INCREASINGLY growing as equal players in the local higher education industry, the private education sector needs to be included in the government's overall strategic planning to raise the quality of higher education in the country.
Aware of this, the education ministry has always practised an open door policy with the members of the private education sector, says Dr Parmjit Singh, managing director of Asia Pacific Institute of Information Technology (Apiit).
“But often, it is to hear our grouses. We have not had a meeting to plan strategically; where we stand in the future of education in the country. A blueprint has been needed for a long time and it is good that one is being planned now. It will help us plan strategically for the future,” he shares.
He recalls that a few years back, an education minister had a meeting with a few private education players to draft a blueprint but nothing came out of it.
“We hope that the ministry can look that up and include a few of the proposals from the paper in this new draft,” he adds.
The private education sector, he says, is willing to invest money in education, but only if they know where they are heading in the long run. Dr Parmjit, who is also an active member of Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu) says: “I am very enthusiastic with the steps taken by the ministry. With strategic planning, we can improve the quality of higher education in the country. Only then can we attract foreign students”.
National Association of Private Education Institutions (NAPEI) president Dr Mohamed Thalha Alithamby concurs, proposing that the ministry plays a role as the middleman to foster closer collaboration between the public and private education sector.
“At the moment, it is a business relationship. Many public universities have franchised out their programmes to local private colleges. The ministry can insist that we work together in teaching and sharing resources to improve the quality of the whole education sector. This will improve the image of Malaysian education as a combined product, and everyone will benefit,” he says.
The issues with the private sector, although different from those of the public sector's, also revolve around the country's aim of becoming a regional centre of educational excellence. Much needs to be done to improve the image of the country as a preferred study destination, say college operators who are glad that a pro-active plan is being formulated for the industry.
“We have a quality and as a result, an image problem,” says Mapcu governing council member Datuk Teo Chiang Liang.
He adds that a few black sheep have tarnished the industry's image abroad, giving foreign students a negative impression of the quality of education in Malaysia.
Teo claims that for Malaysia to be a regional centre for education, the Private Education Department (JPS) has to play a more pro-active role and not just take action against the fly-by-night operators.
“The JPS does not touch the big players,” he says, adding that there are even some colleges that offer degree programmes, claiming that it is via a 3+0 arrangement.
He says: “To be a regional centre of educational excellence, we must not give foreign students reason to complain or find fault.”
Echoing his calls is another long time operator who says the blueprint must also outline plans to attract more foreign students.
The Immigration Department and Higher Education Ministry, he says, must work closer together to improve the processing of student visas.
“Processing that should take 14 days takes over a month now. Also, in that period, the Immigration Department holds the student's passport so the student is vulnerable to action by the authorities in the interim,” he says.
The operator adds that it is about time a student identification card is created for foreign students. “We need to make our country more accessible,” he says.
One academic at a private college meanwhile reveals the grapevine has it that there are plans to centralise the application process from foreign students.
“This will be a big mistake as it will complicate and delay the process. How is this going to be implemented? Will it be like our public universities where students who cannot get into one programme will just be sent to another?”
Needless to say, he hopes that this will not be included in the blueprint as he believes it will only deter foreign students from coming to Malaysia.
Speed in administration process is particularly crucial for IT education providers like Apiit, says Dr Parmjit.
“This is essential in everything – from the approval of students to programme content and infrastructure – to meet the global trends. If not we'll be left behind, and lose out on foreign students who will want up-to-date programmes and facilities.”
To move in tandem with the development of public academia, the private education sector also needs to develop their research acumen.
“The private colleges need to be given the same research opportunities if we are to contribute to the country’s intellectual product. There are many competent people in the private education sector who can help develop the knowledge wealth of the country,” says Help Institute academic director Dr Khong Kim Hoong.
At the International Medical University (IMU), nevertheless, research activities have always been encouraged with collaborations with local universities, research institutions and government agencies. In 2003, IMU's research work was boosted when the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry selected it to be among universities that could have access to research funds through the Intensification of Research in Priority Areas (IRPA) funding mechanism. Professor of pathology and dean at the (IMU) Prof Victor K. E. Lim says that this is good for the private education sector as universities and academics are recognised for their work in research that appears in publications.
Apiit is another private college that is very active in research.
“We have been conducting research at the college for almost five years, and it has encouraged students’ creativity. We have also brought in income for the country while contributing to its develop-ment of IT,” says Dr Parmjit.
It’s not all rosy for the rest of the private education sector, however, as research funding is very competitive, particularly for private universities. Shares Dr Mohamed Thalha, it is very rare for applications from private institutions to be accepted.
Although he thinks the government should extend funding to the private sector to encourage research, he believes private institutions can fare better prioritising its strength – teaching.
“Most private institutions are stronger in teaching as most offer teaching courses like business and accountancy.
Conducting research might be too expensive for certain private institutions, so what they can do is to exchange their teaching expertise with public university's research expertise.
I really believe that pooling resources and knowledge is the most effective way for the country's higher education sector to improve.”