Things are looking up for the private education sector which is now seen as an equal partner and a key engine of growth for the country, reports GAVIN GOMEZ.
IT was no coincidence that Education Minister Tan Sri Musa Mohamad opened and delivered keynote addresses for two conferences on private education this week.
Musa's presence at the conferences, organised or co-organised by the two main private educational organisations was significant and an indication that the Ministry is taking the sector seriously.
After years of being treated like second cousins, private education operators and members of the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu) and National Association of Private Educational Institutions (Napei) can finally take heart.
Gone too is the big stick approach – operators feel that there is more dialogue and transparency between both parties and that they are equal partners in the process of providing education opportunities to both Malaysians and foreigners.
At the inaugural Mapcu National Higher Education Conference Musa's keynote address served as a morale booster.
“I am no crystal-ball gazer who can tell with confidence what the future will be like. (But) given the factors that can shape higher education, I would tend to believe that both public and private sector education will expand and prosper in years to come.”
This vote of confidence from the minister himself was necessary for an industry that in the past has suffered from lack of direction.
“Today many more people aspire to obtain higher education than they did before. Most countries have ceased to regard higher education as confined merely to the elite but instead have opted to provide it to a vast majority, if not all their schools leavers,” Musa said.
Malaysia has targeted a higher education participation rate of 40% by 2010 and 50% by 2020. The figure now stands at 32% compared to almost 100% in the United States, 85% in Korea, 60% in the United Kingdom and 40% in the Philippines.
Musa likened private education to a “safety valve”. Everyone acknowledges that education is expensive. In Malaysia, whilst public institutions of higher learning are often urged to seek private funding, the pressures exerted on them have been somewhat relieved by the emergence of a strong private education sector in the late 90s,” he added.
Numerous speakers put forward that ICT (information and communications technologies) would further spur the growth of higher education by providing increased access.
Multimedia University's Centre for Multimedia Development director David Asirvatham said student enrolment for online education is expected to increase from 240,000 to five million over the next decade.
“With 550 million Internet users worldwide (now), e-learning is set to become the biggest sector for the technology training market over the next few years. The e-learning industry has been growing at about 150% each year and at such an expanding rate, it cannot be taken lightly,” he added.
Or as Help Institute's founder and executive director Dr Paul Chan described it, there is “a loss of remoteness” among the learning populace.
However, Musa's comments that private education fulfils a social function and that the industry should not be profit-oriented drew criticism.
“We agree that private education should serve a public purpose but I felt that it was unrealistic for the Minister to say that we should not consider profits. We can remain as business entities but still serve the public good at the same time ,” commented the head of a leading private college.
However, many operators were encouraged by the ministry’s acknowledgment that public institutions alone could not meet the growing demand for higher education.
“Domestic demand will account for a rapid development of higher education in this decade,” Musa said.
Demand, however, is not the only factor shaping the future of private education. To remain competitive, universities and colleges must keep abreast with what is expected of them or, as Dr Chan put it, “prepare students for their first job, their subsequent career and a fulfilling and productive life.”
The fact that students need to be equipped with practical skills aimed at helping them learn and adapt to their work environment was even said to determine the success of an institution.
“The common denominator in determining the success of higher institutions of learning, in particular private colleges, is how well their graduates are accepted and assimilated into the workforce and how well they can contribute and adapt themselves to changing work scenarios and circumstances,” Inti Group of Colleges vice president (academic affairs) Dr Koo Wee Kor said.
The session, Setting standards of excellence for private education: key issues, saw some heated discussion surrounding the issue of quality assurance for Malaysia's maturing higher education industry.
Musa said while the demand for quality would initially hamper the early provision of higher education by providers, “a stamp of quality once obtained would be the catalyst for wide acceptance locally and even internationally”.
Participants pointed out however, that there was no point in benchmarking quality at local institutions with that of top universities in the world such as Oxford and Cambridge.
“These universities have been in existence for several hundreds years. The institutions in Malaysia have been around for about 10 to 20 years. There is no basis for comparison.
“The issue to be addressed then is, what is the benchmark for quality?” said University of Nottingham in Malaysia (Unim) chief executive officer and vice-president Prof Brian Clayton, who called for minimum regulation and more internal assessment.
“I would hate to see what has happened to UK universities happening to Malaysian institutions. In the UK, universities are so obsessed with league tables that they will do anything to go up a few notches.
“Some will even get new computers and spruce up their accommodation facilities, even if there was no need for it, to get on top,” he said, exaggerating.
The ministry's quality watchdog, the National Accreditation Board (LAN), also came in for its share of criticism. LAN senior manager Balakrishnan Vassu who presented the board's stand on the matter, said the onus was on colleges to improve.
“LAN and other quality assurance agencies around the world are not that different. Our measure of quality is based on set criteria that are clearly outlined,” he said, adding that among the areas colleges often overlooked was the need for external moderators and the lack of a staff development plan.
“I must note, however, that facilities in our institutions are good. This is an area colleges do not fall short,” he said.
Despite the differences between LAN and the industry, it was encouraging that dialogue between the two parties was not lacking.
In the question and answer session, International Medical University's dean of student affairs Prof Ong Kok Hai was quick to disprove a comment on the lack of dialogue between the ministry and the private education sector.
He said that in his dealings with the ministry over the past decade, he had noticed that transparency has increased 'tremendously'. “There is still some way to go but the development so far has been positive,” he said.
Musa is apprehensive about the private sector's preparedness to face globalisation. He said that the World Trade Organisation through the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) in education has since 1999 been urging countries to remove discriminatory practices against foreign education providers by asking for equal or better treatment to that given to domestic education providers.
These include having equal subsidies for foreign education providers and non-interference in the nature of the curriculum even by an accrediting agency.
“The insistence of non-interference and non-discrimination even by an accrediting agency can lead to a flood of low quality courses being offered to the unsuspecting public.
“Much worse is the prospect of trans-national education providers, through GATS, offering stiff competition to local education providers,” he said.
International Trade and Industry deputy secretary-general Datuk Sidek Hassan is of the opinion that Malaysia should participate actively in GATS negotiations to safeguard its interests.
“For this, institutions need to play a bigger role through consultation with the government to advance Malaysia's interests,” he said.
While the implications of GATS and Malaysia's readiness for it is open to debate, the country is pushing forward with efforts to promote higher education overseas.
News that education promotion offices would soon be set up overseas by the end of the year was well received by college operators.
“Thanks to input from the ministry and participants during the conference, we are glad that there is now a rough roadmap for the industry.
“Our higher education industry must now strive for international recognition,” Mapcu president Tengku Shamsul Bahrin said in his closing remarks.