Totok Amin Soefijanto*
Plato once said that human beings must be nurtured based on their basic traits. Hence, an individual must be guided to a certain career path, virtually from the time she or he is a newborn baby.
The chosen paths were to be a guardian or auxiliary in his time. The guardian was the highest level and most respected path, where someone could become trained warriors and even leaders someday. Auxiliary or other derivative paths acted in supporting roles to the guardians.“
The guardians need to be educated very carefully to be able to do their job of protecting the city’s citizens, laws, and customs well,” wrote Plato in 388 BC.
The modern world has been struggling with Plato’s idea for thousands of years.
In the book later titled The Republic, he talks about building a nation with systems of justice and education, among others.
The goal is exactly what many education systems in the world have been trying to achieve, but many have failed for various reasons. Higher education is considered the most important one. Inevitably, leaders or future leaders of nations emerge from this level.
The post-modern era has made universities obsolete —like many other things — thanks to science and technological advancement. Learning is like traveling from point A to point B: from unlearned to learned. If mobile apps can deconstruct transportation systems, then perhaps they can provide non-institutionalized schooling.
Harvard University may still be the best university on this planet. Yet, according to Connie Kyung-Hwa Chung from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, it has been grappling with the idea of learning in classroom settings. She believes that humanity, integrity, and ethical values are among the knowledge and understanding that must be imparted conventionally at universities.
Nevertheless, the high cost of learning in institutionalized higher education limits access only to those who can afford it. This issue was discussed at The Asia Public Policy Forum (APPF 2017) on “Improving education access and quality in Asia” conducted by the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Ash Center at Sunway University, Malaysia, early January.
The need for skilled workers is huge in Southeast Asia. Jay Rosengaard from Harvard has predicted that Indonesia will need to double its recent workforce of 54 million by 2030. Again, the question of access and quality of universities remains in this racially diverse region.
Jeffrey Cheah, businessman and founder of Sunway University, one of the first private universities in Malaysia, shared his experience of building this university from scratch.
“I only asked ‘why not?’” he said, inspired by Robert F. Kennedy — “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask ‘why?’ I dream of things that never were, and ask ‘why not?’”
In the past, Chinese Malaysians had very limited access to higher education. The government set a quota for them to enter public universities.
The affluent ones could go abroad and earn sterling degrees from world-class universities like Harvard or Oxford. However, have-not Chinese were forced to let go of their dream of even bachelor degrees.
Jeffrey took the initiative to build a private university, and eventually satisfied Chinese voters who then assisted the Barisan Nasional (National Front party) to win the election, and the rest is history.
Paradoxically, the Malaysian public universities today have been suffering in a major way from budget cuts; on average they have had to reduce operational expenses by 40 percent.
The University of Malay, for example, got a 42 percent cut and must lay off 2,000 of its existing 5,000 staff members by the end of 2017. This is a hard thing to swallow, according to Ghauth Jasmon, former UM vice chancellor who is now working for the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation. Many professors in public universities are scrambling to find a job in private universities.
Private universities in Southeast Asia are not immune from threats. Except for Singaporean universities, many are still practicing the old system of separating major disciplines, such as communications, psychology and biology.
Meanwhile, the Western higher education system has applied fuzzy-yet-directed options for their students. The students are allowed, or even suggested, to undertake multi-disciplinary studies through major-minor schemes, such as a biology major with minors in computer science and writing. This is “liberal arts.”
Xiao-Li Meng, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, said jokingly that he thought it was the term for modern painting when he started studying in Harvard as an undergrad.
By allowing students to take their desired fields, universities can prepare them better to cope with future job changes. Liberal arts is not as simple as it sounds. Many universities in this region must conduct major administrative overhauls to be able to accomplish it, considering their rigid bureaucracy and study-field egocentrism.
This impertinence is the source of inefficiencies.
The era of big schools with big budgets and a lack of initiatives is coming to an end. The new learning system must be interactive, agile, efficient, affordable, flexible, adaptive, and adjustable. People now can learn and master many skills independently through YouTube and Google.
They can study hard skills from anywhere, anytime. Many universities now claim they prepare students to deal with the uncertain future with “social” and “soft” skills.
Indeed, some pundits say we don’t need degrees, we need wisdom. Confucius said that by three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest. Now the government and university leaders must pick one.
*The writer is Vice-Rector of Paramadina University in Jakarta and Research Director of Paramadina Public Policy Institute.
The article was published on The Jakarta Post, Sat, March 25, 2017