PRIVATE higher education in Malaysia has, over the last five years or so, developed and matured into a robust sector capable of offering students viable alternatives to local public universities. As such, many colleges have carved a niche for themselves – from the courses offered to their brand of marketing – attracting a steady number of fresh students each year.
Help Institute academic director Dr Khong Kim Hoong says: “Generally, in Malaysia, you will find that the more reputable educational institutions make it a point to provide good educational services. Whether you want to or not, you have to, considering the close monitoring of the Education Ministry.
“Over the past two decades, we (the private education sector) have come a long way. The mere fact that Malaysia has a fairly large number of foreign students proves that we are a force to be reckoned with.”
Along with the continued development of our private education sector, however, there is mounting concern about the increasingly aggressive marketing by neighbouring countries, namely Thailand and Singapore, to promote their brand of privatised education.
Says Sedaya International College chief executive officer Peter Ng: “It is certainly a matter of increasing concern that the two countries, especially Singapore, appear not only to promote private education in their countries but also in Malaysia. However, Malaysia is no less a force to contend with and at this juncture, I do not think any country in the region can overtake us. We must not, however, rest on our laurels as it is a level playing field out there and we need to be vigilant.”
Need for proactive action
For most private college operators, the rising competition from neighbouring countries, though not a threat, is something not to be taken lightly.
“The economic report of Singapore indicates that they have about 50,000 international students. If that is true, then there are more international students studying in Singapore than in Malaysia. We must take note of the competition and find out how we can provide better opportunities for international students in Malaysia,” says Dr Lee Fah Onn, senior vice-president of Inti College Malaysia.
Dr Khong adds: “We need to continuously look for new ways and means of improving to remain competitive globally. It is always complacency, if nothing else, that will cause us to lag behind.
“This is something that we need to watch out for or there will be other countries in the region who may overtake us, not just Singapore and Thailand. Bear in mind that we always have to reckon with new players in the market. I believe that in the case of Thailand, they have not quite reached a level where we need to feel threatened. As for Singapore, it’s a different scenario.
“Theirs is a niche market. They have identified 10 (foreign) universities to work with Singaporean universities, offering programmes at graduate level. They are not catering for the world market, as we have opted to do. We are catering for a wider range of customers so we make it a point to look into this wider segment’s needs and tailor our education packages accordingly.”
Proactive policies and actions are needed to keep Malaysia in the forefront of providing first-rate education, both to Malaysians as well as to an international market, stresses Datuk Teo Chiang Liang, secretary-general of the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu).
He says: “Our authorities must be pro-active and review regulations and policies that are impeding the private higher education sector. Education is dynamic and employers' needs are not static. The nation's needs and global challenges need to be met.
“Students, both local and foreign, are mindful of their job opportunities after graduating and would prefer to study courses that meet employers' needs. Mapcu has been urging the ministry and LAN (National Accreditation Board) to consider new courses which are currently not encouraged because of a policy set in 2000 where new courses offered by new or current professional and non-professional bodies are not allowed to be conducted.
“Mapcu hopes that this policy will be reviewed expeditiously as education is dynamic and so are requirements of industry and employers.”
Students enrol cautiously
Many private colleges have up to three intakes per year and the January intake is usually popular among students who do not want to waste time waiting for their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia or Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia results to be out.
This year seems to be no different with colleges recording comparable, if not higher, enrolment figures for the first intake of the year.
“There has been a visible shift and a very positive one for students enrolling for the January intake in Taylor’s College. Our January enrolment saw an increase of 11% over the January 2002 numbers. We consider this a very healthy growth. Our January 2003 enrolment surpassed our projected number and we had to close registration for a number of programmes before commencement,” enthuses Taylor's College chief operating officer Anucia Jeganathan.
Sunway College principal Elizabeth Lee says: “Our January numbers are comparable to that of previous years and our college enrolment figures are looking fine.”
Help's intake in January rose, albeit marginally.
“The intake for the past three years has been quite constant but there was a slight increase this year. We believe that this is simply due to the fact that we have established ourselves in the education sector,” says Dr Khong.
However, while student numbers remain relatively unchanged, there is a notable shift in students' preferred overseas study destinations.
Whether due to the ominous political climate, the bleak economic outlook or any other reason, students have begun to shift their attention away from the United States and, to some extent, Britain, in favour of pursuing their degrees – especially degrees through twinning programmes – in Australia.
“My (Sunway's) American twinning programme numbers are affected, I suspect, by the general unease caused by the delays in obtaining visas for students, and by American policies and sentiments expressed about certain nationalities from our part of the world. Parents will also be cautious in enrolling their children in American degree programmes as they ask themselves, 'Should there be an outbreak of war, what would happen to our child's education as there are no opportunities to complete a US degree locally via a ‘4+0’ programme?'“ says Sunway's Lee.
The situation is the same at Help. “There has been a drop in the intake for our American degree programme, albeit not a very drastic one. The visa problem did discourage some students from enrolling in the programme last year. We are picking up but not fast enough,” says Khong.
Apart from visa problems, safety is a major concern of parents and students.
Joseph Adaikalam, president and chief executive of Binary College, says parents, especially, have become increasingly cautious in deciding a programme and institution for their children.
He adds: “I think parents are and will be reluctant to send their children overseas this year. The United States will be a definite no-no, and I think Australia is likely to benefit most. At our college, we have noticed an increased interest in 3+0 programmes and I think it is for security reasons – in the event of any unexpected events like war and even the lack of financial resources.”
Ng of Sedaya says: “No parent or student has mentioned any issue with regards to the looming war between the United States and Iraq. However, there is an increased interest in studying in Australia as opposed to the United States. This shift is noticeable but I am not sure if the reason for it is the threatening war.”
As a result of all this extra caution, the popularity of 3+0 programmes in many colleges has escalated.
Dr Khong says: “Some of our departments, such as Help's business department, have reported that more students seem to be opting for the 3+0 programmes. I suppose parents are more comfortable with safe options at this point of time.
“Also, students know that though they have joined us with the intention of doing a 3+0 programme, they can later ‘reconsider’ their option. For instance, they may later decide that they want to do their second or third year overseas. Our agreements with our partner universities allow for this.”
Inti's Dr Lee finds the same situation at his college.
“There has been an increase in the number of students opting for the 3+0 degree programmes at Inti. The comparative increase has been mainly in different disciplines of IT (information technology). For 2+1 programmes we notice a significant increase in the different disciplines of engineering and commerce, and most of our students now choose to go to Australian universities to complete their degree studies,” he says.
For Mapcu's Teo, the higher demand for 3+0 programmes has resulted in many colleges applying for the Education Ministry to approve more 3+0 programmes.
“The fact that Mapcu members are asking for more 3+0 degree programmes to be approved implies that there is increasing demand for this. Some of these 3+0 programmes have the flexibility for students to complete one or two years abroad,” says Dr Teo.
The general trend is well summed up by Jeganathan who says, “I think students are keeping their options open by enrolling in programmes that will allow them more choice – the choice of either going overseas or completing the programme here.
“About half of the students at Taylor’s College would like to have their full education overseas. For the others, they would still like to spend a short period overseas. There is no indication to show that students are avoiding education in the UK as the country is still a very attractive education destination for our students,” she says.