From the VC's Office


In the previous issue of inspired, I talked about volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) as the four key characteristics of our present world. Navigating them, I wrote, would require agility. Agility, specifically, in preparing for and managing risks, in honestly reviewing performance, in creating a collaborative environment, and finally, in embracing new ways of doing things.

Now, almost halfway through 2024, it appears agility has become even more important if we hope to surmount the most difficult of challenges in higher education.

Consider how universities in Malaysia have come under fire in recent months. There have been, among others, furore over exposés of questionable research, and controversial statements made by a visiting foreign scholar. Former Education Minister Prof Dr Maszlee Malik himself has lamented that Malaysian higher education “has lost its soul.”

However, none of this is exceptional or isolated: Ivy League professors in the US, too, have been embroiled in allegations of data fabrication and plagiarism, while top journal Nature reported a record-high 10,000 article retractions globally in 2023, many of them originating from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, and Russia.

Suffice to say such headlines do not paint a pretty picture. And, whether shocking or distressing, they are undeniably elements of a VUCA-riddled world that universities cannot assume will magically resolve themselves or disappear. Already academic credibility is being called into question. Moreover, the lingering effects of the pandemic, shifting perspectives of the younger demography, doubts surrounding academic freedom and research objectivity: all these are turning into higher education’s existential threats

Against this backdrop of mistrust and uncertainty, I feel that there is a need to revisit the purpose of the university. Prof Dr Maszlee believes universities should represent “an open intellectual field”, but is there more we should aspire to? What do we stand for? What are our guiding principles? What do we embody? Why should society continue to value what we provide?

in order to meaningfully engage in a changing, unpredictable world, universities must develop the agility to be both a bastion for intellectual pursuit as well as a social institution that can help fulfil societal needs.

Tracing Our Core Values

Even if VUCA is beyond our control, there are certain core values that universities should steadfastly uphold. Foremost, universities are knowledge-seeking institutions. Universities are where we go to better understand ourselves and the world around us, and to foster innovation, so that we can shape new ways of thinking and living, and collectively benefit humanity.

The Magna Charta Universitatum (MCU), originally signed in 1988 and revised in 2020, is meant to safeguard this very premise. Despite contemporary challenges and concerns, the MCU signatories, currently numbering 975 universities from 94 countries, maintain that “the pursuit of fundamental values … is a constant quest.”

Although the MCU is European in origin and sentiment, defining and upholding the university’s core purpose has gravity that transcends geography. That university leaders from Albania to Zimbabwe have signed the charter goes to show that most academics, backgrounds notwithstanding, agree with the foundational idea of the university as an intellectual sanctuary

A Future-Facing Activity

Surely many academics, including my colleagues and I at OUM, would readily defendnd this traditional symbol of the university as an intellectual sanctuary. In addition, universities also fulfil a social function: to help learners build connections, develop a sense of shared identity, and engage in community activities.

Particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, the university’s intellectual and social functions broadened to include national economic goals. In Malaysia, for example, higher education became categorically touted, as explained by historian Sharom Ahmat, as the means to eradicate poverty by producing “a better-prepared and better-gifted workforce to ... raise the incomes of all Malaysians.” University degrees, from a pragmatic standpoint, thus began to be associated with employability: people study to gain practical skills and knowledge and obtain qualifications that could lead to good jobs and good salaries, so they have the means to provide for themselves and their families and contribute to the nation.

In this context, I cannot disagree with UK professors Keri Facer and Richard Sandford, who assert that higher education is a future-facing activity, through which people “develop aspirations for their future lives.”

Thus, I believe that in order to meaningfully engage in a changing, unpredictable world, universities must develop the agility to be both a bastion for intellectual pursuit as well as a social institution that can help fulfil societal needs.

In order to accomplish this, I believe universities must continue prioritising crucial fields of study. Such disciplines as medicine, psychology, nursing science, early childhood education, and teaching, for instance, must remain part of the higher education offering. In the same vein, universities must also continue championing both fundamental and applied research. The university’s role in training skilled professionals in key disciplines, advancing basic knowledge, and encouraging innovation to solve real-world problems is one that will remain essential for many years to come.

Nevertheless, university studies need also to address more modern disciplines, such as data science, as well as multi- or inter-disciplinary options, such as sustainability studies. The latter, in particular, deserves special attention. A cross-fertilised approach, combining courses from different disciplines as well as different curricular approaches, is necessary to tackle complex, multi-dimensional issues, like food security, climate change, or ageing populations. Some universities have begun taking this seriously: in 2021 the National University of Singapore, for instance, merged its Faculty of Engineering and School of Design and Environment to begin offering undergraduate programmes amalgamating curricula from both fields through the newly minted College of Design and Engineering.

Importantly, as future-facing institutions, universities need to help learners develop skills necessary to face their own VUCA-filled futures, so that they are best prepared even for jobs that do not yet exist, challenges we cannot yet imagine, and industries that have yet to be conceived.

Towards this end, one of OUM’s own efforts involves rolling out new curricula to incorporate elements in environment, social, and governance (ESG). These elements, aligning with Malaysia’s national ESG framework, address such salient themes as anti-bribery and anti-corruption, community service, and waste management. We expect to complete development of the new curricula before the end of this year.

Similar priority will be given to research efforts. The four research alliances established late last year – Technology Integration and Innovation, Sustainable and Inclusive Education, Quality Education, and Health, Well-Being, Spiritual, and Environmental Sustainability – all seek to address pressing societal challenges through collaborative research efforts by OUM academics and learners.

An Open Dialogue

I am particularly proud of how inspired has evolved, especially within the last few issues, into a conduit for frank and constructive intellectual discourse. Sharing the voices of international scholars in open, distance, and digital education (ODDE), inspired has attempted to do something truly unique, especially taking into consideration the Malaysian and Asian contexts of ODDE that OUM operates in. The discussions on generative artificial intelligence in this 22nd issue, for example, is a fine case in point.

Thus, I appreciate how inspired has given me the opportunity to share my views on VUCA and what I believe to be important themes and directions in higher education. I hope that the pieces published here will become food for thought for others to also articulate their own perspectives on topics that matter to us as practitioners and stakeholders in higher education, and ODDE in particular.

After all, if we indeed hope to restore credibility to universities, to justify our worth in a learning society, we need, primarily, to be able to talk openly, critically, and objectively about situations that affect us all.

The great philosopher of science Sir Karl Popper once queried, “How does knowledge grow?” Depending on whom you ask, the answer to that question would cover quite a spectrum, but I do hope that one aspect will remain unchanged: universities should continue to be the place where knowledge grows.

Prof Dr Ahmad Izanee Awang