Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am

JULY 17 — What makes a university the choice of aspiring students, parents and the larger public? It has surely to be one that is reputable university with high graduate employability? So what chances do emerging, young universities stand in this scenario where every parent would want to pack off their children to a highly ranked university and where reputation is the name of the game.

Little do parents and students know of the primary objective of university education. When asked “what do you hope for when you enter this university?” most students are inclined to answer unanimously of a better future for their families. In a recent survey of third year undergraduates, the popular answer was “to get a paper qualification that would ensure me a job”. Students fail to realise that the most important reason for getting a university education is to be able to THINK and to THINK WELL! This is exactly the point which students often missed. Let me put it bluntly, most educators also missed the fact that their job is to make students think better.

The Malaysian education enterprise has made several paradigms shifts to meet changing needs of societies, employers and the technological revolution. Needless to say, the Education Blueprint 2015-2025 speaks volumes on meeting the challenges of the Industrial Revolution 4.0. Does this also mean putting in place disruptive classrooms, high tech learning spaces and going digital at full force?

We need to take stock of the dexterity of young children mastering the world of anything digital. How many times have you seen young couples sitting in cafes with their very young child, often three to four-year olds, gulping down noodle and fish balls while gazing intently at their smartphones, oblivious to all? In the old days, our parents would tell us to ‘respect our food’ and put down our books and toys before coming to the dinner table. We need to critically think about the developing minds of the young and consider how much technology is good. How may we strike the correct balance so that the advantage of technological dexterity is not hampered by the danger of technological debilitation?

What is very clear is that our youngsters do not read as much as we did during our growing years. Vital skills are lost when youngsters ignore the ‘joys’ of reading and preferred to get hooked on anything that releases shots of dopamine. It was more fun taking to the Facebook and Twitter.

Let us take a breather and look at the Ministry of Higher Education attempts in changing the face of education as far back as two decades ago. Several workshops, seminars and conferences were held to bring together educators and academics to deliberate on the ingredients of a wholesome education — to produce talents who are good academically as well as socially. The year 2000 was a year where educators and academics began to realize that traditional lecturer-learner mode of study was not the way to go. Every higher education provider began to abandon rote learning and started to dabble with problem-based learning. It was believed then that problem deliberation and solving sharpens the mind and empowers learning. Critical and communication skills quickly became a mantra in all learning institutions.

When industries began to complain that universities were producing mismatched graduates, the Malaysian Qualifications Agency began to insist on including the industry in all university curriculum discussions.  As we speak, co-curriculum remains the only set of subjects where student performance is measured specifically from the soft skills they demonstrated. Students perceived such subjects in the least positive way and the least of their priorities. Only a handful of students took such subjects seriously and were eager to embrace, learn and adapt new ways of thinking. A course on dancing and choir singing, for example, demands a student to work responsibly as part of a team, and that precision when executing certain moves needed discipline, self-control and endurance. Companies would want such skills in new employees, they expect teamwork and loyalty and often looked for graduates who excelled in co-curricular activities. To help boost company CSR image, they wanted graduates who have been involved in leading community projects. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) have been known to improve a company’s reputation based on a Forbes 2017 study of 17000 companies of which ten companies emerged as ones with the best CSR reputation. Lego for example, tops the list as a company which embraces CSR from top to bottom, according to Stephen Hahn-Griffiths from Reputation Institute, a Boston-based reputation management consulting firm. Next comes Microsoft, Google, Walt Disney Company and BMW Group, in that order.

Great employers would look for graduates who can think on their feet, to be able to make quick decisions, and to articulate well. It is therefore most apt that Genovasi University College chose to make Design Thinking (DT) an essential study component for all students. Through a structured DT regiment, the student is given as many opportunities to experiment, create and prototype models, gather feedback from stakeholders, reframe the initial problem and redesign. Students exude confidence and communication skills when pitching their ideas before an audience. Redesigning actually teaches them humility and the appreciation of other people’s needs and ideas.

DT is essentially what is needed today in the higher education system. DT approaches a problem from all possible angles, it is user-centred, participatory and collaborative. What better way to capture the magic of DT than the caption, “Strategic thinking is an act in design.”

*Professor Siti Nurani Mohamed Noor is the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) of GUC.

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.