Having sat for the SPM (Malaysian Certificate of Education) in 2001, Laura Ong thought about doing Form Six. However, the offer of a scholarship for a professional programme at a private college soon made her change her mind.
“My parents advised me to go to college. After all, there was no guarantee that I would get into a public university after the STPM (Malay-sian Higher School Certificate).
After four semesters, she has obtained both a certificate and diploma and will be sitting for an advanced diploma in June, a qualification which will enable her to gain a university degree after another year's study.
Her college tells her that she can get a degree from a certain university via e-learning. “It will take nine months but I don't think I can afford it as it will cost RM20, 000.”
Many students like Laura are attracted to professional programmes because of the promise of a shorter route to a degree.
What was once a study option for working adults wanting to upgrade themselves has become a fast-track to a degree.
Professional programmes are popular among some school-leavers as they provide a quicker and less expensive way to gain a degree, compared to a normal twinning programme.
Students who opt for a programme like Laura's bypass the traditional entry qualification needed for a degree-level programme, which is the STPM or its equivalent.
Many issues have surfaced following an announcement by the Education Ministry on minimum entry requirements into degree programmes.
The ministry has ruled that only those with an STPM or its equivalent would be accepted into degree level programmes. The ruling will come into effect for this year's intake.
Deputy director-general of education (private education) Datuk Hassan Hashim says the ruling was necessary as many private institutions were not adhering to the requirement.
“Some private universities were offering four-year degree programmes after SPM.
“We felt that this was not appropriate as SPM students did not have a proper foundation and were not well-prepared before embarking on degree studies.
“These institutions have since restructured their programmes and are now offering a foundation course separately. Others will have to follow suit. We will evaluate the foundation curriculum carefully to ensure the change is not just cosmetic.”
Many of the institutions offering a foundation or pre-university course as part of the degree programme did so because they wanted their students to be eligible for loans from the National Higher Education Fund Corporation.
National Association of Private Educational Institutions (Napei) president Dr Mohamed Thalha Alithamby says the government is trying to establish clear guidelines for qualifications as well as bridge the link between secondary education and university.
“Degree studies call for a different set of skills including communication, research and writing. The foundation process adequately prepares students to face higher education.”
Among the programmes affected by the ruling are the American Degree Programme (ADP), internal diplomas offered by private institutions which are moderated by foreign universities, and professional programmes which offer a short cut to a degree.
Restructuring needed Although some colleges claim the new ruling has not affected them, others have had to repackage their programmes to fit the new requirement.
Inti College Malaysia’s ADP is now offered as a diploma. The college was one of the first to change the structure of the ADP as the course was up for renewal.
By introducing the diploma programme, Inti is able to comply with the ruling as the entry requirement for a diploma is the SPM.
American degrees are four years in duration and take in students after SPM. Typically, subjects conforming to Years One and Two of the programme are offered locally.
Students accumulate credits and continue their studies in US universities on a credit transfer basis to complete the four-year Bachelor degree.
Inti vice-president Dr Lee Fah Onn says the college now offers a 90-credit diploma over six semesters. “Diploma students are advised to take the appropriate courses and later transfer these credits to universities of their choice for the final year. They can choose from 12 universities which have course equivalencies or articulation agreements with Inti.
“Those who decide to leave earlier can still transfer credits but will not obtain the diploma. Students who stay on graduate with a Diploma in Applied Science or Business and Liberal Arts,” he says.
Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu) secretary-general Datuk Teo Chiang Liang says the association has written to the Private Education Department (JPS) asking it to exempt the ADP from the ruling.
“The ADP is mostly conducted on a 2+2 basis with entry after SPM. The US has followed this entry requirement for a long time – it is their education system. It would not be possible to change the format of the ADP and convert the first year into a foundation year.”
Hassan says JPS has forwarded Mapcu's request for exemption of the ADP to the Education Minister who is expected to make a decision soon.
Taylor's College principal Anucia Jeganathan also believes that the new ruling should not affect the ADP.
“It should be applied differently considering that it is a four-year degree programme. The first year of the ADP is really equivalent to any pre-university course, with a broad-based, general structure. Since this is so, the first year should be considered as the foundation year.”
She says there should be no name-change involved to avoid confusion, especially in view of Malaysia's plans to be a regional centre of educational excellence and to increase its number of international students to 50,000 by 2007.
Not all diplomas are equal
In Malaysia, a diploma is not just a diploma – it may have a tag such as “advanced”, “higher” or “graduate.”
Almost all diplomas offered at private colleges are internal qualifications which are moderated by external universities.
Are all these diplomas similar? JPS and the National Accreditation Board (LAN) do not think so.
Different diplomas give varying credit exemptions into degree programmes. LAN terms a diploma programme as having 90 credits while an honours degree is 110 credits.
Typically Malaysian public universities accept three-year polytechnic diploma holders into Year One or Year Two of a degree programme.
However, most private institutions offer two-year diploma qualifications to SPM school-leavers. These diploma holders are then able to obtain advanced standing into final year degree programmes of foreign universities, including some 3+0 programmes offered locally.
Students are thus able to gain a degree within three years of the SPM instead of four or five years – unlike those with the STPM or a pre-university qualification.
Hassan says that JPS is aware of this anomaly and is putting its foot down. ''This has called into question the credibility of some of the degree courses offered by private colleges,'' he says.
He adds that JPS has identified one institution which is offering a two-year moderated diploma after SPM which qualifies for entry into the final year of a British degree programme.
“The minister has given us the go-ahead to stop the college from offering this course. We will come down hard on similar courses and blacklist the college and university, especially when they come to us for renewal,” he says, showing that the Ministry means business.
The practice also flouts an earlier LAN ruling that post SPM students must undergo three-and-a-half years of study before gaining a degree.
“It might be cheaper and faster, but is it of good quality? There are no short cuts in education,’’ emphasises Hassan.
Jeganathan says that Taylor’s College will not be affected as its British and Australian degree programmes only allow STPM or equivalent entry.
“I am fully in agreement that degree programmes should only allow pre-university or equivalent entry. The ruling is a good move as students will then have a good foundation to cope with the degree programme.’’
Ian Tan, director of operations for the University of Sunderland in South East Asia, says that his university refuses to moderate any internal private college diploma that takes less than two-and-a-half years.
“We get a lot of requests but most of the diplomas are for two years. We cannot validate these diplomas because we have to comply with local regulations.”
Stamford College's U.K. Menon says that JPS should not stick to such a rigid classification as spelled out in the National Qualifications Framework which only recognises three levels – certificate, diploma and degree.
He also believes the ministry should not be too concerned about the time frame taken by a student to gain a degree.
“If they insist on this, they are going against the normal grain of practice in the United States, Britain and Australia, especially with the emphasis on lifelong education.”
“Shortening the number of years a student takes to obtain a degree is good for the students and for the nation. Rather than looking at the years, look at the curriculum instead.”
Teo argues that every diploma programme should be judged on individual merit. “LAN and JPS should not come out with a blanket policy. If a programme is not of a degree standard, then it should not be equated as similar to a degree.”
Other than internal diplomas, another way students are able to bypass the pre-
university ruling for degree programmes is by doing a professional qualification.
The Association of Business Executives (ABE) certificate is open to everyone; no formal qualifications are required.
The certificate – which takes a minimum of six months to complete and is accepted in lieu of the A-levels – is a stepping stone to Level One of the diploma programme, which can be done in six months.
After that, students can “stepladder” through the diploma level two and advanced diploma. The whole process takes a minimum of two years from certificate to advanced diploma.
The ABE website states that 36 universities accept their Advanced Diploma into the final year of a degree programme, including the University of Sunderland which recognises the Advanced Diploma in Business Administration for direct entry into the final year of the distance learning BA (Hons) Business Studies.
Students can also progress to the full- time Year Three of Middlesex University's BA (Hons) Business Administration programme provided they have obtained four Grade Bs or above.
In Malaysia though, LAN only recognises the ABE qualification as being equivalent to a diploma (see chart). Other organisations which offer similar routes include the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) and the National Computing Centre (NCC).
KDU College Penang chief executive officer Dr Tan Toh Wah says professional programmes were meant for working professionals.”However, over the years, many taking these courses have been school leavers.”
He believes it is unfair to deny these students a chance of a university degree.
“This is a cost effective and flexible route to a first degree. Many students would not be able to afford to get a degree the traditional way.”
Dr Tan suggests that a compromise be reached whereby LAN allows entry into the second year of a degree programme instead.
Hassan is concerned about professional programme routes too. “Students with a three-year polytechnic diploma can only enter the first or second year of degree programmes at local public universities. I do not understand how foreign universities are willing to accept these students into the final year of a foreign university degree programme.”
In defence, ABE Council chairman Datuk Dr Tan Tiong Hong says not many students are able to obtain the advanced diploma within two years, with most taking at least two and a half years.
“Students here also have to take the compulsory subjects – Malaysian Studies, Bahasa Malaysia and Moral Studies (for non-Muslims) so this lengthens the time they take to complete the diploma.”
The Ministry is heading in the right direction. But is it going fast enough?
Even as JPS was cracking down on one college, others were signing agreements with foreign universities to provide an “easier” route to a degree via their internal diplomas.
What action the Ministry will take is something many private education operators will be eager to find out.