21 February 1999

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The Ministry of Education should scrupulously watch and control the growth of higher education in Malaysia lest it becomes uncontrollable as has already happened in India. We certainly do not want Malaysian degrees to be further degraded and diminished. Kuldeep Marthur, the former director of the Indian national Institute of Education Planning and Administration said, "State colleges are often built by local bigwigs who use them as a source of political patronage. The buildings are built and staff are hired and there is no thought as to how the infrastructure will be kept, up and their salaries paid." (International Herald Tribune December 22, 1998).

Imagine this: during the last two decades, five thousand universities and colleges - virtually all public - had been established in India. Like Indians, Malaysians increasingly (which is good) view a degree or diploma as the admission ticket to a new status in life.

My great worry is standards will and must suffer when entrance requirements are not very rigorous. If that happens we would be producing unemployable graduates who will definitely become the source of social and political discontent eventually, if that is not already taking place. YR. Metha, Vice Chancellor of Delhi University said: "Indian Universities have become picnic places with students whiling away their time because colleges are open to anyone who wants attend, merit becomes the casualty." (IHT December 22,1998).

Barry Bearak of the New York Times quoted professor S.P. Singh, Dean of the commerce, faculty of the Delhi University, as having said, "A university should exist for the pursuit of academic excellence, but this is now an idea that plays second fiddle to casteism. Merit should rule the roots, not what caste you are born into." He also quoted S.C. Bhattgeharya, recently retired professor of history who said, "Despite my faith in democracy, I have to ask by giving poor students a bad education, do you improve their lot or merely make contagious their disadvantage?" In California, Governor Eray Davis endorsed a plan to increase diversity in the state's elite public universities by admitting the top four percent of every high school graduating class. This plan would allow more black, Hispanic and poor white students to attend university and therefore would counter the effects of the banned quota system affirmative action. However, the plan as a result would deny on of high achieving students.

As I see it, we in Malaysia must make sure that whatever we do with higher education or studies it must strengthen the tradition of scholarship and academic excellence. This is the time to make amends: can we not concentrate on quality now that we have the numbers? And intuitively prevent a future time bomb.

My generation is in fact, one of the last representatives of a vanished world where higher education was still elitist and admission to universities and colleges was very difficult and yet possible for a really determined student; it was the golden age where only meritocracy ruled. I did not resent it though I personally suffered in its name. I became a better man as a result.

I am an optimist, always have been as I have told you time and again but when I see universities and colleges are being overrun by "crowds" I become rather pessimistic about the future of higher education. Honestly, I do not see why one should not suggest that only students who deserve to be there should be allowed to.

I dread a huge explosion of mediocre brats and philistines which, would reduce universities and colleges to being mere factories for producing graduates.

(Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad is our Special Envoy to the United States.)

(This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Sun )