Reinforcing the role of universities

Universities play an integral role in educating, generating research findings, producing compassionate and ethical global citizens, and equipping learners with technological competencies for the digital world.

Higher education leaders presented their views during the public forum on the ‘Role of the University in Digital Transformation’ at the WOU City Campus on 28 January 2023. About 50 people attended the event organised by WOU’s George Town Institute of Open and Advanced Studies (GIOAS).

Part of the attendees at the forum.

The panelists were Prof Dr Lily Chan, Vice Chancellor of WOU; Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar, Chairman of INCEIF (The International Centre for Education in Islamic Finance);  Prof Alexander Zehnder from Nanyang Technological University of Singapore(NTU); and Prof Dato’ Dr Faisal Rafiq Mahamd Adikan, former Vice Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

Tan Sri Azman shared that universities have a threefold function: solve society’s problems by providing knowledge, research and talents; equip students to earn a decent living; and create better human beings.

He said universities could also be a convening platform for the networking of academics, students and industry to tackle societal concerns. He stressed that universities must embrace digitisation if they are to produce employable graduates. “For better human beings and better human capital with ethics, the crucibles are the universities.”

Tan Sri Azman (second from left) expounds on the functions of a university.

Prof Zehnder remarked that good universities are those with curiosity-driven research, as this can lead to real findings and breakthroughs.  Secondly, universities must educate the future leaders, and people who are “highly flexible, highly adaptive”, besides producing socially compatible human beings.

“Universities should be the ideological free space in the world, and must fight to keep that freedom of ideology,” he asserted.

He cited graphical data that showed that the more money invested by countries in higher education and research, the higher the GDP of that country. “So if you educate your people right, if you give them all these degrees of freedom, the whole society will, at the end of the day, profit from it,” he summed up. “Universities have their huge strengths, and must be supported.”

Prof Zehnder and Prof Faisal (right).

Prof Faisal said that the university’s roles are social mobility through graduate employability, serving as a test bed for social experiments, and making upstanding citizens. He opined that universities need the support of industries to create industry-ready talents, clarifying that industries can donate or loan technological equipment for students to become familiar with, in view of the fast-changing work environment.

He highlighted that universities should balance technology adoption with the students’ engagement with peers, academics and other stakeholders, and concluded, “Universities are still relevant to help young students discover themselves and prevent mental health problems.”

Prof Chan shared her aspiration to position WOU as an open and flexible distance and digital learning university that provides working adults access to quality education.

Prof Chan talks about the open, flexible and digital learning at WOU.

Special guest speaker Prof Lai Choy Heng from the National University of Singapore (NUS) said universities must serve as examples that digital transformation works by providing enhanced student experiences and nurturing the learners’ adaptability to different environments.

He warned against the zealous pursuit of digital technologies at the university, and called for constant reflection on the adoption so that the university stays true to its educational goals.

The forum was moderated by WOU Board of Governors Chairman Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Koon.

The panellists with Tan Sri Dr Koh (centre) and Prof Lai (seated far right).
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