Are universities showing symptoms of a captive mind? (Credit: Fran_kie / Shutterstock)

Captive minds

Published on 26 April 2021 Go back to The ACU Review

Universities need to look beyond global rankings to critically re-examine their role in society.

By Chang Da Wan, Universiti Sains Malaysia

Malaysia, like many nations of the global south, is no stranger to imperial rule. Between the 16th and 20th centuries, it passed through the hands of the Portuguese, Dutch and British, all on a spree to expand their domination. This imperialism, argued Malaysian academic Syed Hussein Alatas, has six common traits: exploitation, tutelage, conformity, hierarchy, the existence of an intellectual rationalisation, and the quality ­– or not – of the ruling individuals. In this final point, Alatas argues that the administrators sent to govern the colonies were often ‘inferior talents’, deemed dispensable in their home countries and deployed instead to faraway colonies.

The identification of these traits is important because many universities, and the systems within which they operate today, were established by colonial powers. This colonial legacy extends far beyond buildings and structures to shape the philosophy, traditions and practices on which universities are built.

In Malaysia, as in many Commonwealth countries, the oldest universities were established by the British colonial government. And from the very beginning, these universities had different aims to the societies in which they were located. While many carried the title ‘university’, their raison d'être was to create a cadre of trained locals who were able to support the local administration of the colonies. Subjects like philosophy, theology, law, and politics remained exclusively out of the picture. In other words, the colonial university was expected to produce civil servants, professionals and high-level technicians but not, importantly, thinkers, scholars or public intellectuals. Indeed, in the colonial context, liberal (enlightened and educated) and rebellious were synonymously considered a threat.

A changing of the guards

While the recent focus on decolonising higher education found public attention through social movements such as Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter, it’s important to recognise that the struggle for decolonisation in many societies began as early as the 19th century. As such, universities in postcolonial societies have experienced different ways and degrees of decolonisation.

In Africa, for instance, the Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani has argued that universities continue to be driven largely by the ideology and traits of colonialism, rather than grounded in the needs and context of the societies in which they are located. As such, under the pretext of decolonisation, affirmative action often took the form of mere substitution to preserve the university’s colonial framework.

In Malaysia, a parallel can be observed. Affirmative action, which followed race-related protests and a shift towards nationalism known as ‘Malayanisation’, proved to be merely a token of change, substituting foreigners with locals in universities. The fundamental structure of the university remained intact and ‘decolonisation’ was nothing more than a changing of the guards.

These common experiences underline profound questions around what needs to decolonise and how. In his work on intellectual imperialism, Syed Hussein Alatas introduced the idea of the ‘captive mind’, which he defined as an ‘uncritical and imitative mind dominated by an external source, whose thinking is deflected from an independent perspective’. Academics across the world have argued that universities continue to show symptoms of a captive mind, pointing to the dominance of Eurocentric paradigms and a detachment from local societies and their concerns. This collective captive mind has arguably left universities vulnerable to new forms of colonisation and dominance.

Rankings or recolonisation?

Instead of military prowess, these new forms of colonialism are driven by a neoliberal ideology that promotes a free and self-regulating market. Over the last two decades, we have witnessed a retreat of the state on funding, increased privatisation and marketisation, intensified international competition, the growing adoption of corporate-style management, and a shift to an even narrower focus of university education centred on market-driven skills.

If the colonialism of the 19th and 20th centuries forced locals to be subservient through guns and warships, universities and academics are now brought to their knees by global university rankings. These rankings, derived from crude and easily manipulable data, have become the measure of university performance and quality.

The annual announcements of global university rankings by different for-profit companies have become both the most-anticipated and most-feared occasions for universities around the world. An improvement in ranking position triggers massive celebration with much publicity to announce the supposed betterment of performance and quality. Conversely, a drop in position of even a few rungs means that heads may roll. Yet the uncritical mind of universities has failed to ask even the most basic question: how can we rank the future performance and quality of a university? Did we realise that the announcement in 2020 is for the rankings of 2021?

Although the university prides itself on being an intellectual institution that houses society’s most esteemed statisticians, mathematicians, and public intellectuals, this new form of recolonisation has tightened the captive mind in many universities. We seem to have lost our basic ability to question how such important measures of performance and quality can be computed based largely on reputational surveys and without statistical basis.

Sadly, the impact of global university rankings is particularly damaging for universities in Malaysia and other postcolonial societies. The fundamental problem with rankings is that all universities are now expected to fit into a prescribed framework. More detrimentally, this framework is determined by for-profit companies and prescribed to universities around the world to meekly adhere to, regardless of their purpose or location.

Framed as a form of competition, these ranking exercises force universities in the global south to invest in the business of international knowledge production. Academics are required to publish their work, including research funded by public money, in international journals, which in turn require universities to pay thousands in subscription fees to access. The man on the street, whose taxes funded the research, will not have access to the knowledge generated due to subscription barriers. Furthermore, the research deemed suitable for these international journals is often far removed from the needs of local societies.

A rich man illustrated standing on piles of coins | Credit: Fran Kie at Shutterstock (1)

A new intellectual rationale

If university rankings are the brute force used to recolonise the university, ‘employability’ has become the new intellectual rationale. The concept of university education and its purpose in society has now been further narrowed down to the concept of ‘employability’. This concept is complex and multi-dimensional, and is highly dependent on factors beyond the control of universities. Yet the forces of neoliberalism have redefined and commodified the university into a factory for human capital, offering quality-assured training for the labour market. (Take note, education is not part of the equation.)

The concept of employability is also context specific. As Mahmood Mamdani aptly articulated: ‘In our single-minded pursuit to create centres of learning and research of international standing, we had nurtured researchers and educators who had little capacity to work in surrounding communities but who could move to any institution in any industrialised country and serve any privileged community around the globe with comparative ease’. Let me extend that further to say that the recolonisation of universities – through the indoctrination of employability as the key measure of output and worth – serves to maintain the status quo of brain drain from the global south to the global north. In other words, graduates from these universities are trained for jobs in a more advanced economy, but may not have the knowledge, skills and capability to contribute meaningfully to the society to which they belong.

So, how can universities free themselves from the captive mind? The first crucial step is for the university to critically re-examine its role as a societal institution with the purpose to preserve, understand, advance and disseminate intellectual, scientific, and artistic heritage across generations. A university that fails to be rooted in the society which has entrusted it with these purposes will never succeed in becoming a core part of that society. To use the analogy of a tree: when the role and purpose of a university is grounded and rooted in society, the fruits produced from this tree, be it knowledge or students, will be of worth to the society it serves. Then, and only then, the mission to decolonise our universities can truly and meaningfully be accomplished.


Chang Da Wan is Director of the National Higher Education Research Institute at the Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Images by Fran_kie at Shutterstock