, he said, they have been established in all states nationwide so that a culture of knowledge could expand in a holistic and inclusive manner.
Beyond educating youth, he pointed out, such institutions also contribute to local communities.
Initiatives such as the Service-Learning Malaysia-University for Society programme had given university students the opportunity to undertake community service, applying theories learned in the classroom to solve problems faced by communities in need.
This initiative offered a clear example of how knowledge, innovation and technology developed by students, academics and researchers at institutions of higher learning could be transferred to society in directly relevant ways.
At the same time, the resulting innovations and ideas need to be commercialised so that they bring wider benefit to the country’s socio-economic development, Dr Mahathir said, going on to note that the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0) requires academics of vision, ready to adapt to new challenges to ensure their students are not left behind.
The knowledge imparted to students must remain relevant so that their talents match the demands of industry, he stressed.
‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution has made the role of academicians more challenging.
‘The presence of what is known as disruptive technology demands academicians to be prepared to face new challenges as well as embracing new developments to remain relevant,’ he said.
Deputy Education Minister Teo Nie Ching, representing Minister Maszlee Malik, meanwhile, said the ministry is committed to empowering the country’s higher education institutions in line with the three core objectives of the Shared Prosperity Vision 2030 launched recently.
FIRST, by contributing to a restructuring of the economy to become knowledge-based, one in which all groups can participate at all levels as we develop together progressively.
SECOND, by helping to address the income gap so that no one in Malaysia is left behind due to ethnic differences, social class, or region.
THIRD, by building Malaysia to be united and prosperous so it can take its rightful place as a central nation of Asia.
This would be achieved, she said, by upholding the principles of autonomy-plus-accountability, lifelong learning, strengthening of governance, research, innovation, and inclusive education and flexibility.
‘Collaborations between higher education institutions and industries are equally important in order to formulate joint ownership modules such as Two University Two Industries, apprenticeships and teaching factory as well as competency centre.
‘This collaboration will enable the ministry to transform the country’s higher education landscape as the nation is in the process of embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ she said.
The Internet and other technological advancements have also enlarged the role of academicians to that of knowledge curators, she said - in other words, helping university students to become discerning consumers of information.
The government had identified the education sector as a core component of its efforts to build a new Malaysia that is inclusive and renowned on the world stage.
One is tempted to invoke John F. Kennedy’s words, ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’.
It is the responsibility of the academic community in this country, be they in the public or private universities, to respond to this clarion call. We owe it to our future generations to make this country a better place to live in.
The writer is the 13th recipient of the National Academic Laureate Award