Most of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) is in Penang, smack in the E&E Industry. This industry nationally contributes about RM370 billion to Malaysia’s exports (RM180 billion of which is generated by companies in Penang), which accounts for close to 40 per cent of total Malaysian exports (20 per cent from Penang), and is responsible for 560,000 jobs (mostly for our fellow Malaysians). There is an inflow of money via Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) and a number of reasons that led to big companies choosing to set up shop in Malaysia. Simply put, this industry is extremely important to us Malaysians.
During my recent visit to some of these (multinational) companies, it struck me that these companies are not obliged to stay here in Malaysia. They are always looking to increase shareholder value and there are many suitor-nations. Therefore, while we hope that they expand their operations here in Malaysia, creating more desperately needed jobs, it is also important to realise that we must continue to provide reasons for them to stay, create those jobs and opportunities for our students, our kids, relatives and friends. It is, to me at least, our national duty to ensure that they continue to stay.
It is also then that I realised that it is our role, as academics in universities – on top of everything else that we need to do, to be part of the team to provide the reasons for these companies to stay put and, if possible, to invest more. If universities (academics in particular) fail to deliver our bit in terms of producing excellent graduates and committed researchers – then we would be the weakest element in fulfilling the nation’s aspiration in not only bringing in more industries to invest in us, but also in escaping the middle-income trap by moving away from a mainly manufacturing-based economy.
From the above perspective, I would argue that our accountability goes beyond the Top Management, or the Board of Directors, or the Ministry. It is to our people. The nation. The taxpayers. The would-be employees. Future generations of Malaysians. Your kids and mine.
Teaching and Research: two sides of the same coin
In the context of USM, I have argued in the past that academics are directly responsible in turning the family fortune of close to 70 per cent B40 undergraduates we took under our wings. In a way, that is saying that we owe it to our students, and their parents – stakeholders – to perform our duties with passion and compassion, sometimes beyond what were stated in our respective job descriptions. The above narrative concerning industries, perhaps, would shed another light into how crucial our roles are (and how we cannot afford to fail). I chose the E&E industry as an example, but I believe we can extend this to every industry and field of knowledge.
What is the point I am trying to make here? Universities do not exist in a vacuum, and they have to carry tremendous weights in delivering for the nation. We need to go on all cylinders – super focused in what we do – in full realisation that at the core of this are two major and inter-related activities – teaching and research. Teaching and research are never mutually exclusive. One should reinforce the other. I do not think there should be an argument against this.
A PhD builds character
The Government spent billions in producing those with PhDs. We were privileged. Those who went abroad had enjoyed the side-benefits that came with this – travel, our kids being exposed to different cultures and education, and of course, shopping. We had our time. Now it is time to give back, in full, and then some.
The PhD exercise – the act of conducting research - should have produced, and continue to produce, those with values such as resourcefulness, perseverance, sacrifice, and an inherent strong responsibility to build this nation. It is partly academic, mostly character building. In return, the experience and knowledge gained from the PhD should be disseminated through postgraduate courses and supervision – which are – forms of teaching. An active researcher would teach his/her undergraduates/postgraduates the most current technological/philosophical/policy breakthroughs. An active researcher would be recognised by his/her peers in the academic world. In addition, more often than not, it is through active and strong research that one gets noticed by the industry through which collaboration and consultancies are forged. It is through strong research and interaction with industries that spin-offs are created.
Active and strong research would produce outputs/outcomes. These outcomes should be measurable in one form or another. This is very straightforward. An exercise in tracking performance and accountability does not equate to being obsessed with University rankings. A PhD holder should be able to shoulder many responsibilities - teaching, research, administrative duties, community engagement, advocacy and more.
Being the vessel, the asbab
A true academic, in my opinion, would become the bridge, or the vessel, the asbab, through which students – undergraduates and postgraduates alike – are connected to the larger society. We should be willing to sacrifice and bleed in opening doors for them. It is about them. It is no longer about us. We had ours. We are the finished product. Central to these are the continuous effort in attaining and distributing knowledge. The wealth of merchants is in their purses of gold, the wealth of scholars is in the knowledge they unfold, said Pendeta Za’aba. We are here to educate and be educated, to change lives and live a changed life.
USM: Leading the way
In the next 2-3 years, in terms of undergraduate teaching, USM foresees a mixed demand in the way we deliver our courses. We have to maintain our blended learning agenda while carefully adapting to customised/bespoke stakeholder driven stackable and credit-carrying micro-credential courses. We aim to 'liberalise' education through our Grab-like Bridge initiative, connecting thousands of content providers to our students. The competition that USM will face is at a global scale.
We target 50 per cent of our research grants and postgraduate assistantship to be awarded to those masters/PhD projects that have industrial content and co-supervisors. Our sabbatical policy is targeted at putting our academics in industries. We anticipate an influx of industry leaders and talents into our management and teaching fabric. Our talent management strategies include job shadowing, setting up of a startup, and producing a national bestseller on historical re-narratives among other things.
This is hard work and a test in changing mindsets and deep-rooted practices. The higher you aim, the harder it becomes. But I believe it can be done, in the spirit of nation-building and lofty ideals. Happy Merdeka!
Professor Dr Faisal Rafiq Mahamd Adikan is the Vice-Chancellor of USM.
nation building, USM, companies, academics, education, postgraduates