Pressure on university colleges to deliver

By Gavin Gomez and S. Indramalar

WILL local and foreign students currently pursuing franchised Australian, British and American degree programmes at Malaysian colleges be willing to buy a completely made-in-Malaysia product? 

The course content is likely to be very similar but the degree awarded will carry a local tag. In the long run, as more colleges are upgraded to university colleges, graduates of these institutions will not be awarded a foreign degree but a Malaysian one. 

The wheels have been set in motion to promote and sell Malaysian degrees to both foreign and local students – four private colleges have been upgraded to university colleges. Their five-year goal or deadline is to phase out their franchised foreign programmes and offer solely their respective degrees. 

The Education Ministry is hopeful that the Malaysian degree will be just as sought after as a foreign one – although privately, it is anxious about Malaysia's competitive edge in the long run. 

Ng: Foreigners are happy with the education they get here in Malaysia.

Will university colleges’ degrees be as marketable as the foreign courses they now offer? 

“We certainly hope so, although we must admit we are quite worried too,'' says the ministry's private education department enforcement director Dr Ariff Kasim. 

“That is why the minister (Tan Sri Musa Mohamad) keeps stressing that these institutions must improve in terms of academic quality, facilities and research and development – and they must do it fast,” he tells StarEducation

The four university colleges facing such pressure are: Limkokwing University College of Creative Technology (LUCT), University College Sedaya International (USCI), Kuala Lumpur Infrastructure University College (KLIUC) and International University College of Technology Twintech (IUCTT). 

Household names when they were known as LICT and Sedaya, these first two colleges to be upgraded have to now “rebrand” themselves under a new acronym. 

KLIUC, formerly Ikram College of Technology, and IUCTT, better known as Twintech Institute of Technology, on the other hand, were dark horses who were totally unexpected candidates to be granted university college status.  

Other much more established and reputable institutions find this hard to swallow and the upgrading exercise has given rise to many questions on the selection process and put the private higher education department in a tight spot. 

The industry is watching closely as to who will be upgraded next. About 10 colleges have submitted applications and some of them are close to being granted university college status. 

With only several spaces left, operators are eager to know who is next to be awarded the status. There are currently 16 public and 24 private universities and university colleges supporting Malaysia's population of 25 million. 

The numbers game 

Malaysia's aim is to get 50,000 foreign students by 2005. Singapore already has already achieved that figure and hopes to double it in two years time, says Dr Ariff. 

At present, there are over 30,000 foreign students enrolled in Malaysian higher education institutions, mostly from China, Indonesia, Africa and the Middle East. There is little doubt that most of these students come here to obtain foreign degrees at a significantly lower cost than at the country of origin, for example Australia or Britain. 

Dr Ariff: Need to start selling our own degrees and not rely on foreign courses.

But will these students come here if twinning and franchised programmes are phased out in the long run? 

KBU International College's chief executive officer Datuk Teo Chiang Liang feels the growth of university colleges – which will lead to the phasing out of twinning and franchised foreign degrees – will not adversely affect the ministry's target 50,000 foreign students. 

“As long as there are still twinning and '3+0' programmes available, the foreign student numbers won’t be affected,” he notes. 

President of Limkokwing University College of Creative Technology Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing feels the phasing out of franchised programmes may reduce the competitiveness of university colleges in the recruitment of international students.  

However, if university colleges offer high standard degree and diploma programmes, they will still be able to attract foreign students who seek comparable quality tertiary education and cost savings. 

“Malaysia alone offers many unique advantages – high level of English, a multi-racial society, modern infrastructure and peace and stability. 

“But university colleges must work hard. They must provide more advanced facilities, courses of international standards and offer high quality into their manpower. Malaysia must become a country by choice in the near future.” 

Is the private education sector heading in that direction? 

“I know a common problem faced by some private colleges is the shortage of qualified people to run the show. The industry needs more chief executives who are dynamic and are able to spur the institutions to greater heights,” says Dr Ariff, adding that getting qualified people to draw up the curriculum for the new university colleges should be their other priority. 

The Malaysian brand 

Dr Ariff points out that students from more than 150 countries come to Malaysia to obtain their degrees – “but not ours''. 

“We need to have our own brand of degrees,” he says.  

Branding, according to him, extends beyond the ability to just market degree programmes. “We are talking about facilities, quality of staff, research ability and so on. We want the institutions to be able to produce good research papers. We want them to work together with scholars from other institutions,” he says. 

But based on some of the institutions' current ability, Dr Ariff feels it may affect our “regional centre for educational excellence” aspirations. 

Dr Ismail: Accredition and recognition from partner universities lend credibility to homegrown degrees.

“We have a long way to go in terms of our own programmes being regarded as equivalent to foreign qualifications. Achieving this is going to be really hard and our ability to attract foreigners may suffer for a short while but it will pick up,” he says. 

Malaysia is not without its success stories. Citing Universiti Tenaga Nasional (Uniten) and Multimedia University (MMU), he says the two institutions are now enrolling some of the best minds despite their short history. 

“They have set their sights on being the equivalent of MIT (Massa-chusetts Institute of Technology) and they are achieving it,” Dr Ariff adds. 

The new university colleges must have the same drive, “that is the tough task the government has entrusted them with''. 

The university colleges recognise this call and are ready to take up the challenge – while keeping their fingers crossed. 

Shares KLIUC vice-president (academic) Dr Sabarudin Mohd, initially there will be some problems but thanks to the Government's aggressive marketing, “things should pick up”. 

“We have been in business for five years; we are a subsidiary of an established company and have our experience as the former Public Works Department research and training institute to build upon. We are ready to compete in the region,” he says in response to those who are sceptical of his institution's ability to deliver given its limited experience.  

The institution also has a 100-acre campus, “so there is no issue of not having the facilities,” Dr Sabarudin adds. 

Established in 1998, KLIUC is owned by Ikram Education Sdn Bhd, a wholly owned subsidiary of Kumpulan Ikram Sdn Bhd, which in turn is a subsidiary of Protasco Bhd, predominantly a road construction company. 

To boost the credibility of their homegrown degrees, IUCTT plans to get all its programmes accredited by the University of Wales College, Newport in the United Kingdom, which is presently one of their partner universities. 

KLIUC, on the other hand, wants to export its degrees.  

Dr Thalha: No clear guidelines from ministry.

“We recently entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Tongji University (TU) in Shanghai, China to provide them consultancy services regarding curriculum design and other related academic affairs, and to have staff and student exchange,'' says Dr Sabaruddin. 

In the long run, the university college is looking to export its own degrees via twinning and 3+0 degrees. 

UCSI Vice-Chancellor and president Peter Ng is optimistic about what his institution can offer as a university college. “The question of remaining competitive should not arise as foreigners are happy with the education they are receiving here. The number of enquiries we have received regarding our university college programmes have far exceeded expectations,” he says. 

Some local colleges have also been successful in setting up “branches” in other countries, selling homegrown programmes. 

Inti College Malaysia and the Asia Pacific Institute of Information Technology (APIIT), for example, both offer their own diploma programmes and are able to draw thousands of students at home and abroad. 

“That is the best endorsement of our quality,” says a college head. 

Good track record 

The industry views the move to upgrade colleges to university colleges as an attempt by the authorities to “sort out the men from the boys”.  

“We have over 500 private colleges, and introducing this new category will differentiate the bigger and better players from the rest. I think it is a step in the right direction. We have to start somewhere, sometime,” says a college CEO.  

However, while acknowledging the need for stringent conditions and multiple screenings when scrutinising applications from private colleges, the CEO says the newly identified university colleges need to be given more time to establish a track record with consumers, industry, professional bodies as well as the international market. 

Says an industry source: “The first cohort of graduates from these university colleges will graduate in three years and we need to see how they perform in the industry and subsequently in the international arena, particularly in the countries where we market our programmes. It may take years for us to build our own reputation. 

“Until then, university colleges should be allowed to keep offering their franchised degree programmes as this will also allow them to maintain a steady student base. Although most university colleges have been given a five-year window to phase out their franchise and twinning programmes, I have a strong suspicion that this may be reviewed and extended, depending on the situation at the time.” 

Although the development of university colleges is at the infant stage, foreign universities which have had alliances with Malaysian institutions view this trend positively, regarding Malaysia bold in its quest to become an educational hub. 

Notes Lim, “It is a natural development phase as education and training must get the top priority in any developing or even developed country. It will gain momentum as more and more students opt for local institutions of higher learning for various reasons to their advantage.”  

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