Decolonising our universities: another world is desirable

Editors’ note: the statement below was issued by participants at the end of the International Conference on Decolonising Our Universities conference at Universiti Sains Malaysia (June 27-29, 2011, Penang, Malaysia). We’ve posted it here as it facilitates consideration of some of the taken-for-granted assumptions at play in most debates about the future of higher education right now. This statement, most of the talks presented at it, and this memorandum to UNESCO, reflect an unease with the subtle tendencies of exclusion (of ideas, paradigms, models, options, missions) evident in the broad transformations and debates underway in most higher education circles, including in rapidly changing South and Southeast Asia. Our thanks to the organizers, especially Vice-Chancellor Professor Tan Sri Dato’ Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, and Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr. Shad Saleem Faruqi, for information about the event. Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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Another World is Desirable

We – people from diverse countries* in four continents – met in your lovely city of Penang for three days from June 27-29, 2011. We were invited by Universiti Sains Malaysia and Citizens International to discuss the future of our universities and how we could decolonise them. Too many of them have become pale imitations of Western universities, with marginal creative contributions of their own and with little or no organic relation with their local communities and environments. The learning environments have become hostile, meaningless and irrelevant to our lives and concerns.

In all humility, we wish to convey to you the gist of our discussions.

We agreed that for far too long have we lived under the Eurocentric assumption – drilled into our heads by educational systems inherited from colonial regimes – that our local knowledges, our ancient and contemporary scholars, our cultural practices, our indigenous intellectual traditions, our stories, our histories and our languages portray hopeless, defeated visions no longer fit to guide our universities – therefore, better given up entirely.

We are firmly convinced that every trace of Eurocentrism in our universities – reflected in various insidious forms of western controls over publications, theories and models of research must be subordinated to our own scintillating cultural and intellectual traditions. We express our disdain at the way ‘university ranking exercises’ evaluate our citadels of learning on the framework assumptions of western societies.    The Penang conference articulated different versions of intellectual and emotional resistance to the idea of continuing to submit our institutions of the mind and our learning to the tutelage and tyranny of western institutions.

We leave Penang with a firm resolve to work hard to restore the organic connection between our universities, our communities and our cultures. Service to the community and not just to the professions must be our primary concern. The recovery of indigenous intellectual traditions and resources is a priority task. Course structures, syllabi, books, reading materials, research models and research areas must reflect the treasury of our thoughts, the riches of our indigenous traditions and the felt necessities of our societies.  This must be matched with learning environments in which students do not experience learning as a burden, but as a force that liberates the soul and leads to the upliftment of society. Above all, universities must retrieve their original task of creating good citizens instead of only good workers.

For this, we seek the support of all intellectuals and other like-minded individuals and organisations that are willing to assist us in taking this initiative further.

Thank you for hosting us, the Delegates of the International Conference on Decolonising Our Universities, June 27-29. 2011, Penang, Malaysia

For more information please access www.multiworldindia.org

*Australia, China,  India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Tanzania, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda

A Universiti Sains Malaysia response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)’

Editors’ note: today’s guest entry has been kindly developed by Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, Vice-Chancellor, Universiti Sains Malaysia, a position he has held since 2000. Professor Dzulkifli’s post is the seventh response to Nigel Thrift’s ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)‘, which was originally posted on 8 April 2010.  As noted in last week’s entry (‘A Columbia University/Millennium Promise response to ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational-ethical dilemma)”, we are accepting contributions to the discussion through to the end of 2010.

Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak (pictured to the right) is presently serving as Vice-President of the International Association of Universities (IAU) – a UNESCO- affiliated organisation. He served as President of Association of Southeast Asia Institutions of Higher Learning (ASAIHL) from 2007-2008, and is also a member of Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) – Advisory Education Hub Committee, Executive Council of Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), and also Advisory Committee of World Universities Forum (WUF). He has served as a World Heath Organisation (WHO) Expert Advisory Panel on Drug Policies and Management since 1995, and the WHO Scientific Advisory Committee on Tobacco Product Regulation (2000-2002). At the national level, he is the Chair of Malaysian Vice-Chancellors’/Rector’s Committee, and Chair of Malaysian Examination Council, Co-chair of Malaysian and serves as Advisor to the National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN). Outside the academic arena, he writes regularly for his weekly column in the New Straits Times, and, fortnightly, in The Edge, where he shares his views on a host of national and global issues.

Our sincere thanks to Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak for developing this illuminating entry, and the first response on behalf of an Asian university.

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson

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I cannot agree more with Nigel Thrift when he posed ‘A question (about universities, global challenges, and an organizational, ethical dilemma)‘. Coming from the Global South invariably this question resonates with me, more so in articulating the raison d’être of a university in the 21st century. In short, is a university modelled on the days of the industrial age – taking more or less a metaphor of factory – still relevant for the post-industrial age with its unique global challenges and ethical dilemma? In other words, can a factory-like metaphor with its de-humanizing tendencies adequately support for the future? What James Martin termed as “The 21st Century Revolution.”

Our search for “answers” to such a question started with a Scenario Planning Workshop in May 2005. It seeks to understand what would the scenario for a university be in the year 2025? We came out with six scenarios, including a “Dead University” scenario – where the present setup fails to respond to the need of the future! This scenario is discarded since we are desirous to bring about a change; but the question is: which way forward?

After almost 15 months of university-wide consultations and soul-searching activities, backed by the emerging trends globally – not much different from that of Thrift’s, only more intense, we agreed on “The University in a Garden “ scenario – which is now the tagline of the University (see Universiti Sains Malaysia’s publication: Constructing Future Higher Education Scenarios – Insights from Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2007 (a review of this report can be downloaded here).

In summary, Constructing Future Higher Education Scenarios – Insights from Universiti Sains Malaysia concerns itself with creating a sustainable future, and how university must change to cope with this new future. Here the focus is about the prevailing disparities in all facets of societal well-being as depicted by the United Nation Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which will end in 2015 – barely five years from now. Most of the MDGs are age-old issues of extreme poverty, very simple and common diseases, basic education, malnourishment and hunger, infant and maternal health and mortality – many of which are no longer heard of in the Global North! Yet, they are very real in the South with all its accompanying shortcomings and vulnerabilities. Interestingly the last and eighth goal of MDGs is about Global Partnership! But, what kind of partnership and for what purpose? It comes back to the question what are universities for in the 21st century!

To be sure, it is more an issue of awareness and will, than knowledge or technology. Many of challenges posed by MDGs can be solved, if there is a will to share based on a truly global partnership. To quote the UN Secretary-General in his called for a special UN Summit in September 20-22, 2010: “Our world possesses the knowledge and the resources to achieve the MDGs. Our challenge today is to agree on an action agenda to achieve the MDGs.” Similarly for the universities that are keen in such a mission! First off, how many universities have MDGs on their radar screen as part of the educational framework?; let alone directed to fulfilling such global agenda. Perhaps, this is one of the organizational-ethical dilemmas alluded to by Thrift. Indeed, how many more have missed the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development that was launched in 2005 (coinciding with USM Scenario Planning initiative) as a way to engage in elucidating this dilemma.

In that context, USM has taken a new approach with a new vision: Transforming Higher Education for a Sustainable Tomorrow. This is part of a larger agenda to redefine “excellence” in line with the challenges of the future under Malaysia’s Accelerated Programme for Excellence (APEX) of which USM is currently undergoing. In so doing we recognized the distraction that Thrift referred to when he wrote: “…as if their [universities] chief raison d’être is position in the league tables. To complete the triptych of problems, it is still too often assumed that scientific discovery, which nearly always takes place as part of a network of actors distributed across the globe, is the province of an individual actor anchored in a particular place: think only of the system of prizes and awards.”  As such, our new mission now reads: “USM is a pioneering, transdisciplinary research intensive university that empowers future talents and enables the bottom billions to transform their socio-economic well-being.”

This is our second year on the APEX journey, and we are gradually discovering that the factory-like metaphor is in main dysfunctional to serve the need for the future, at least in the Global South. In that regards the question raised by Thrift can only be adequately articulated if we are bold enough to create a new metaphor for the university of the future! Short of that, the “Dead University” scenario as mentioned above may seem more likely.

Dzulkifli Abdul Razak

Global higher education: what alternative models for emerging higher education systems?

ghefposterHigher education systems in Asia, Latin America and Africa bear prominent similarities to those in Europe.  Historically, Latin America, Asia particularly Southeast Asia, and Africa had adopted the systems of their respective colonizers who also provided the major part of the funding mechanism, teaching staff, and ideologies on higher education at one time in history.  The very obvious imposition by the colonizers is the language with a large part of Latin America using Spanish, Asia using English and Africa using French.  The American higher education system became more influential after the early twentieth century with the stress on research as the main activity of universities.  Apart from that, the American system was the first to introduce massification of education which had been adopted by many countries around the world.  Higher education institutions of today emphasize on mass higher education which results in increasing access to tertiary education.

Arguably, emerging countries are in dire need of a forum to deliberate on possible models for higher education for countries of the South, in particular the Commonwealth countries where a majority of the bottom billions resides.  Countries from the South, particularly Asian countries have been adapting models from Europe and US for decades, be they sprung from voluntary adoption or influenced by external factors.  Instead of borrowing from western models and putting them to test by going through the whole process of adaptation, evaluation and experimentation, the same amount of time and effort can be utilized to examine the prospect of identifying a model in a South-South context.  This model will be made up of elements of locality, taking into consideration of the persisting cultural and scholarly values. Globalization and internationalization of higher education should not be adopted at the expense of local knowledge.

Notably, the effort to break away from the clutches of the dominating Western model is not new as evidenced by the implementation of national language in post-secondary education by Malaysia and Indonesia. However, fundamental models practiced in Asian countries remain biased towards European/American model. This factor has contributed to the peripheral status of Asian higher education institutions and with the rapid globalisation, the so-called central higher education institutions in Europe/America would remain dominant, more striking in the context of higher education internationalization. Indeed, lately Malaysia has once again beginning to embrace the English language after so many years experimenting with the Malay language as the medium of instruction in public higher education institutions. Whither Asia/indigenous models of higher education development?

The Asia models that we have in mind is deeply entrenched in the belief that even within the context of the globalization process that every country is unique; this provides ample reason to relook or reassess the higher education systems which are very much inclined towards the European/American models.  The present higher education models adopted by many countries in the South, characterized by the Western ideologies may have been tailored to suit local needs, but the extent to which the adaptation serves the emerging need to strengthen the standing of each country demands a rethinking.  There has never been a time when higher education in the South faces more opportunities and challenges than in this current global economic downturn.  We are in urgent need of models that can handle Asia’s peculiar situation with respect to quality and accountability as well as funding mechanism with shrinking public funding.  To this date, the responses to these challenges are typically European/American in character: corporatisation/privatisation of higher education, management of higher education based on entrepreneurial approach, competition within the higher education sector and the evident rise of higher education as a commodity.  Major issues mentioned above may come under the same umbrella across the world higher education systems, nonetheless a more thorough inspection would indicate varied issues faced by different regions which are subject to social, political, economic and national pressures.

The appropriateness of the growth trajectories of existing higher education systems, dominated by European/American models poses the challenge of how far the present models are justified in a South-South context, one with much greater diversity from those of the North.  In essence one may want to view that the world ranking system of universities and the notion of world class universities as proposed by the North more as concepts or attempts at standardizing universities rather than appreciating the distinct elements of each university within its national socio-political context.

ghef20091The Second Global Higher Education Forum (GHEF2009) to be held in Penang, Malaysia from 13 to 16 December 2009 will serve as a platform for debates and discussions on higher education that recognise the different characteristics of higher education institutions and systems in different regions.  It will encompass topics ranging from the current trends to the future perspectives of higher education with the present global economic downturn as the main backdrop.  GHEF2009 will consider and examine the possible effects and offer alternate avenues for mitigating the global financial and economic effects, particularly for countries of the South.  Furthermore, the current and future challenges faced by the nations in the South require different models for the development of higher education institutions and systems. There is also an urge to attempt exploration of the possibilities as well as opportunities for regional harmonisation of higher education. Apart from that, discussions will also explore how the North and South will be able to have bilateral collaboration to weather global issues with the emphasis on serving and promoting sustainable development for the cause of humanity.

Morshidi Sirat and Ooi Poh Ling