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Resetting higher education: returning to the community

By Murray Hunter - posted Tuesday, 30 June 2020

These institutions, led by a new breed of academic-administrators, developed their institutions until they became mega-universities. They had to make a go of it primarily as financially independent organizations, jumping into all teaching opportunities, franchise courses and contract-based research, and developing novel ways of attracting benefactors.

Very few within or outside the higher education industry saw what was to come. Putting the damage from Covid-19 restrictions aside, higher educational institutions were already facing major challenges due to a demographic cliff that cut across much of the developed world and Asia, leading to shrinking domestic student numbers. These gaps were met by foreign students, which edged university missions away from serving the educational needs of their respective communities toward a business orientation towards the international student market.

The financial well-being of many private universities, as previously reported by Asia Sentinel,were already under financial strain long before the onset of Covid-19 closed them down, indicating that at some stage there would be a rationalization. Adding the problems, were rising numbers of unemployed graduates and postgraduates, a decline in demand for postgraduate courses, and unemployed PhD holders. Universities are in many disciplines producing graduates in surplus to the jobs available.


The rise of the mega-university didn’t bring educational excellence. Actual courses have been aimed at the lowest denominator. The textbook culture has overtaken teaching, with students able to run to online essay mills for quick-fix assignment fulfilment. Teaching compliance systems like Objective Based Education (OBE), and faculty-based ISO accreditations have turned teachers into administrators, erasing teacher preparation, research and teaching time. Lowest-common-denominator teaching was encouraged by growing numbers of foreign students who don’t have sufficient grasp of the language of the medium of instruction. Standards have been declining, with students taught to imitate, rather than extrapolate the knowledge they have into solving problems.

Very little university research is actually commercialized outside of top universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Caltech and Stanford, which have become centers of communities like Silicon Valley. New innovative intellectual property generated has little social or enterprise value.

Many pieces of university research end up being solutions that seek a problem. Modelling presented to the world on future catastrophes has time and again been found wanting. This was seen in the 2008 financial crisis, when Professor Tim Besley of the London School of Economics, acknowledged that the economic fraternity ‘lacked any collective imagination’ to see what was coming. On the whole, professors have been poor communicators of their disciplines.

The reality is that teaching academics take classes today, just as high school teachers do. Administrative professors run faculties as a business manager would. The majority of research papers produced differ only in micro-context, adding little if anything to the collective knowledge. In fact, academia has created a pay-to-publish scam as many academics rush to produce papers to meet key performance indicators to further their careers. Very little of this research finds its way into course curricula.

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This article was first published in Asia Sentinel.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis.

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