Sustaining higher education

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Learning Curve: Perspective
New Sunday Times - 18-12-2011

THE Third Global Higher Education Forum, themed Reflecting On The Past, Designing Sustainable Future And Its Far-Reaching Implications, took place from Dec 13-15 in Penang.

This is at a time when universities face a challenging future made worse by shrinking public funding.

Indeed, financial resources seem to be the main determinant of how universities will be shaped in order to survive.

Currently,  many countries have resorted to increasing fees several folds even in areas that are traditionally not acceptable to do so.

Already there are alarming consequences.

Students are postponing their studies because of the need to earn enough money to pursue tertiary education.



Students from the Central University in Quito, Ecuador hurl stones at the police
during a demonstration calling on further government support for public education.


In some cases, reportedly, this has caused a drop in enrolment.

There are also massive protests. Students apply for various study loan schemes introduced by governments as a means to support access to higher education.

All these are indicative of tertiary institutions being at dire crossroads, should financial resources continue to diminish even further.

It is no wonder that in some countries, tertiary education institutions are forced to close down or merge to remain viable by cutting cost.

The situation is becoming vulnerable in countries that are experiencing a demographic shift towards an ageing population.

And internationalisation becomes a subtle strategy to stay afloat.

While workable options are running out, reflecting on the past may present new opportunities.

In the old days when universities were less commercialised and showed more commitment to the community and societal well-being -- a public good -- the issue of cost was not a major concern.

Indeed, governments were fully committed to supporting education as part of the basic rights of citizens.

There were charitable institutions which provided affordable, quality education. All these changed when education became big business operated by for-profit organisations which seek to cash in on the rising student demands.

Interestingly enough, if you look back on the world's oldest university, there is yet another model for sustaining the institution.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, one such model is a university in Fez, Morocco built in 859 CE by Fatima al-Fihri.

Originally known as the Al-Karaouine (Al-Qarawiyyin) mosque, it later became the University of Al-Karaouine to this day.

It is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest, continuously operating academic-degree granting institution of higher learning in the world.

Among the subjects taught, alongside the Quran and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), are grammar, rhetoric, logic, Medicine, Mathematics, Astronomy, Chemistry, Music, History and Geography.

Fatima was said to be the daughter of Mohammed al-Fihri, with whom she migrated to Fez from Qairawan in present-day Tunisia.

The university was made possible using the money inherited from her  father, a wealthy businessman.

It was intended as a waqf, which is understood broadly as "a system that stems from the idea of institutionalising voluntary giving in order to guarantee sustainability".

Institutions such as mosques, clinics, hospitals, welfare homes and schools have focused on investments for societal benefits as long as they are in compliance with what is permitted in Islam.

Only the income or profits generated from the capital investment can be utilised to fund sustainable community projects or programmes.

A waqf is a voluntary, permanent, irrevocable commitment of a portion of one's wealth to God, and it never gets gifted, inherited or sold.

Since it belongs to God, the corpus of the waqf always remains intact.

Waqf is a viable option to ensure the sustainability of universities and higher education institutions.

It is, without doubt, a feasible case of reflecting on the past to design the future.

- The writer is vice chancellor of Albukhary International University