Decolonising higher education

Colonial power was always about a system of domination and intimidation. Colonisers considered themselves the ideal leaders over their subjects. For example, to fulfil their business agenda, the British, Portuguese, Dutch and Spanish colonists administered the Southeast Asian colonies through their system of colonial capitalism. The aspect of domination included their control of and access to capital, and their domination over trade, industry and production around a semi-free labour.

Malaysia experienced a long period of European colonisation since the early 16th century where we finally obtained independence in 1957. However, a colonial worldview still exists in our society today. This is obvious in both the gleeful praises and self-deprecating reprimands we publish about our universities, after the release of the annual world rankings.

The ranking exercise exposes a neo-colonial form of domination and superiority over many countries. The process is falsely framed within the context of internationalisation of education, globalising knowledge production, reputation and knowledge economy for national development.

Agencies such as Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and Times Higher Education (THE) are like knowledge companies. We natives are encouraged to invest, so that we may be transformed into more civilised and productive subjects in a hierarchical capitalist organisation.

Ranking universities has become a commercial game of mind manipulation. It has successfully streamlined a global consciousness about education. It has successfully created a conceptual confusion between quantity and quality, through its benchmarking of “standards”.

The business of ranking universities is a form of neo-colonial exploitation. It has mapped, dictated and directed the development of our universities’ visions, regardless of our history, culture, economic development and national aspirations.

The university ranking system has alienated and duped many educators, including Malaysians. Apparently, the QS and THE standards should lead in benchmarking higher education quality, despite the diversities in developmental or aspirational visions we have for our nation.

University rankings serve a commercial purpose. In the early years before the Internet, annual rankings published as a supplement in magazines would boost sales. Currently, online publication of rankings help to not just increase internet traffic but also highlights the profile of the name behind it, which subsequently advertises its products. Whether the actual credibility of the ranked university is disputed or not, what remains consistent is the commercial aspect of the debate, which poses no threat to the objectivity of the rankings.

Universities around the world are focused on how to achieve better scores, creating another industry around consultancy. Ranking agencies, such as QS and THE, organise prestigious events which are a lucrative mix of business opportunities to customise ranking formats, conferences, consultancy and workshops for world-class wannabes.

Universities around the world, including in Malaysia, pay hefty sums to participate in the ranking exercise, to attract good students (good money, not quality, via student fees) and good staff (again, good money, not quality, via research funding). QS World Rankings for instance offers a paid-for gold-star service. Universities that pay for this service are evaluated against a set of 51 criteria. They are awarded between one and five stars in eight different categories. The awarded number of gold stars appear next to the university’s name in their annual publications.

The gold-star service includes a mention in the list of the world’s top 800 universities. Universities which do not make it to the top 800 can utilise the service. This increases the institution’s reputation, potentially leading to higher student numbers and more good money. The exploitation continues further.

Universities require their academics to publish extensively in high-ranking journals as part of the university ranking business. This form of control ultimately dictates what is taught, how it is taught, what research to focus on, what the name of your faculty and department should be, where to publish, the frequency of publishing and how academic staff should be rewarded.

Academic freedom is really a myth; it does not actually exist. No academic attached to a higher education institution anywhere in the world is truly free if that university participates religiously in the ranking exercise. It is chained to the capitalist yoke of exploitation and profit mongering, which influences our scholarly output. The false consciousness of universal benchmarking is a form of colonial conditioning.

We are all tied to an oppressive system of control, premised on the colonial notion of semi-free labour. The system has monetised knowledge and trapped educators in a profit-maximising web, where returns benefit only a few. This new form of colonisation is subtly abusive. This is clear in the process of research grant applications.

Applications are vetted through a pecking order of decision-making in many university faculties. In Malaysia for instance, jealousy, envy and intellectual insecurity often influence what research is recommended for which public funding agency. Very often, the social relevance or national efficacy of the research topic makes no difference. Academic dishonesty, plagiarism and student exploitation are also rampant in the research process.

Furthermore, there are scores of academics who participate in unfunded research which are not recognised. Over a quarter of all research carried out in British universities is said to be unfunded. The number is much higher in Malaysian universities. Even the term “unfunded” is a misnomer.

Almost always, researchers are self-funded, paying for their own overseas travel, local transportation, accommodation, stationary, Internet access and investment of time (which is never just 9am-5pm). The fact that unfunded research is excluded from the annual key performance indicators is unfair and demoralising. These two words are often used by historians to describe the exploitative policies of our past colonial masters.

International Relations academics reading this article are probably familiar with the British scholar Martin Wight. He was a perfectionist, who published very little. His writings comprise one 68-page pamphlet (Power Politics), and no more than six book chapters and articles. Most of these were published in obscure journals.

We should follow Wight’s example and break free of the colonial yoke that prioritises quantity over quality. Yet, in a country like Malaysia, where the quality of our scholarly output (especially in the social sciences) is dismal, we continue to subordinate ourselves to external benchmarking schemes.

While we hope that external evaluation will improve the quality of our higher education institutes and graduates, we are oblivious to the fact that we are being exploited and manipulated. We should stop being duped into thinking that a higher global ranking automatically translates to better quality graduates. Our universities should start serious reform by acknowledging how distracted they have been by participating in the annual ranking exercises.

It is time to decolonise the minds of our university administrators and consider alternative approaches to reforming our higher education.

By : Sharifah Munirah Alatas – FMT

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