Nation-building in higher education, but for whose future?

Higher education institutions across Asia have been adapting to the internationalisation process that has impacted upon the way in which universities operate in the region. Despite people’s eagerness to be a part of the borderless world of knowledge, technology and culture, there have been concerns that globalisation could potentially erode people’s sense of connection with their nation.

Bangladesh and Malaysia are two democratic Asian countries with a majority Muslim population. Both countries fought for their independence and have attempted to establish a shared national identity on the basis of cultural background. Unlike countries such as China and Vietnam, in which nationalism is grounded in socialist ideologies, nationalism in Bangladesh and Malaysia comes in the form of ethno-nationalism.

While the higher education landscape in these countries is being globalised, universities are also being required to deliver courses aimed at improving awareness of their nation’s historical development as well as promoting cross-cultural understanding to strengthen a spirit of national pride among their youth.

The case of Bangladesh

Bangladesh is a developing nation in South Asia with a long history of distinguishing its identity from neighbouring Pakistan, from which it gained independence in 1971. As a democratic state, changes in the ruling government often come with changes in national education policy, the school curriculum and textbooks.

Since the 1990s this practice has become more prevalent across primary and secondary levels of education, but not so much at the higher education level. However, since the present government – the Bangladesh Awami League – came to power in 2008, it has made many efforts to reform the education sector.

Recently, the University Grants Commission introduced a mandatory course known as ‘History of the Emergence of Independent Bangladesh’ for all undergraduate students across all public and private universities. The explicit goal of this course is to raise students’ awareness of the historical development of independent Bangladesh.

The course highlights Bangladesh’s spirit of independence, particularly the Liberation War in 1971, by inspiring students to uphold that spirit without compromise. The contents of the course focus on: Bengal under British rule; Pakistan’s inequality and exploitation; the development of Bengali nationalism and the nationalist movement; the Liberation War and the birth of independent Bangladesh; and Bangladesh and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The Malaysian case

Ever since the formation of Malaysia in 1963, there has been a need to unite the newly formed nation’s multi-ethnic society that was left divided by the previous British administration.

Increasing dissatisfaction among the majority Malays and the minority non-Malays over differences in protecting their respective political and economic interests led to racial riots in 1969, which became a painful reminder for the nation of the importance of maintaining a harmonious society.

Among efforts made to foster a sense of national unity and patriotism was the introduction of the General Subjects (Mata Pelajaran Pengajian Umum) Framework across all public and private higher education institutions in Malaysia.

Both local and international students were required to complete several compulsory courses alongside their degree such as ‘Ethnic Relations’ as well as ‘Islamic Civilisation and Asian Civilisation’. In 2022, these subjects were replaced with ‘Appreciation of Ethics and Civilisations’ and ‘Philosophy and Current Issues’.

In the ‘Appreciation of Ethics and Civilisations’ course students are introduced to theories of ethics and various civilisations that are relevant within the multicultural context of Malaysia. Meanwhile, the subject ‘Philosophy and Current Issues’ introduces students to various philosophical concepts and the way they relate to current issues in Malaysia.

Unclear outcomes

In both countries, students who are pursuing their diploma and undergraduate studies are required to complete these courses. However, it remains unclear whether the delivery of these courses across higher education institutions has successfully developed students’ sense of patriotism towards their nation.

Although there are formative and summative assessments in these courses, obtaining a high score does not necessarily reflect students’ efforts and passion in participating in the nation- building process.

Students may merely engage in a ‘performative act’ of demonstrating the supposedly ideal qualities of a patriotic citizen in order to obtain a pass mark for that course. This could also mean that students are unable to authentically express their personal opinions and perspectives in debates or essays as they fear that doing so could penalise them.

Students may also regard these courses as unimportant because they have encountered similar content during their primary and secondary education.

The perceived importance of these courses also diminishes when grades are not given in some universities, which reduces students’ motivation to treat them seriously when they do not directly contribute additional value to their education and skill sets.

Without any clear measurable outcomes, it is difficult to ascertain whether the implementation of these subjects in higher education have purposefully served the government’s nation-building agenda.

When critical thinking challenges the national agenda

The purpose of higher education is to develop students’ ability to think critically. However, this could bring unintended consequences as students learn to critique and challenge nationalist policies and messages instead of internalising them.

These mandatory courses may be perceived by students as serving the political interests of the government rather than developing skills that are directly relevant for their self- development.

Thus, they may not necessarily agree with the state’s version of nationalism that is being delivered through the courses. It is possible that students may either have a different notion of nationalism or may question the relevance of nationalism in today’s globalising world.

For example, different opinions about the continuity of Malaysia’s affirmative action policies could emerge in a multi-ethnic classroom setting, thus hindering the Malaysian government’s attempts to foster national unity while privileging the interests of the dominant ethnic Bumiputeras [Malays, the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia and various indigenous peoples of East Malaysia].

News about politicians being frequently charged in court for corruption and other misconduct also becomes ammunition for students to criticise the government or political leaders for their failure to uphold the same ethical values that are being taught on the syllabus.

At the extreme end, this could lead to student-organised protests in countries like Bangladesh and Malaysia. Students may argue that participating in national protests is a demonstration of their patriotism and aspirations for a better future in the nation.

More ways to build a nation

Nationalism is indeed an important part in any nation-building process, but it cannot be a panacea that magically unites the entire nation without understanding the complexity of its society and respecting its cultural diversity.

In today’s globalising world, governments cannot assume that cultivating nationalist sentiments among their citizens is a simple top-down approach whereby people absorb these messages without question. Politicians should first lead by example as role models before expecting their citizens to do the same.

Students today are also faced with pressing issues such as the rising cost of living, job insecurity and income inequality as they leave university. These issues directly affect their daily lives as members of society and cannot be resolved by being more nationalistic. For them, securing their basic needs is a greater priority than expressing their devotion towards their nation.

Indeed this raises the question of who truly benefits from the agenda surrounding the promotion of nationalism in higher education – young people or political elites?

Brendan Ch’ng recently completed his PhD in the Faculty of Education at the University of Malaya in Malaysia. Mohammod Moninoor Roshid is a professor of English language education in the Institute of Education and Research (IER) at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh. He also is working as a visiting academic at Universiti Brunei Darussalam. Ngô Thi Diem Hang is teaching as a registered teacher in South Australia and doing research as an affiliated lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Sciences at Vietnam National University in Hanoi. Her research interests include folklore studies, religion studies, cultural anthropology and Vietnamese as additional language and heritage language. Meng Liu holds a PhD in translation studies. Currently, he is an associate professor in the College of International Studies at Yangzhou University in China. This article is part of the ‘Asian Higher Education Changes: Perspectives From Within’ series initiated by the International and Comparative Education Research Group at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (ICE@UBD).