Greetings from corporate academia

JUNE 4 — Private higher education in Malaysia has evolved into a new kind of species. Like a forest-dwelling creature adapting to its new habitat in denuded wastelands, private higher education has learned to transform its identity, priorities, and raison d’être in the surreal world of commercial academia. 

It might look like a mutant produced via the unholy union of commerce and education, but for many in Malaysia, it looks quite attractive. 

After all, a demand is met through supply (however overstretched, under-qualified, and overworked the latter is).

In this brave new world, individuals enrolled in privately funded programmes are no longer referred to as “students” but “customers” who are washed ashore from the wild seas of the “open market”.

Vice Chancellors are not just Vice Chancellors, but directors and CEOs of a business with an academic wing. Administrative departments relate to each other as “clients” in a chain of corporate exchange. 

The goal is client or “customer satisfaction” never mind the fact that there is no real “product” in the business transaction and you cannot get your money back if you’re “dissatisfied”.

These universities are perpetually churning out “customer satisfaction” surveys not so much to evaluate industry definitions of ever-elusive customer requirement but to self-congratulate themselves on a job well-done. 

These surveys are done remotely without direct interactions with “customers” themselves. Survey findings are interpreted from a biased vantage point that serves only to protect the company’s commercial interests and improve its business model.

Many aggressively commercial and teaching-oriented private universities will concede from competing in the “university rankings” race and the rigours of research culture for good reason. 

Commercial targets of high student intake and student quality ratings are rarely compatible. A high intake of fee-paying, loan-borrowing students is chalked up as a success even if it means lowering the qualification for entry. 

More choice of courses in the supermarket of education means overworked staff and zero-hour adjuncts contracted to do short-term work without staff benefits that come with institutional affiliation.

Higher education is big business in Malaysia. Through an industrial lens, students are not thinking agents of social and cultural transformation but receptacles of information and consumers with zero consumer rights. 

Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is obsolete and anachronistic in a climate where “knowledge economy” is king. Only commodified forms of knowledge will do, nicely packaged to justify its “return of investment" (ROI).

Only a few private universities are rising to the challenge of university rankings and ratings system knowing that customers savvy enough about them will choose with their feet. 

But the greatest challenge is really in one criterion: the heavily weighted quality and quantity of research output. This means publications in high impact journals and of books published by respected academic publishers. The ROIs of publications are not immediately apparent, and perhaps they should not ever be.

And this is where I come in as a putative member of the academic community. Having been recently employed to put the boot into the posterior of an intellectually-dormant community, I find myself in a conflict of values where commercial ones will emerge the winner. 

A private university’s priority lies not in the production of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but to generate revenue for its staff under the official pretext of widening access and customer-oriented services.

Private higher education will continue to evolve. In the future, academic staff in private higher education are expected to be trained as business leaders and trading operators. 

Today, lecturers are expected to use their weekends to do promotional tours on behalf of their university-company. Tomorrow, academics are promoted based on their ability to herd the cash cows from the “open market”.

These future trends are not so far-fetched when the linguistics of “customer services” is the prevailing credo of private universities. And as outlined in the new Malaysian blueprint for higher education, universities will receive next to nothing from the government purse.

In the new Malaysian blueprint for higher education, university students will also be groomed to think using the logic of neoliberal academia under the guise of “entrepreneurship”.

Graduates will have the ability to “create” jobs ex nihilo and through more borrowing if they are poor and already belaboured by debt. 

Maybe university graduates can go freelance in “creative industries” and do what they love, running after paymasters with cap (and invoice) in hand. Perhaps graduates can be their own bosses and enjoy the thrill of irregular funds to repay loans and rent. This is the entrepreneurial spirit that will be the panacea to the lack of jobs for university graduates in Malaysia.

The future of private higher education looks bleak. Its corporate logic of “customer-oriented” education is a French kiss of death to knowledge, learning, and social mobility.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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