Saturday, March 30, 2013

Malaysia, Why No University City?

This article was published in The New Straits Times, April 1st 2013

A friend of mine asked me to write a chapter in a book which revolved around the topic of medical education in Malaysia and it forced me to compare the education system between Malaysia and other countries. Suddenly it dawned to me: ‘Why Malaysia does not have a University city?’ University cities are cities that are built around a University, and its environment is purely academic that the economical activities of the city depends on the existence of the University, with the students being the driving force that lights up the city into a bright garden city of knowledge. We have a few in the world, like Oxford, Cambridge, Boston, or perhaps an example much closer to us, Bandung.

I have lived in two University cities throughout my life, namely Boston and Bandung, and have been to Oxford once, and what I can say is that we have nothing like those cities in Malaysia. Take Oxford, the whole city exudes an academic atmosphere. Just stepping into the city makes you feel smarter by 10 IQ points. Unlike the Universities we have, there are no walled boundaries to the University, and nobody is going to stop you at the entrance of the city to check on your student I.D. Oxford is the city, and the city is a University. The academic environment is evident through the people walking around the city carrying books, coffee shop with tables stacked with large mind maps and a group of students discussing around it. Bookshops selling all academic textbooks you can find in the world, and your casual walk by the sidewalk won’t be complete without a student stopping you to ask things like: ‘We’re running a survey for our research, would you mind participating? There will be a surprise gift’ and gives you a wink, which makes it hard for you to reject.

Then there’s Harvard in Boston. Unlike Oxford, the use of the word Harvard and Boston are not interchangeable, but when people say Boston, Harvard is the first thing that comes to mind. The whole Harvard compound is filled with shops that are built by Harvard students, for Harvard students. The Harvard Coop is essentially a student cooperative, like the student Co-Op we have here that sell stationeries, exercise books and food, except that instead of selling stationeries, exercise books and food, they sell everything and operate like a shopping mall. I had to spend half a day at the books section marveling at the wide range of books from academic textbooks to biographies to fiction that they have. The Universities also acts as a catalyst for NGOs, social and even political movements. For example, 'Partners in Health' which now operates in more than 20 developing countries across the world to cure infectious diseases was founded by Dr Paul Farmer when he was a Harvard medical student. The NGO is based in Boston and is largely fueled by Harvard student volunteers. Boston is also the birth place of ‘Health Leads’ which was founded by Harvard student Rebecca Onie, which now operates in 5 cities around United States to provide healthcare beyond the hospital walls. The organization is also largely student-driven, with volunteers from Harvard and Boston University. When the population of a city are largely made up of intellectuals, the people are open to new ideas and foreign culture. I still remember my years in Boston where we went from house to house in a large group for Marhaban during Eid and the people on the streets would greet us with ‘Happy Eid!’ and smiled and waved at us as we were crossing the road. In exchange, when their children went from house to house for trick or treats during Halloween, we gave them candies. There is acceptance of religion and culture because among intellectuals, the level of understanding is very high. We never get shallow debates about why my religion or culture is better than yours. What we get is volunteer services organized together by mosques, churches and synagogues that serves the same purpose of providing for the poor living in the city.

In University cities, learning happens all the time, inside or outside the classroom. I remembered one of the students in Harvard telling me that he’s having dinner with his study group and his Professor at a nearby restaurant before having their extra class at night. Then at one time I realize that many waiters and people behind the cashiers are part time workers and are actually university students. The girl behind the cashier reading the Constitution of the United States of America’? She’s actually a Harvard law student making ends meet by working as a part time cashier. Because the shops in University cities are catered for students, their working hours are very flexible and tailored towards their class schedules. It seems that the whole city is a communion between the university and the community.

University cities are not only achievable in developed nations. Even Bandung in Indonesia developed because of the existence of Padjajaran University, which is virtually embedded into the city. Ask anyone who has been to Bandung and they would say ‘Padjajaran University’ sounds familiar, or at least the black-yellow crest which became the logo and identity of Padjajaran University looks familiar. The university and the city depends on each other. We have faculty buildings scattered around the city, in between shopping malls and housing areas. When I was studying in Bandung, I was hanging out in a shopping mall and I met my Indonesian friend, asking her if she is out shopping, watching a movie or anything. She answered, oh no, she just went to the ‘free speech’ corner near the mall where crowds gather to hear some political science students talk about democracy. Do you ever get that in Malaysia? When the whole city is driven by the force of knowledge, smart things happen and we do not get too many stupid things happening. It also encourages students from different faculties to gather and communicate with each other. When there is more interaction between students of different fields, the spirit of interprofessional learning is very much alive. The openness of one faculty towards another allows me as a medical student to join an event organized by the Political Science faculty which finally ends up by finding myself one day inside the United Nations building in New York. Amazing things happen when we venture into other fields that seems foreign to us.

In Malaysia, we have UKM in Bangi. But Bangi is not a University city. Outside the UKM compound, Bangi is just another city. No bookshops founded by students. No study groups taking place at caf├ęs in shopping malls. No ‘free speech’ corner set up where crowds of people gather such as shopping malls. If UKM is wiped off Bangi, Bangi would still be Bangi. The students do not play a large role in the survival of the city. Same goes to Gombak which houses UIA. Gombak has always been Gombak even before UIA came, and people would relate Gombak more to the indigenous people living in Batu 12 than UIA. How about Tronoh which has UTP? Outside the UTP compound, Tronoh is basically a dead town. I do not like to write ideal things without coming up with a solution idea. So recently, almost all the major universities in Malaysia are given autonomy by the government, which essentially means they can do whatever they want to that is best for the university. Perhaps prior to being given autonomy, Universities are not given the independence to expand and assimilate university entities into the city, like turning the Co-op into a shopping mall, starting a business for students, allowing businesses to operate inside university compounds. This might sound like a foreign idea, but imagine a pharmaceutical company building its facilities inside the university compound, with open collaboration with the university. They would have all the financial resources as a business, and all the intellectual knowledge from the university. Students from the business faculty can learn about business there, and students of medicine, biomedical science and pharmacy can learn the latest advancements in medical drugs and research, thanks to the financial strength of a private company.

All this while we thought that universities are able to generate income through researches and patents. However, this proves to take a lot of time, a lot of trial and error, and the risks are too high. Many researches in the end do not generate income for the University. I know that money making should not be a priority for a University, but nowadays, for a research centre to flourish, they need to have a lot of financial support. Universities can no longer depend on the government for financial support. My suggestion is, other than developing cities for investors like the one we are going to have in Nusa Jaya, Johor, how about investing in University cities?. Develop Bangi, develop Gombak, develop Tronoh into a University city. The results wouldn’t be seen immediately, but it will in the long run. Do you know what Facebook, Microsoft and Apple have in common? They are all founded in university cities, by university dropouts. Because in a university city, dropping out of a university does not mean being expelled from the city. That is where their learning continues, and they continue to have the support of fellow intellectual friends that together spark off a digital revolution. University cities are a catalyst for greater things to happen. It is like a place where great mind gathers to make the world a better place. We should look at Universities not as a mechanical structure where lessons are taught but a ground for sparking change and revolutions driven by knowledge. Perhaps someday Malaysia will have its own University city. I am not a person in the position to make things as big as this happen, but if it happens someday, I am glad that someone up there in the social hierarchy finally echo my thoughts.  

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