Real-world perspectives are topics that academicians can get carried away with. A few years back I delivered a keynote speech at the Symposium of Islamic Finance Education Ecosystem and Quality Assurance. It was an exciting event with an opportunity to meet with leaders in Islamic Finance and Banking, both from academia and the industry.
In the context of social science research, I emphasised the need to balance theory and practice. I highlighted that it is crucial for academicians to have a good understanding of what is happening in the real world prior to further deliberations on the issues discussed.
When I was a young lecturer, I took pride in presenting papers around the world. The joy of rubbing shoulders and getting feedback from the gurus in my discipline was like meeting members of my all-time favourite rock band, Metallica.
Similar excitement surfaced when my article was accepted for publication in the International Journal of Accounting Information System, the highest-ranked journal in my field of study. It was one of my greatest achievements and the culmination of countless hours, days and nights of reading, researching, drafting, writing and re-writing.
Nevertheless, I felt like something was missing.
There was a gap between writing for publication and writing for satisfaction. During those early years, I also endeavoured to write articles for professional magazines such as Accountants Today. The articles were simplified versions of my academic works which were professional-friendly. Unlike my academic papers, I received emails from readers within a week after the articles were published.
My insights and discussions were further criticised and debated by the professional accountants. This provided me with a sense of achievement and fulfilment. Slowly but surely, the importance of having a relationship with the industry dawned upon me. I took the challenge to engage as a part-time trainer cum consultant with a world-leading business intelligence company.
Dare I say, it was one of the most crucial experiences in my academic career. Beyond training and consulting, the gig entailed providing solutions to problems faced by Government Linked Companies and Multinational Companies. Such experience gave me a deeper appreciation of the real-world challenges and renewed perspectives on how to enhance my classroom lessons.
Over the years, I built up solid networking with industry players and even became good friends with some Chief Executive Officers and Managing Directors of reputable companies. My industry network became an important asset upon being appointed as Dean of the Graduate School of Business. I was able to call upon ten corporate-sector figures to become the School’s Industry Advisory Panels.
We also created a new scheme called adjunct faculty members, consisting of those holding managerial positions in the corporate sector, to teach the Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) classes. That helped us inject more practical elements into our curriculum as well as delivery. It also helped us build our reputation among the industry players.
What we need in the academic world is a connection and this is the missing gap. Rafael Reif, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed the secret to MIT’s success is collaboration. He further stated, “…MIT built its reputation for serious innovation by translating basic science into concepts and technologies to serve the society”. Similarly, Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School once said, “nothing that we do that is not relevant”.
The keywords are collaboration and relevant. Without a doubt, we want our lecturers and researchers to be imaginative and innovative while being referred to and respected by the industries. Research results must benefit the society while at the same time be farsighted – or as President Faust of Harvard University once shared that research must “…foster restless scepticism and unbounded intellectual curiosity yet innovative enough to imagine a world different from the one in which we live now”.
Hence, we must move away from an obsession with publications per se but focuses on a balance between quality research and practical applications. Similarly, rankings and ratings are important but they are by-products of high-quality education. When high-quality education is in place, good ranking and rating will come naturally.
Ultimately, we aspire our students to leave us as transformed persons, those who are not only responsible for their businesses or organisations they work with but also liable for the consequences of their actions to the environment and society at large. I wrote a poem about a decade ago and read it once during a keynote speech at an international conference. I read it again at the symposium, albeit only in a small section. The title of the poem is ‘We are proud…but have we ever thought?’
The gist of the poem is about those who benefit from our research, our presence at various conferences and our publications in academic journals. Other than helping us climb the academic ladder, how does our effort positively impact society? It is a hard question. After reading it, I paused and looked around to see the reaction of the audience; it was a mixed reaction. Some were nodding, some were shaking their heads while the rest just stared at me.
At that moment, I wanted to dive into their minds to really understand what is going on. From the stage, it struck me that it will take some time to break free of the academic world’s orthodox beliefs and practices.
That said, I believe the higher education institutions must work together with the industries to deliver a comprehensive educational experience. Industries provide real-life experiences and cater to an immediate productivity-economic need, while academia provides theoretical appreciation which is not merely technical in content but encompasses arts, humanities, history, sociology and more. Only then, we will be relevant, referred and respected.