MURRAY Hunter’s report headlined “The Collapse of Malaysian Private Universities”? in the Asia Sentinel on April 2,2020 on the state of the private higher education industry in Malaysia, surely generated much concern.
The Asian Sentinel is a Hong Kong-based publication that has published not necessarily positive articles on Malaysian Higher Education in 2016 and 2019. While it must be admitted there are some facts in this article that highlighted the fact that the Covid–19 crises is potentially catastrophic, the report used data from a private university research conducted in late 2018.
Now, is there any truth to this report as sensational as it may sound? Maybe there is some truth, but it is not all gloom and doom. The preferred way is to move forward addressing these problems constructively rather than writing articles so negative that they destroy confidence and do more harm than good.
It is probably a fact that many institutions lack the financial infrastructure to survive the troubled times. While private higher education has really opened doors to many who might have never been able to get a higher education, some of them have suffered due to economic downturns and a mismatch between supply and demand of human resources.
Some of them have been loss-making for years and they have been unable to have access to raising capital. All the usual challenges in any industry are bound to impact those who do not adapt to the changes.
I have personally experienced both success and turnaround situations in this field. I understand how challenging and stressful it can be to students, academic staff and investors. The current pandemic Covid-19 crisis is serious. International student enrollment may taper off given the travel restrictions. Social distancing may affect the way classes are conducted.
Funding will be almost certainly required to manage short term cash flows if we are to save academic quality, jobs and future talent pipelines for the country.
The government has repeatedly emphasised that staff are not to be retrenched or forced to take annual leave. Private higher education institutions operating on tight budgets and depending entirely on student fees will need some financial support. There is a need to structure funding requirements and channel organisational responses to address the challenges that emerge from this serious crisis.
The current government seems to have the best interest of the rakyat as well as private sector businesses at heart. It’s support in terms of a wage subsidy scheme with the economic stimulus package has been announced as part of the PERKESO Employment Insurance scheme.
The Malaysian National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) has continued to pay promptly and announced deferred student debt repayments to manage the sharp angularities of the crisis.
While these efforts will indeed help during this crisis, I believe the private higher education institutions will continue to look to the government to provide additional support to the industry that is responsible for educating almost half of Malaysia’s future workforce.
At the industry level, most universities and colleges have switched to online learning. Despite the glitches during the early days of the MCO, such as the Ministry putting a hold on online learning due to the fear that some students in rural areas may not be able to access the online learning, things are going smoother now.
There is a need to rapidly innovate in a situation that is constantly changing by the day and an urgent need to save the industry. On the positive side, there is going to be an upsurge in demand for certain skills post this pandemic crisis. On the positive side, private education or education for-profit sector, has played a great role in providing equitable access to education for the communities they serve.
I too am very optimistic about higher education in particular, private sector education. Does that mean there are no challenges or that those in higher education, and more specifically the private sector, have no worries?
Obviously not. There are many worries and concerns, just as any other sector would have. We will have to respond to those challenges in an innovative way to address worries such as:Improving employment outcomes: There is a need for a hybridisation of vocational and higher education to ensure proper employability outcomes. We need to ensure proper human resources planning by looking at both the demand and supply side of the equation.
Higher education will have to address and maybe mitigate the growing landscape of economic and social inequities. This can only be achieved with industry partnerships.
This is one of the reasons why I emphasise that we have to uplift communities with equitable access to quality education.
In Malaysia, the public universities have seen their budgets cut while the private universities have been constantly worried whether access to student financing will remain stable.
Private universities have been dependent on student fees for their income and are challenged by demographic headwinds, rising costs, lack of job growth and wage stagnation.
Some of the larger private players have tried to find additional sources of income from complementary education such as executive education. There needs to be a concerted focus on advocacy from all sectors of higher education to increase funding in education.
Partnering with public and international universities:
The larger public universities and international universities that are ranked will always have an advantage, but they will be limited in scaling their operations due to budget and facilities. Partnering with one of these universities will enable the development of the private higher education industry.
Finding additional sources of revenue:
There is a dire need to upskill and retrain employees post pandemic crisis as well as achieve the target of skilled workforce to reach the developed nation status.
The private higher education institutions governed by the Ministry and the various agencies are well regulated. They can play a role in retraining and upskilling the nation’s workforce as part of the Human Resources Development Fund, the Vocational Training agency and the various agencies. Executive Education can also be a source of revenue. With the trend towards digitalisation, these institutions can play a valuable role.
Moving away from Regulatory hurdles to Facilitating Innovation:
Being smaller in size compared to public institutions does have some advantages when it comes to pivoting strategy almost instantaneously to deal with a crisis on the horizon. It is this nimbleness that has seen private higher education institutions continue to be at the forefront of challenging the paradigm of education in Malaysia. From pioneering 3+0 collaborations with foreign institutions, to driving a focus on employability, from exploring international markets to pushing the envelope on technology driven programme delivery, private institutions have played a key contributing role since the late 90s.
I wish to highlight that from the moment the Covid-19 was viewed as a national crisis, our institution had already issued contingencies plan to deal with a potential campus-wide breakout. When the Movement Control Order was announced, it only took the university faculty two days to pivot about 80% of our teaching and learning activities to an online medium.
Almost overnight, our entire student population had woken up to a whole new type of institution. Our Faculties of course had to liaise closely with the regulators as well as a myriad of professional bodies to ensure any action we took was in line with accepted practices.
Our quick decision aided by innovation by the teaching staff themselves have helped ensure our student body was not left in a lurch mid-way through their education.
Most of the private higher education institutions in Malaysia are owned by business entities and managed as for-profit, social enterprises. Being a business-oriented organisation gives these institutions particular appreciation for “market needs”.
Private institutions have time and again championed the development of new, market-centric programmes that are closely developed with industry players so that graduates would have higher employability.
This year alone, the University of Cyberjaya expects to strategically increase its undergraduate programmes by 25% while being committed to discontinue programmes that we believe will no longer contribute to graduate employability.
Tan Sri R. Palan is the pro-chancellor of University of Cyberjaya. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.
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