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Higher education is not just about economics

Published on Wednesday, 23 May 2012
Professor Anthony B L Cheung

In the 21st century, when knowledge and information are being generated at breakneck speed, universities have a choice: they can be leaders, followers or bystanders.

Traditionally, society has looked upon tertiary institutions with respect, at times with awe, for their role as discoverers and creators of knowledge. Scholars and professors have been regarded as custodians of academic learning, with a mission to inspire successive generations through education and to transfer knowledge in all its forms to as wide an audience as possible.

However, with the popularisation of higher education and the emphasis on its importance for economic growth and the development of human capital, universities are increasingly perceived as powerhouses for vocational training.

Today, an undergraduate degree is widely seen as a prerequisite for first-time job seekers. One result is that young people are drawn to programmes which will “guarantee” higher monetary returns when they start their careers. And responding to market needs, universities have to devise courses that are more vocational in nature, since student choice is driven by employment prospects.

At the same time, the internet has enabled easier access to data and new means of communication. To many, this opens the door to an “explosion” of information, with new sources and  methods of learning. It is important, though, that we maintain our capacity to discern between data and knowledge, so that time and resources are not simply wasted.

Partly to address such anomalies, universities worldwide have awoken to the need to reinvigorate liberal studies. A cross-disciplinary approach is being advocated to broaden and deepen our students’ knowledge base. We want them to acquire lateral and critical thinking abilities, as well as a holistic understanding of society and the wider world.

Addressing educational needs as they change over time is a relatively easier task for universities. Identifying and then meeting the longer-term conceptual goals of higher education is an entirely different and more complex challenge. There are different viewpoints, and scholars – both ancient and contemporary, from East and West – have explored these “everlasting” needs, but the debate goes on.

Harry Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College, has warned about modern university education falling into the trap of offering “excellence without a soul”. Other academic leaders are  championing the reorientation of higher education, so that it imparts “wisdom” instead of mere “knowledge”.

But then what is wisdom? In the East, Confucius said that the way towards great learning involves the formation of high moral character, enlightening the people (community), and ultimately achieving the ideal. The early traditions of university education around the world were all about grooming scholar-leaders who would excel in knowledge and culture. By having a virtuous character, high moral values, and a mastery of state-craft, they would have the necessary attributes to lead society and shape their times.

If we accept that principle, a key purpose of higher education is still to groom “leaders” for our society, as well as to nurture the mind and intellect. In the contemporary context, such lofty ideals have sometimes been sidelined, if not totally lost. Universities are being pushed to follow a very utilitarian and functional path, generating qualifications and providing vocational training. There is a danger that the current wave of globalisation will marginalise the humanities and that the emphasis on economic benefits will become even more lopsided. This is something we should guard against.

Besides developing “human capital”, universities should also reflect on the importance of their role in nurturing the critical mind and creating cross-cultural and cosmopolitan perspectives. The 21st century will be shaped by people with creativity, ingenuity and imagination rather than hard knowledge. Producing such people presents one of the great challenges for universities around the world.

Professor Anthony B L Cheung is president of The Hong Kong Institute of Education

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