‘Free’ the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem

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THE Pe­nang Free School (PFS), said to be the old­est English school in South­east Asia, cel­e­brated its 200th an­niver­sary last week. Many Old Frees con­verged at the school com­pound from near and far to share great mo­ments at the “school for schol­ars, sports­men and gen­tle­men”.

Guest of hon­our was the Raja of Perlis, Tuanku Syed Si­ra­jud­din Tuanku Syed Pu­tra Ja­malul­lail. An Old Free him­self, he un­der­scored some of the con­tri­bu­tions of the school to the na­tion and Pe­nang over a cen­tury and half be­fore Merdeka. It is no won­der guests were beam­ing with pride.

The word “Free” makes the school unique in that it is the only such school in the coun­try although “Free” is of­ten mis­un­der­stood to mean non­pay­ing school. The word refers to the in­clu­sive na­ture of the school and thus ed­u­ca­tion. It is about ed­u­cat­ing the younger gen­er­a­tion to be good cit­i­zens with an all rounded ed­u­ca­tion; teach­ing them to re­spect each other’s dif­fer­ences and valu­ing di­ver­sity.

This is the is­sue to­day in Malaysia’s ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. In a man­ner of speak­ing, it is “unFree” when it is frag­mented into five types of school rang­ing from na­tional to the ver­nac­u­lar; the re­li­gious to in­de­pen­dent; as well as in­ter­na­tional school to name a few. Worst still when there is no room for mean­ing­ful in­ter­ac­tions and face-to­face in­ter­min­gling to make in­clu­sive­ness work in op­ti­mal and prac­ti­cal ways. Much has been said about this is­sue which is gnaw­ing at the fab­ric of so­ci­ety with lit­tle suc­cess to make it “free”. Even as PFS con­tin­ues to buck the trend in the midst of it all, it is by and large ig­nored as just an­other school.

The Old Frees may be ju­bi­lant that there will be no name change as an­nounced at the cel­e­bra­tion but in re­al­ity the im­pact was hardly felt na­tion­wide. The Free school model is still an iso­lated model that has not been in­flu­en­tial enough to be main­streamed na­tion­ally.

Yet lis­ten­ing to the new vicechan­cel­lor of Univer­siti Sains Malaysia, Prof Datuk Asma Is­mail, at the univer­sity’s re­cent con­vo­ca­tion, she clearly reaf­firmed the mes­sage of in­clu­sive­ness as one of its core val­ues. USM has stood firm in pro­mot­ing di­ver­sity in line with the pol­icy framed by the four pil­lars of learn­ing for the 21st cen­tury pro­moted by Unesco.

The in­clu­sive­ness ex­tended to fron­tiers of knowl­edge when she said de­spite be­ing a sci­ence-based univer­sity, the teach­ing of hu­man­i­ties and the so­cial sciences are equally val­ued. It is not siloed or com­part­men­talised into rigid dis­ci­plines as con­ven­tion­ally prac­tised. Rather they are in­te­grated as part of trans­dis­ci­plinary learn­ing or co-learn­ing as it is en­vis­aged to­day. She said the acro­nym STEM (sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics) is to be read in USM as STEAM with the “A” in­serted to stand for the Arts, namely Hu­man­i­ties and So­cial Sciences.

Com­ing from an ac­com­plished sci­en­tist lead­ing a premier sci­ence­based univer­sity the mes­sage is un­mis­tak­enly bold and “free”. In fact, the term “free” is equally ap­pli­ca­ble to a univer­sity as ex­em­pli­fied by the Berlin Free Univer­sity or Freie Univer­sität Berlin with “Free­dom as a Found­ing Im­pulse”. The univer­sity was founded in 1948 by pro­fes­sors and stu­dents in re­sponse to the per­se­cu­tion in the days when the Soviet Union was lord­ing over one part of the di­vided city.

The prin­ci­ples of free­dom and in­ter­na­tion­al­ity (read: in­clu­sive) have guided the univer­sity’s de­vel­op­ment ever since with its aca­demic ethos de­fined by three val­ues: truth, jus­tice, and free­dom.

It is no co­in­ci­dence that in 2007, Freie Univer­sität Berlin was se­lected in the “Ex­cel­lence Ini­tia­tive” jointly spon­sored by the Ger­man fed­eral govern­ment and the gov­ern­ments of the fed­eral states. In 2012, it was se­lected again un­der the sec­ond round of the same ini­tia­tive.

It is in­ter­est­ing to note that the Apex Ini­tia­tive that USM won in 2008 is Malaysia’s equiv­a­lent to the “Ex­cel­lence Ini­tia­tive”, tak­ing its in­spi­ra­tion from the Ger­man model. While the no­tion of a Free Univer­sity can be re­garded as an ex­pan­sion of the Free School, it is very much an evo­lu­tion of the lat­ter in bring­ing the ethos of ed­u­ca­tion to its full po­ten­tial in a holis­tic man­ner.

As such it is even more in­ter­est­ing to note that the Raja of Perlis, who is an Old Free, is also the chan­cel­lor of USM mean­ing to say that the Apex dream is within reach if only the guid­ing prin­ci­ples of “Free Univer­sity” be­come the cor­ner­stone of the USM lead­er­ship.

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