The lost road of academia-The Star Online

Sunday September 26, 2010

The lost road of academia

By Prof Dr Mohamad Tajuddin Mohamad Rasdi, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia

You cannot force education and cultural development of writing and research simply by putting up KPIs.

AS the country waltzes once again after the euphoria of Merdeka, I wish to write a poser about what I think the academic world in this country has become.

In a nutshell, I think our leaders in the Ministry of Higher Education and the public universities have strayed far and wide on the role of the academics in this country. I understand that there is a need to set targets, to address world issues, to be on par with the Harvards and Oxfords of the world, to imagine an elite intelligentsia fuelling future industries that would mean more wealth to our people. But what I cannot accept is the methodology used in achieving these visions.

The leadership of academic excellence in this country think they can achieve the visions by waking up one day and instituting Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that are way too unrealistic for our academics.

One of them is the requirement for Scopus journals that is deemed as more important than book writing.

The Scopus journal is simply one that has been digitised and indexed in a manner that citation of any work can be produced easily as well as help the researcher in cross referencing works. This noble and exciting tool is “flawed” in a few ways due to “academic abuse”.

Firstly, there is now a notion that a scholar is deemed excellent simply because he or she has many citations. This is a numbers game and belittle obscure but important fields of knowledge. For instance, due to commercialisation, many genetic-related papers will be cited but not so for mosque problems that are a concern to a minority of scholars.

Does it mean that the scholar who writes a new and radical thought on mosque is less scholarly than one in genetics? Well, yes, according to the numbers.

Then there is the problem of academics calling each other to cite one another’s work so that their citation and impact factors’ numbers increase. Again, just because of numbers.

Also, there is the issue that some local journals cannot be registered by the Scopus people because they do not conform to a certain format. Another is the issue of local journals dying off because academics race helter-skelter to publish in Scopus.

Finally, there is the dilemma of established and prestigious Western journals which care little about issues that affect a minority group of people, like issues pertaining to Muslims in Malaysia. It scares me to think that we have reduced scholarships to a mere numbers game.

We all laugh at the P. Ramlee movie Ahmad Albab where A.R. Tompel expounded his idea of love for a parent by a child that must be equal to the number and value of presents given to him for his birthday. Thus if a child gives many expensive presents, ergo he laughs and respects the parents most. I wonder who is laughing now at the academic world in Malaysia.

To me, an academic culture is simply one where an academic realises his or her role to bring great improvement and meaning to the lives of people they care about in this country or in the world through research, writing and disseminating knowledge to ALL levels of society and peers.

During an interview in UTM, I was asked about the role of a professor in academia.

I answered that the role of the professor was to bring about meaningful changes in society by doing research and writing.

The then VC said something like: “No, you are wrong. The purpose of a professor is to fulfil the KPI set by the Ministry of Higher Education.”

Without batting an eyelid, I answered: “No sir, respectfully I do not think so. The ministry does not have any academic in Islamic Architecture and Mosque Design and thus, how does it know what and how best to expand and disseminate knowledge on such fields? I have written books, newspaper articles, given public talks, held many workshops with ustaz and imams and I have appeared on TV to expound the problem of mosque design and Islamic architecture.

“I have also given public talks at local and private institutions as well as supervised numerous undergraduates and post graduates. I have even set up centres in various institutions to give the two fields a platform to grow organically. That is the role of the professor!”

You cannot force education and cultural development of writing and research simply by putting up KPIs that seem to short cut the culture of writing. Just because Harvard or Oxford has KPIs in relation to Scopus, that does not mean that its KPIs must be similar to ours. The academics at those institutions have a hundred year tradition of book writing. We must first of all determine where we are as a nation and where we wish to go in terms of creating an intelligent citizenry.

This country will grow or die and will develop or recede, not because of one or two leaders or academics but by the intelligence and diligence of ALL our people. What is Scopus paper compared to documenting the intellectual heritage of our people?

We have simply failed to recognise that the first and fundamental role of academia is to document systematically what is out there in his or her country like teaching methods, explaining concepts, making sense of professional practice, first generation personalities’ thoughts and musings and also looking inwards to what is in our own personal experience.

So, for my Merdeka wish, I urge the academic leaders to NOT take the Scopus short cut but to go back to writing and documenting our experience and intellectual heritage. We are talking about knowledge here, its development, documentation and dissemination.


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