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Beyond the TITAS debate : What are universities for?

Posted: 28 Jul 2013 01:04 PM PDT 

If we want to continue to debate on the TITAS issue specifically, it will divide our nation yet again into Muslims versus non-Muslims camps. It is better to expand the debate to a wider scope so that we can agree on something first then proceed further from the general agreed framework. 

Kuo Yong Kooi
"Education is to develop a complete man of character and learning, not a means to pass our prejudices and hang ups to the young generation. It is too serious an undertaking to be left entirely in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. Other stakeholders need to be consulted." --Din Merican, Dr Lim Teck Ghee: Public Intellectual and well regarded Researcher
The TITAS issue had opened up the Pandora's box on the state's sanction curriculum or subjects on our tertiary level students. We should dwell further than TITAS so that we can reflect on the clearer picture on where our nation is heading in terms of tertiary education. 

Someone complained that they have to study Islam Hadhari values at UiTM at the time when Pak Lah was in power. Before Pak Lah, the fancy was look East. Which direction are we looking at now?

DAP's MP for Kampar Ko Chung Seng who in Parliament had questioned the introduction of the Islamic and Asian Civilisation (TITAS) studies in private higher learning institutions. YB Ko argued that most leading universities in the world did not make such similar type of subject compulsory. "How would this improve one's studies to be a doctor, lawyer, or an engineer? Why would this be necessary here in Malaysia?," he said in a press statement released few weeks ago.

I agree that we need to make positive efforts to mend the deteriorating race relation problem in our country. The responsibility and task of that should first and foremost come from our current leaders.

It is important to note that all tertiary education curriculum need some kind of humanities or to some extent religious education as compulsory or elective subjects. 
The world is getting more complex and educating tertiary level students to only core study subjects is disastrous to the community and the environment as a whole. Modern graduates need to have multidisciplinary skills to understand and tackle the complex problems that modern science have and will continue to create. Our new twenty first century issues like, euthanasia, mental health, global warming, climate change, genetically modified foods, over-use of medical drugs, loss of biodiversity in the forests and the oceans and so on and so forth.

The last generation graduates from the universities are the movers and shakers of the society today. The present and the last generation's education formula applied all around the world were reductionist (confined to their "speciality areas") in their approach.  

I remember back in the eighties in my university days when I was studying civil engineering at a University in Australia, I did my thesis on environmentally friendly designed houses and their environmental impact assessment. The lecturer who marked my thesis was a traditional hard core structural engineer and he failed me for not having enough of an engineering theme in the thesis.

I still maintain that if there was a compulsory Environmental/Ecology subject in the engineering and architectural courses a decade or two ago, the students that graduated from the universities would have came out with better environmental-friendly housing estates or buildings in our country today.  

If we want to continue to debate on the TITAS issue specifically, it will divide our nation yet again into Muslims versus non-Muslims camps. It is better to expand the debate to a wider scope so that we can agree on something first then proceed further from the general agreed framework.

Failing to do so will yet again be bogged down with the same divisive arguments like before. These divisive arguments are cumulative in nature, it's not healthy and it can only lead us down the path of self destruction if we do not start to sit down and discuss over matters that are less divisive.

Since education policies are long term matters, the present administration can diffuse the tension by inviting all stakeholders to be involved in framing a general agreed framework. This was what Dr Lim Teck Ghee and Din Merican argued in their article on "Reforming TITAS for fair and balanced teaching of civilisation studies";
Tertiary education is one such area where we can discuss without going down the same path of Muslims versus non-Muslims, government versus opposition and Chinese versus Malay. Do we prefer to sit down now to talk over this or wait and let the next generation pick up the issue of national unity after they have studied TITAS?
That of course is in the hands of the Najib administration if he is keen to open up and consult all stakeholders to contribute to the TITAS debates.
We also need to expand the debate beyond TITAS for the sake of national unity for a change. The question asked will be, "Are we going to use our universities only for the sole purpose of producing graduates for the job market and industrialisation or for the purpose of national unity or creating better human beings that can come out with "holistic" solutions to humanity's problem or all of the above?"
We need some foresight to create an education curriculum that is tailored to the needs of the next generation. 

The deteriorating environment/ecology today is the by-product of the old way of teaching where undergraduates were told to specialise more into their professional studies for our country to propel further into industrialisation or for the job market and the economic growth (common term used "the rat race").

So the question we should ask is, what are the most pertinent issues that the next generation will have to face? Eminent ecological disasters, rapid development of the information technologies, rapid development in biotechnology, race relations as in the case for Malaysia and "well being"/mental health issues just to name a few major ones.

If we all agree on those topics as the more urgent issues of our time, TITAS then is not an issue at all, the implementation of the subject just needs further consultation with other relevant stakeholders so as to dispel their suspicions.

It seems like the authorities are not concerned at all with the education standards of our local universities in comparison to global counterparts. If they behave this way, we might as well create a whole heap of new and necessary compulsory subjects like the environment/ecology and mental health into all our tertiary level education. In that way, there are justifications as to why we are lagging behind in comparison with global academic standards. We do not want to follow the global trend of creating straight intelligent (IQ) graduates to serve the global capitalist economy; that is a very valid argument.

What is the use of graduating someone with an honours degree when they do not have the basic skills of dealing with their depression and anxiety? There are plenty of those graduates nowadays in the developed nations and they are drug (medication) dependent for a long period of time in their lives. If we do not address the "mental health" issues in our young now we will soon catch up with the mental ill-health statistics of the developed world.

Most industrialised countries that we are emulating have high rates of depression. A quote from an Australian non-profit organisation; "In Australia, 1 in 8 men will have depression and 1 in 5 men will experience anxiety at some stage of their lives. While women are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, men are less likely to talk about it. Depression is a high risk factor for suicide and, in Australia, there are approximately 2,200 suicides each year. 80 per cent are by men – with an average of 5 men taking their lives every single day. Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 44, significantly exceeding the national road toll".

Dr Lim Teck Ghee also mentioned the issue of Academic freedom in our local universities, that is a hard ask as we are still unable to deal with issues of freedom and independence of the judiciary, police force and the election commissions.
Academic freedom is actually an old ideal that has fallen off the radar in the industrialised world. Governments all over the industrialised world find it easy to cut their education budgets annually. The multinationals are creeping into the void from the budget cuts and are now influencing the "researches and developments" in universities. This unfortunately is a global trend, universities are now serving the cooperate interests.
The industrialised world is also using education as a cash cow, charging exorbitant fees from rich overseas students studying in their countries. The popular courses that are taken up by international students flourish while the less popular ones get axed. Courses in universities have become a market-driven based need instead of the traditional intellectual pursue ideals.
The fact that we are caught in this TITAS debate shows that our country is really falling behind in understanding where we are at in terms of tertiary education in comparison with the rest of the world. If we want to follow the global trend on industrial and information technological development, by all means go full steam ahead in making our universities more competitive hence creating graduates for the sole need of economy growth and the capitalist market. Just ignore the global eminent ecological crisis and mental health issues.
If we can justify TITAS, we might as well add in all other subjects that are crucial in providing a "holistic" solution to the problem that we have created for the next generation to face. Adding in subjects like stress management (mental health), ecology/environment and TITAS to create graduates for human developmental needs instead of solely for the need of economic growth.
In that case Malaysians are the frontiers in finding the "sustainable development" solution for the world to follow. See related article on solutions suggested to our environmental crisis of "the haze" and the examples of sustainable development;


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