More does not mean better

WHEN I was a young boy, the thought of making it to a university was a mere dream for most of my peers.

Access to higher education was limited in the country.

Those who were accepted into the local universities back then were often considered the creme de la creme.

Openings in public universities that existed then, such as Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan and Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (now known as Universiti Putra Malaysia), for a basic degree were limited.

Those who were financially well-off would be sent overseas for higher education. The number was small back then.

Another alternative to public universities then was government-run teaching colleges. Even these were limited.

Again, only the best would gain entry into teaching colleges and many of Malaysia’s former leaders were products of these teachers’ colleges.

As the country progressed over the last 40 years, so did opportunities for higher education.

More public universities were established. Over the past 20 years, a public university was established in every state, including Unimas in Sarawak.

Still, seats in public universities were limited. As a young country progressing towards its vision of being a developed nation and a regional hub for higher education, access to local higher education became a concern.

The Government allowed the establishment of private institutions of higher learning. It was in the late eighties, if I recall correctly, that private institutions of higher learning started establishing themselves in the country.

Among the pioneers were Stamford College and Inti College. These institutions started off offering pre-university courses such as A-Levels, foundation programmes and some diploma courses.

They then, with accreditation, began conducting twinning degree programmes, before moving on to conducting full-blown accredited degree and even postgraduate courses, under licence from foreign universities.

In 1999, two full-fledged private universities were established – the Multimedia University and Universiti Tenaga Negara (Uniten).

Many other private colleges and universities have mushroomed around the country since. Between 1999 and 2007 alone, 18 private universities were established, while hundreds of private colleges began operations, making it easier for Malaysians to pursue some form of higher education after leaving school.

Many countries have made the mistake of pursuing the goal of greater access to higher education, believing that the more a country’s citizens have access to higher education, the higher the earning power of its population, which in turn, ideally translates into the level of progress the country has achieved.

While a diploma or a basic degree has often been heralded as a gateway to better job opportunities, and accessibility to higher education is an indicator of a country’s progress, we often forget the fundamental conflict between access to and quality of education.

Inevitably, the more access people have to higher education, the more diluted the standards become.

Very recently, the Government announced a two-year moratorium on private colleges. Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin says that there are currently more than enough institutions of higher education in the country to cater to both local and national demand.

According to the ministry’s statistics, there are 37 private universities, 20 university-colleges, seven foreign branch campuses and 414 private colleges in the country as of November last year.

Because of the intense competition, some of these private institutions have fewer than 500 students and face a bleak future. Those who will inevitably face difficulties are the staff and students who are currently enrolled in these smaller colleges.

They face the possibility of being left in the lurch if the colleges are unable to continue their operations. We do not have to go far for an example. It has happened to Inti’s Sarawak campus.

The other problem, is of course, the quality or standard of education that some of these colleges offer.

Many new institutions of higher learning, eager to kick off their programmes and start earning from student intakes, hire lecturers who themselves are fresh out of universities with basic degrees and no industrial or relevant experience.

In pursuance of their goals to churn out “graduates” in numbers, quality teaching-learning is taken for granted.

The ministry also announced that it would carry out an audit, or sustainability revision of 10 private universities and university-colleges to ensure that they are up to mark.

The selection of these 10 institutions will be done based on the feedback of the public and industry players.

Among those that have been identified for the sustainability revision are Universiti Industri Selangor, Kolej Universiti Insaniah, Malaysian University of Science and Technology, Kolej Universiti Islam Selangor, Linton University College, Kuala Lumpur Metropolitan University College and Lincoln University College.

Our country is not the first in the world to have implemented some form of control on the establishment of new institutions of higher learning.

In November last year, Japanese Education Minister Makiko Tanaka rejected applications to create new universities in his country, citing that while there were many universities in Japan, the quality of education had deteriorated. There are currently 783 universities in Japan.

India is another example of a country with too many institutes of higher learning, too many graduates and questionable quality of education.

India has 427 universities that are registered and recognised within India itself, while there are thousands of other institutes throughout the country, mostly unrecognised.

Sadly, its graduates face a hard time getting jobs after graduation. A standing joke is that if you take a taxi in India, it is very likely that the cabbie has a PhD!

Even countries such as Canada, the United States of America and the United Kingdom are now reviewing their higher education policies so they do not involuntarily jeopardise quality over quantity.

I must say that the decision by the Higher Education Ministry is timely. I agree with the minister that we concentrate on the quality of the existing private institutions.

Yes, the emphasis should be on quality, not on quantity.

I dread the day when we have to come across postgraduates forced to earn a living as cabbies, van sapu drivers or street burger stall operators.

No? Just look at India or the Philippines.

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