20th International Conference On Higher Education

“The Role of the University in Bridging Civilizations”

Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim

Assalamualaikum Warahmatullahi wabarakatuh

Salam Sejahtera

Beta bersyukur ke hadrat ILAHI, kerana dengan izin dari Nya juga Beta dapat berangkat untuk melafazkan titah di persidangan ini pada pagi ini.

2. It is a great pleasure for me to address such a distinguished audience on such an important subject. Anybody attempting to discuss the role of universities in bridging civilizations is faced with a daunting task. This is because both concepts of ‘university’ and ‘civilization’ are so ill-defined and so ever-changing that virtually anything one says will inevitably leave out a vast amount of other equally interesting and valuable ideas. The speed of change and the diversity of institutions in the higher education sector make it especially difficult to talk about universities in any general sense. Similarly, the vast changes seen in society over the past century or two have resulted in a dilution of the concept of civilization even to the point of disagreement over the relevance of this word to modern society.

  1. Civilization is a much-used, and much-misunderstood, term. There is no single acceptable definition of what constitutes a ‘civilization’. An anthropological definition in the context of archeology and history is quite clear, with such entities as the ‘Maya civilization’ or the ‘Roman civilization’ being clear-out stand-alone historical objects. In a modern context, the term ‘civilization’ is not only far more amorphous but carries with it a significant amount of socially questionable connotations such as racial superiority that make it unpopular. Recently, Huntington’s theory on the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ brought the concept of civilization back into popular discourse.
  2. The most encompassing and, if at all, relevant definition of a civilization ‘is a set of ideological alternatives’ that define the cultural and religious identity of a people. A ‘civilization’ as an entity would thus be characterized by a set of social, temporal and spatial characteristics that separate it from any other civilization. As such, civilizations in the modern context are at best abstract entities, driven by individuals and their values, ways of thinking and way of life. In today’s context, they are increasingly diluted to the point of non-recognition.
  3. Universities like civilizations are also undergoing a fundamental change and evolving into entities that may require a reconsideration of our classical definition. We consider a university as an institution of higher learning that confers academic degrees to individuals and one that possess a distinct geographical location. However, this concept may be changing and in the future we may see universities transform into ‘virtual’ entities, seeding and driving the growth of knowledge above and beyond the brick and mortar confines of a university hall.
  4. The modern university has its roots in religious schools and academies of non-western antiquity, particularly in China, India and Persia. These institutions laid little emphasis on academic structure, but placed great weight on instruction and experience as a method of education. The first examples of structured institutions of higher learning are the medieval Madrasahs of the Islamic world with the University of Al- Karaonine, in Morocco, being a famous example. These early institutions of higher learning actually conferred degrees and diplomas to students and sometimes had a range of ‘faculties’, the most common of which were Islamic philosophy, Logic, Grammar and Medicine.
  5. The universities of medieval Europe, that in essence seeded the great universities of the European diaspora and have come to define the current mode of higher learning, were all built upon models derived from the Islamic world during the crusades. Through the ages, the role of universities and their place in society have slowly changed along with changes in our conceptualization of the universe, our attitudes to knowledge, the accessibility of collective knowledge. Nevertheless, some characteristics of universities remain unchanged, namely

• Universities as repositories of knowledge

• The search for the ‘truth’ as a driving force of university learning

• Universities as preparatory centers for outstanding individuals in society

• Universities as a cross-generational body

These characteristics can be expanded to accommodate changes in our concept of a modern university. Modern universities are also, ideally, characterized by

• Independence

• Networking

• Multinationalism

  1. When all these characteristics are combined, the ideal university takes on a social force of its own and becomes an ideal centre driving the development of a society. With this in mind, universities are ideally placed to act as “bridges between civilizations”.
  2. Let us explore this idea in some detail. It is not by accident that we speak of the thread of knowledge. Knowledge is a continuous cumulative stream that extends both into the past and into the future, while lacking a coherent identity in the present. At any one point in time, knowledge is a dynamic evolving entity that never stays unchanged. Somewhere, someone is always adding, however little, to our current body of knowledge, and any static conceptualization of knowledge is thus inherently flawed.
  3. A university as a centre of erudition, and as a repository of knowledge must also exhibit these characteristics. Like knowledge, it must be grounded on a foundation of past experiences, and must recognise that it must change and evolve with changes in society to stay relevant. And like knowledge, it must never assume predominance beyond that granted by a temporary shift in social circumstance. For we can be sure that no single society has a monopoly on knowledge at any point in history. Rather, we have societies that at their peak show an exceptional valuation of erudition and that strive to accumulate and develop their stores of knowledge both for the good of society and for the sake of knowledge itself. Thus we went through ages where the Sumerians, then the Egyptians, followed by the Greeks and Romans, and later the Islamic world, were at the forefront of learning. Today, the western world is clearly dominating the knowledge chessboard, but the pieces may be shifting in the near future. Regardless of who is at the forefront, knowledge remains a shared embodiment of humankind’s wisdom accumulated over millennia and grows together with the growth of society, through sharing, application, innovation and exploration.
  4. Universities are the engines and the shepherds of this growth and their role must stretch across generations and across borders to encompass the entire spectrum of human experience. No other human institution is as well-placed as universities to play this role, and at no time in the history of the human race have we been in greater need for cross-border and cross-cultural institutions that can play this role.
  5. Let us consider some so-called realities of the modern age. We are faced with an increasingly informed society, enlightened by the mass spread of information through ICT, ranging from the internet to the mobile phone. Ironically, we are also living in a vastly misinformed society, where wrong information can spread as quickly and as widely as correct information. At no time in our history has information been of more value to the average human being, to his or her government, and to the private and public enterprises that serve the individual. And at no time has the value of accurate information been more important. We are also faced with a much shrunken world, where distances have been immensely shortened not only physically through the development of affordable and reliable transport systems, but also temporally, where ICT has again made distance an irrelevant feature of communication. For the first time in history, we can share ideas across oceans in real time, without needing to wait for conquest for our ideas to be spread. We are also watching a shift in the value of social and economic priorities as the globalised economy comes into its own. We now place more emphasis on non-material assets such as knowledge and skills than on material assets that have defined human society for so long. With this shift, the physical presence of a value generating entity, be it a person or an institution, is irrelevant, because that which we value most can be easily shared on the back of our ICT developments.
  6. Two more closely related factors need to be given vital consideration. Firstly, global trade has created a vastly wealthier society at all levels and has opened up a consumerist hunger that is historically unprecedented. What was once been the domain of kings and emperors is at the reach of millions of people, with consumer goods driving economic growth as never before. Riding on this growth, we have seen new economic powers emerge in just the space of a generation. Nations like China and India stand pounding at the door of the west, wanting a voice, a presence, and recognition of their culture and their values. Sadly, we have also engendered a vast impoverished and disenchanted segment of society who have either been abused by the developments in the globalised economy, or have been left out of these developments altogether. They pose a significant challenge both to our economists who must suggest ways of including them in our miracle and to our philosophers and moralists who must explain how we can live side by side with our vastly more impoverished brothers and sisters while watching our own wealth and well being grow. And while we continue to debate the whys and the wherefores of the poor and disenfranchised, they are making themselves increasingly more noticed by drawing attention to their plight in ways both benign and violent.
  7. Secondly, we are potentially entering an age where we will for the first time in history share a global calamity of our own making in the guise of man-induced climate change. Not only can we share information and knowledge and hard technology across borders as never before, we can also share our pollutants and our toxins, to the point where all the inhabitants of our planet may potentially need to make serious adjustments to their lifestyles and their livelihoods to continue living on this planet.
  8. These societal challenges require a new approach and as we make our first strides into the 21st century, we find that no other institution is as well place as our universities to help us meet these challenges. However, we need to reassess our definition of a university and reassess what our expectations are from our institutions of higher learning to fully exploit their potential as engines of change and development in our society. Our traditional concept of a university is an institution of higher learning funded and managed by the government to meet national skilled manpower requirements and to provide a platform for research and development within the nation. This has meant that the traditional 20th century university could rely on a fairly secure source of funding and a predictable and pliable “client” base. This comfortable identity is undergoing a significant challenge as new concepts are entering the educational marketplace, forcing a complete overhaul of our universities. The primary challenges driving change in the world of higher education can be summarised as:
  9. The democratisation of higher education, in the sense that it is no longer reserved for the elite few;
  10. Globalisation of education, resulting in an increasing number of players in the arena, meaning an increase in competition often across borders and an increase in the number of educational products on offer;
  11. The development of new methods of teaching and information delivery, storage and sharing, challenging the established paradigms of student nurturing;
  12. An increasingly complex and integrated marketplace that has radically altered the labour demands of the graduate as well as necessitated the emergence of life-long learning as a tool of career advancement;
  13. A decline in public-funding and an increase in the number of private enterprises that take an interest in education and associated research and development.

16. All these factors demand that our universities take on a multinational role, transcending the confines of borders and cultures, if they are to flourish. The future of the university can be summarised by paraphrasing Burton Clark’s insightful pathways of transformation in institutes of higher learning, namely:

  1. Flexibility, versatility, and speed in responding to challenges and demands;
  2. Expansion, development and networking beyond geographical and political boundaries;
  3. Financial diversification allowing for the development of independent and lucrative revenue streams;
  4. Re-evaluation and re-appreciation of the value of high quality academic departments;
  5. The development of an entrepreneurial culture within the academic institution.
  6. The fundamental change we are actually witnessing in education is from provider-led to demand-led, moulding our future universities as organs of social function, in the broadest sense of the phrase. We must make a substantial effort to reengineer our universities into entities relevant to the changing times.
  7. Universities can provide support by promoting participation, discussion, research, innovation and collaborative action across boundaries on a scale that no other institution can. It is through such efforts that we can bridge civilizations and cultures and foster international cooperation and solidarity within and between nations, to build truly functional networks that can provide solutions to common problems and enhance the positive role of our universities in our world.
  8. This is an opportunity and a challenge for universities. As global transformations continue, universities must help ensure that the voices from civil society and from different regions and cultures are heard, and that people can participate in a meaningful way. Universities must lead the way in upholding the principles of human dignity, equality and equity at the global level, and be leaders in espousing and engendering values such freedom, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature and shared responsibility.
  9. To find a common ground, to build bridges between civilizations, we must focus on what ordinary people who make up those civilizations have in common. We must look to the things that fundamentally matter to them. These are more likely to do with building a decent life for themselves and their families – enough food on the table, adequate housing, good health care, safe drinking water, and an education for their children. And the general sharing of a common benign future. As centres of erudition and hubs for intellectual clustering, universities can take up roles of leadership and advocacy, using their credibility and social respect to build wider support for ideas and concepts that will take us to the next level of social and technological development.
  10. We must also encourage our universities to engage with the corporate and the public sector in realising the true value of human investment and in building responsibility in both institutions for the societies they are built by. This includes the promotion of accountability and transparency in our public sector and the encouragement of the practical application of universal principles on human rights, labour and the environment in our multi-national and local business enterprises.
  11. To achieve any of these tasks, our universities must accept radical changes to their curricular and to their teaching methods, embracing cross-cultural studies and liberal concepts. They must encourage respect for the process of intellectual debate. They must also seek new ways to bring together and unify their programmatic giving, so that messages are coherent and frameworks for bringing together their research, advocacy and mobilization efforts are done in a way that is directed towards creating a unified change for the better in their parent societies. More critical thought is needed about how communications relate to the gathering, dissemination and application of knowledge in a society where knowledge is viewed as a critical asset. Unless knowledge is shared, disseminated and applied in a strategic way that allows it to be used and applied by critical stakeholders, it is of little value to society as a whole.
  12. The future belongs to those entities, be they companies or institutions, that can meet global standards and tap into global networks. What it all comes down to is that not only can universities act as bridges between cultures and civilisations, they must in essence act as said bridges to survive into the future. Just as we have embraced free trade and globalisation as the engine of economic growth, so too must we embrace globalised education as the engine of social rejuvenation and development. And the only way that our education can be truly free from constraints and narrow-minded concepts, and globalised beyond the dictates of one culture or another, is by ensuring that our universities are true multinational entities, built on a base that transcends our individual social identity and embraces our collective destiny as the embattled human race.
  13. I wish all participants much success in this conference with the hope that it will spur vigorous debates and discussions. The quest for knowledge is one that can and must unite us all.

Wabillahi taufik Walhidayah

Wassalamualaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh.

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