‘Free’ the education system
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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