Building on the present historical moment when ‘distortions’ in the worldview promoted in the West have increasingly come under question in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, the need to revamp the education systems in the Global South has become increasingly apparent, says Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, who is rector of the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) and a leading educationalist.
“We must have the courage to resist models for development which are against our interests and oppose intellectual and political critiques that seek to bring us to heel,” he said. “In transforming the higher education system, the key concern must be to produce an understanding of what it is we want to do, rather than mimicking other models which are of no actual use.”
Concept of community connection is key
To this end, Razak is promoting the Malaysian concept of sejahtera, which speaks to the idea of a balanced human being and the importance of working with the community – and predicates efforts to change the world for the better on the production of greater personal spiritual well-being.
He describes the concept as akin to the South African idea of ubuntu that refers to how everyone is connected through their common humanity.
So, for example, emphasising the man-made nature of the environmental challenge posed by climate change, Razak argues that genuinely sustainable development requires a change of outlook at the individual level.
“The truth is that, unless you change yourself, changing the outside world around you is not going to be easy,” he says. “Spirituality in this particular context, regardless of the religious connotations attached to the concept, is for everybody who wants to produce change the inside-out way, not the outside-in way.”
Train students to think
In support of the approach and leveraging the concept of sustainability as promoted by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015, Razak has proposed adding a further goal, an SDG 18 that promotes the importance of spirituality, as a guide for IIUM.
“This will distinguish it from any university in the global north,” he says, adding that spirituality, in the context of this goal, “should not be taken as meaning not only religion but also indigenous knowledge”.
For Razak, the promotion of the concept of sejahtera comes in response to what he describes as “the present dominant conception of the university as a factory churning human capital for economic purposes”.
“People are not being trained to think, but merely to deliver what has been prescribed them.”
Universities are run like an assembly line, he says. “The student moves from one class to another at the ring of a bell.” Then, after several years on the academic “conveyor belt”, with exams ensuring “quality control” throughout, the students graduate.
“At that point, the university is asked to evaluate itself: How many graduates are employable? If the student is marketable, the institution has succeeded; if not, it has failed.”
System privileges institutions in the Global North
“Following this logic,” Razak notes, “whenever a university is considering introducing a course, a market survey is first commissioned to determine its viability.” The result, he says, is that the social sciences and humanities are increasingly deemed “irrelevant”, and the emphasis is on technological, scientific and commercial subjects.
“It is a mechanism [for higher education] which I call WEIRD. W stands for ‘Westernised’; E stands for ‘economic-centric’; I stands for ‘industrial-led’; R stands for ‘reputation-obsessed’; and D stands for ‘dehumanising’. W can also stand for ‘white’, as in an underlying white culture and jargon that has been imposed on people of colour.”
It is also a system of higher education which, he says, privileges institutions in the Global North at the expense of their peers in the south.
Describing his early days as a university vice-chancellor, Razak says: “I soon learned a bitter lesson, which was that, despite best efforts to compete with the universities in the Global North [based on established models for higher education] their resources are triple ours; and their tradition is 900 years old, while we just started yesterday.
“In other words, the game is rigged against us, and yet we are told to catch up with them.”
Enable people to re-create their own future
To address the challenge, Razak forged a two-pronged approach. First, he sought to focus universities on their popular mission. As vice-chancellor of the University of Science, Malaysia, he oversaw the introduction of a new tagline, that the university was for “the bottom billions”.
“Acknowledging the role of education as a leveller within society, a function that enables people to recreate their futures, the goal was to work for those who had lacked such opportunity,” he says.
Second, he sought to produce a cadre of students who can help to foster this democratic vision of development, in part by ensuring that the sejahtera concept informs a new post COVID-19 framework for education at IIUM.
“Education is about changing yourself to enable you to change others.”
To this end, he stressed that the students “must experience sejahtera’, rather than merely know it. The idea is that people who have gone through sejahtera will become balanced human beings, psychologically, intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically.”
The goal is that, in the process, they will become increasingly resilient and able to deploy the knowledge that they acquire in ways that are useful to them and to local communities.
‘Leave the cellphone, sweat and learn’
In this regard, the revised curriculum at IIUM now obliges students to engage local communities and demonstrate that they can help to transform them. “It is not enough for the students to learn about poverty in an air-conditioned library, they must go there and get their hands dirty, and sweat and learn something from the community,” Razak said.
The new approach also aims to wean students from their dependence on the latest information and communications technologies (ICTs) such as cellphones and instil in them a greater capacity for reflection and problem-solving.
“I think that the education system, in particular, has been hijacked by technology, although it is also true that we cannot learn without it,” Razak says. “If you are simply downloading information but not reflecting on it, the output becomes merely a matter of expression rather than a broadening of perception.
“Similarly, with social media, people keep talking all the time but who is doing the thinking, who is doing the listening? In general, I worry because I think technology could be another apparatus for colonialism.
“Soft power comes in the kind of things that are read and that shape the mind.”
Indigenous knowledge fosters problem-solving
By contrast, Razak finds great value in indigenous knowledge, particularly in relation to fostering creative thinking and a capacity for greater understanding. He describes how puzzles that have been developed and deployed by indigenous communities in Malaysia created a kind of divergent, creative thinking among the youth.
“The idea is that, when the children who live in the jungle meet with some potential calamity, they should be able to find a solution appropriate for that situation and make a decision and act accordingly.”
He has now introduced these puzzles, which fox most academics and students, to the university – “the lesson being that there is much to learn from indigenous communities who have developed powerful ways of thinking and who (unlike most students) are not easily distracted, but are patient enough to reflect, learn and meditate”.
Razak sees the promotion of indigenous knowledge as a crucial aspect of the larger drive “to reconstruct our own universities about our own contexts, values and traditions”, which he sees as comparable to the mission facing universities in Africa – and that must entail a rejection of the benchmarks for higher education established by the “former colonial masters”.
“If you ask me whether the kind of university I am proposing is ‘world-class’, my response is: It depends on whose world you are talking about. My world and your world may not be the same, and, therefore, we cannot and should not be producing the same kind of universities.”
This article is based on an interview conducted by Professor Catherine A Odora Hoppers for the ‘The Imprint of Education’ project, which is being implemented by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), South Africa, in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. This project, which includes a series of critical engagements with experienced scholars and thought leaders on their reimaginings of higher education in Africa, and the Global South, investigates current and future challenges facing the sector, including best practices and innovations. A full transcript of the interview can be downloaded from the HSRC’s website.