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The decline of undergraduate education

By Murray Hunter - posted Thursday, 3 November 2022

Ask any retired academic who taught undergraduates in higher education institutions, almost anywhere in the world, and they will tell you teaching standards have drastically declined over the last few decades.

In the US, UK, and Australia, the prime reason standards have declined was the need of faculties to find funding from new sources. For business and other social science faculties, this meant creating more courses and taking in massive numbers of full-fee paying foreign students, with relatively poor English proficiency.

Today, where everything is online, the old days of students physically going to libraries and searching for articles and books in physical locations have long gone. One would have expected that with so much information at everyone's fingertips, there would be higher mastery today over knowledge.


The opposite is happening. Students today, with very short-term attention spans need to be spoon fed. They are guided through set textbooks, with the objective of passing exams.

On the teaching side, Objective based evaluation (OBE), Bloom's Taxonomy, and ISO standards are forcing very tight and concise curriculums, leaving very little room to explore important issues in depth. Instead of raising the standard of learning, these controls have brough teaching down to the lowest common denominator. This is the exact opposite to what was intended. Lecturers are spending too much work on administrating and writing reports on there classroom work, rather than exploring their subjects more.

University requirements for lecturers to have PhD qualifications, was expected to lift the standard of lecturers. Parameters like industry experience, networking, and esteem within the discipline are not valued enough by university faculties. The narrow PhD requirement is filling lecture rooms with specialists rather than generalists who have a wide knowledge of their disciplines, much better attuned towards undergraduate education. This means that many lecturers are given teaching assignments on subjects they have little direct knowledge on.

The lecturers today, due to being switched and swapped around subjects is putting lecturers in front of students, who have little passion for the subject content they are teaching. Undergraduate education is losing lecturer speciality. This is costing student experience within the teaching process dearly, when they are sitting in front of lecturers without a passion for what they are teaching.

This is particularly the situation in Malaysia, where higher education particularly within business and social science are in rapid decline.

Malaysia is no different


The advent and growth of private higher education is a business rather than being primarily concerned with the pursuit of knowledge. Public universities have been concerned with putting together courses on skimpy budgets, and shortages of qualified lecturers.

Some examples of what we are seeing in Malaysian higher education today, as personally witnessed by the writer include:

  • Many curriculums are developed through cutting and pasting curriculum from other universities around the world. In fields not limited to business, entrepreneurship and psychology, there are grave contextual and situation differences between conditions in developed countries and those in Malaysia. Consequently, local curriculum in some subjects can be misleading and inaccurate for the condition in Malaysia.
  • Some curriculum is simply based upon a single or two textbooks. This means the syllabus is restricted to what the textbook authors thought was important. In some subjects like development economics, the curriculum may even have some slant towards particular political ideologies.
  • The actual work experience of many lecturers doesn't match the content they are teaching. For example, very few entrepreneurship lecturers have actually been entrepreneurs themselves. Therefore, teaching is reduced to just disseminating and conveying information from a textbook to students. The writer has personally seen administrative staff promoted to the position of a lecturer, with no direct academic qualification related to the subject matter they are assigned to teach. A Master of Public Administration is not an MBA.
  • Lecturers today are finding it difficult to cope with Gen Z. This is a major weakness in undergraduate education, where solutions are needed. Faculties must make a stand on this, a sacrifice quantity. A degree is a token of mastery, not just a paper qualification. Faculties must ask themselves the question of whether they want to just become a degree mill or actually develop and nurture the knowledge and wisdom of the students they take on.
  • Too often MBA programs are very reflective on the bachelor degrees taught in the same faculty. There is very little difference between Organization Behaviour 101 taught undergraduate to Organization Behaviour 501 taught in an MBA.
  • Graduate students are often encouraged to enrol in MBAs straight after BBA graduation, without gaining any work experience, just to fill in place numbers in their course. Good MBA programs require students to have a few years work experience before they are eligible to enrol in any MBA. Work experience greatly enhances a students' understanding of a discipline, which allows for lecturers teaching MBA subjects in much greater depth. One of the qualities of a good MBA program is that students with careers are able to network. However, all Malaysian students get to network with are foreign students who just don't want to go home.
  • Lecturers are instructed by faculty deans to pass all students. Any students who fail are blamed upon the lecturers. Therefore, there is great pressure on lecturers to give pass grades.
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This article was first published on Murray Hunter.

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About the Author

Murray Hunter is an associate professor at the University Malaysia Perlis. He blogs at Murray Hunter.

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