Why students pick the colleges and courses they do


CYNICS put it down to financial and parental factors. The average Malaysian, they say, can’t think critically and doesn’t have a mind of his own – particularly the youth.  

But it happens every year. The same few programmes seem to be on top of everyone’s list, and certain institutions will steal the limelight though no one is quite sure why. Is it the academic record? The state-of-the art facilities? Or the cool social life? 

Understandably, the traditional, well-established institutions are inundated with applications. For instance, Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Sains Malaysia are regarded as premier institutions, known for their high academic standards.  

No surprise here – despite the vicious grapevine, these institutions still get more qualified students than they can admit. 

However, the tertiary education landscape has changed tremendously over the past decade. Private higher education institutions (IPTS), once the dumping ground for public university rejects, have become the first choice for many. 

The academic reputation of IPTS has since soared to be on par with, or even higher than, our public ivory towers. 

Many are also no longer content to settle for the courses offered by the Student Admissions Management Division for public universities (UPU) and would rather pay more to take up a programme of their interest. 

In the face of socio-economic challenges, the colleges with the best bargains have been hot with students. Another interesting trend is the renewed interest in science and technology programmes and their career potential due to a highly publicised campaign by the Government. 

A number of institutions have become popular for their new initiatives to improve the marketability of students, including allowing for integrated science, IT, arts and humanities courses or double majors, and practical training/ internship. 

Then there are the frills and thrills: where the hot babes and the coolest parties are. Or the “gang” factor, it’s human nature after all. And of course, finally there’s the location factor. 

The question remains: How do students make their choice? Is it based on their own interest (as many of them would like to believe) or on subtle and not so subtle parental pressure? 

StarEducation conducted a Campus Poll recently to find out how students tick when it comes to selecting courses and institutions.  

Here is the big and small picture on hot courses and cool trends: 


So the fees are paid and the papers are signed. Don’t fret. Our poll is not definitive, and doesn’t include all colleges although some institutions sent in their responses as a class assignment!The poll only aims to give us a sense of how choices are made and the forces that drive them.  

The young and discerning 

StarEducation’s Campus Poll reveals that Malaysian undergraduates are apparently in control of their future. The results show that 75.4% of the respondents claim that their choice of programme was based on their own decision, compared to 9.8% who cited parental influence. 

Other influencing factors are scholarship offer (4.7%) and places available (10.1%). 

This trend reflects the growing consumer power of the young and discerning.  

It’s a matter of lifestyle, after all. Where you go to college does matter – it’s very much an experience, not just a means to an end. Anyway, if one is to spend more than three years in a place, it is only sensible to be choosy. 

About 2,000 students participated in the poll, conducted at the end of last year. Half the respondents were from private institutions and 27% from public universities, while 23% decided against divulging details of their personal profile.  

Although most students have begun their studies in tertiary education, it is always interesting to note how they are faring in their academic adventure. For future school-leavers, meanwhile, it is never too early to plan, particularly for the requisite subject combination for the programme you are interested in.  

School counsellors would be interested to know that 85.5 % of the respondents claimed that they were interested in their area of study while they were still in school. This shows that students have become better informed of the options and opportunities available.  

Unfortunately, the role counsellors play is still small; the findings indicate that counsellors had very little influence (0.9%) on the students’ decision-making process.  

Hence, students’ source of information is interesting as only 3% of the respondents obtained their facts from the media, while 1.4% find education fairs and roadshows helpful.  

Friends and seniors also do not seem to play an important part either – just 3% and 1.8% of influence, respectively.  

Interestingly, however, many institutions believe that word-of-mouth has been the best advertisement for them in attracting students to their campuses. 

Another surprise is parental influence – only 4.2% of the respondents were swayed by their parents’ advice and 1.2% by parents’ choice, in selecting an area of study. 

Popular choices 

The Government can rest assured that students are taking heed of the needs of the country, as well as its aspirations for a K-economy. Even in school, the largest groups of students are interested in the “critical” fields of study: engineering and technical disciplines (19.1%); information technology and computer science (14.3%); medicine and dentistry (14%); followed by finance, business and economics (13%).  

AN AMBIENCE: Students want good facilities as they would be spending three years on campus. - Picture coutesy of Nilai College

Pure science, pharmaceutical science and biochemistry recorded the lowest level of interest among students at 7.6%, compared to the other science subjects. This proves that much more work needs to be done to raise awareness in these areas, particularly biochemistry. As one respondent commented: “Many students think that you can only teach or do research in these subjects.” 

Similarly, the largest groups of respondents are studying in the abovementioned fields: engineering and technical disciplines (22.7%); information technology and computer science (24%); finance, business and economics (19.3%). Pure science, pharmaceutical science and biochemistry recorded 8%, while medicine and dentistry had a mere 5%. 

For the other humanities and arts subjects, law remains the most popular, both with potential tertiary students and current ones: 5% and 2.3% respectively.  

Relatively new creative fields of study that have grown increasingly popular among students are music, performance arts and film studies; and multimedia and interactive technology. 

Education providers, both public and private, will be happy to know that the majority of students are satisfied with their programmes (20% very satisfied, 42% satisfied, and 26.2% fairly satisfied). 

Only 6% of respondents were dissatisfied with their programme, while 5.8% were indifferent. However, 34% of the respondents said that if given the chance they would change their course, compared to 43% who said they would not and 22.7% who were unsure. 

Reasons given for wishing a switch are: having found their real interest (39%), not having done adequate research the first time (19%) and poor career prospects(13.4%).  

Other reasons include family constraints (7.8%), difficulty in passing the course they are taking (9%), following friends (0.5%), having been forced by parents to take the course initially (4.7%), and having been misinformed (6.5%).  

However, in line with the changing demands and needs of employers, many look for more practical work (28.5%) and closer links to industry (33.5%) in their programmes.  

Nevertheless, as institutions should note, variety is rated highly, as students rank a lot of different activities (20.3% ) as the third criteria they look for in a programme. IT and interactive participation remain high on the list of needs, at 8.1% and 10% respectively.  

Getting satisfaction 

There are no revolutionary findings either –18.4% of respondents said that they were very satisfied with the institution of their choice, while 41.2% were satisfied and 25.9% were fairly satisfied.  

Many attributed this to their careful consideration of all options available before signing up. The 19.5% who were not satisfied with their choice admitted that the main problem was mismatched expectations (before and after joining their institution).  

Asked if they would enrol in another institution if given the chance, 33% of the respondents said “Yes”, while 43% said “No” and 24% were unsure. Many were reluctant to give reasons for this, but among the factors quoted were facilities not being up to expectation, bad lecturers and a change of mind.  

Still, the most interesting finding of the poll is that although most of the respondents seemed to be enjoying college life, their choices were based on academic standards, facilities, affordability and convenience (location). Social life and friends are not influential factors.  

Unfortunately, interest in research is still lagging, due to lack of awareness and opportunities. This needs to be rectified if academic standards are to be developed further in Malaysian higher education. 

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