Should degree programmes of private institutions be extended to four years in keeping with public universities? Private institution see no need for such a move as their graduates are employable and it would defer foreign students from enrolling.
EXACTLY a decade ago, there was concern that Malaysians were graduating two years later than their foreign counterparts and something needed to be done to rectify the situation.
So on Aug 16, 1995, then Education Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak announced that public universities would shorten their degree programmes from four years to three.
“Three years is adequate for a university education; we don't need to study for four years,” he said, adding that Malaysian students would lose their competitive advantage by graduating at the age of 24 while their counterparts in advanced countries graduated sooner.
Ten years down the road and with unemployment among fresh graduates a concern, the authorities are reviewing the situation. They want to keep undergraduates in campus for an additional year to beef up their “soft skills”.
Concerned about public university graduates' lack of employability, Higher Education Minister Datuk Dr Shafie Mohd Salleh said a four-year degree would allow students to brush up on their English proficiency and information and communications technology skills.
However, many in the education sector believe that a decision on the matter should not be made hastily as it has far-reaching consequences for Malaysia's competitiveness globally.
Ten years ago, many universities had difficulty shortening their programmes, especially for professional disciplines like engineering, accounting and education which have a practical component.
Eventually, most professional courses reverted to three-and-a-half to four years as students could not cope with the workload.
At the same time, other countries are reducing the time spent in university – some British universities have even introduced two-year degrees. And with the flexibility offered by e-learning, Malaysia seems to be taking a step backward.
The most common reason for adding a year of study is to keep youth off the job market, but in Malaysia, although local university graduates in some disciplines are taking longer to find jobs, the unemployment situation is not critical.
Creating a stir
However, it was Deputy Prime Minister Najib's statement last Sunday that caused a stir among private education operators.
He announced that the Cabinet was considering extending degree programmes offered by private institutions of higher learning from three to four years.
“If public universities degrees are extended to four years, we also have to rethink the time frame of courses in private institutions,” he said.
In June, Dr Shafie announced that undergraduates taking up food science courses would be the first group to complete their degrees in four years, with other courses possibly following suit later.
Although many private education operators have expressed concern about the detrimental effects, Multimedia University (MMU) president Prof Datuk Dr Ghauth Jasmon is adopting a more positive view.
“It is good to have a tertiary education where students are trained not only in the technical areas but also in soft-skills such as leadership, communication and presentation, English language proficiency and entrepreneurship. Such skills will help students excel in their careers.”
Prof Ghauth feels that if soft skills are to be emphasised, the length of a degree course should be adjusted accordingly so as not to burden students.
“A longer degree programme would give students more time for extra-curricular activities, which is after all part of an holistic education.”
Sunway University College executive director Elizabeth Lee holds a different view. She said that soft skills including extra-curricular activities have already been structured into the curriculum.
“Graduates from private institutions are not finding it difficult to get employment. Neither are they lacking in soft skills.
“I can understand the need for public universities to do something to make their graduates more employable but this is not the case in private institutions,” she says.
Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu) deputy president Dr Parmjit Singh says that soft skills are already embedded into the curriculum at the Asia Pacific Institute of Information Technology (Apiit).
“Our students are trained to handle themselves professionally, practise communication skills through doing presentations and to think critically.”
The University of East London’s head of special projects for Southeast Asia Prof Jim Graham says he would welcome any change if the objective of the exercise was to improve on quality and increase employability.
“The authorities need to rethink some aspects of the curriculum. That can be done within a three-year time frame. It isn’t strictly necessary to do a fourth year.
“We shouldn’t regulate the entire system based on the lowest common denominator. I don’t see why good students should be penalised by adding a year of study when they are capable of completing a degree within a shorter period.”
High-achievers should be given the option of finishing a semester early, says Prof Ghauth, if they have earned the credit hours required to graduate and achieved the objectives stated.
University College Sedaya International vice-president (academic) Kit Chin says that even within the existing three-year programme, it is compulsory for all Sedaya students to do three months of practical training.
“Students do it in November and December during the semester break.”
A complex equation
National Association of Private Education Institutions (NAPEI) president Dr Mohamed Thalha Alithamby surmises that the Government wants to extend the duration of a degree programme to make public university graduates more marketable.
“Job growth is in the private sector. The majority of public university graduates are bumiputras who are weak in communication skills.”
Dr Thalha claims that over 90% of graduates from private institutions are employed. Why is this so? He says the majority of courses at private institutions are market friendly such as business, engineering, information and communications technology as well as design,
In public institutions on the other hand, for courses like Geography, History and Islamic Studies, employability is low.
The ministry has said that it will encourage students in less marketable courses like Islamic Studies to do a double major in IT, for example.
Prof Graham says that higher education needs to be reformed to make it more job-focused.
“Public universities need to design a curriculum for employability and put in modules or skills that help graduates get jobs. This is a condition for government funding in the United Kingdom.”
Another worry is that a longer degree will make higher education more expensive. Prof Ghauth says that switching to a four-year degree should not burden students and parents too much.
“Many degree programmes now are charged based on credit hours, thus tuition fees may not really increase much. It is more a spread of workload with the addition of a few modules.”
Sedaya's Chin says students would definitely have to spend more for a degree. “Colleges would have to charge more.”
Currently UCSI students pay about RM9,300 for the first year, RM11,000 for the second year and RM15,000 for the third year of a degree programme.
Parmjit Singh agrees that any extension would make conventional higher education more expensive.
“Students might opt for cheaper distance learning alternatives which are questionable and not well-regulated.”
Dr Talha says that adding a year would require a huge investment from the government in terms of funding.
“Parents too would have to find more money as they would have budgeted for their children’s education based on a three-year equation.”
Flexibility is the key
Sunway's Lee believes that a blanket ruling should not be imposed on all institutions.
“Private colleges and universities cater to a different segment of students. We should not be subject to the same conditions as public institutions as we are not competing against each other.”
She adds that a shorter degree would not make private institutions more popular as not all Malaysians can afford to take that route.
“It’s about choice. Just like in medical care, you can choose to go to a private or government hospital. You will have to pay more at a private hospital but the waiting time is shorter.”
Dr Thalha says that any decision would have far-reaching consequences. “If private institutions do not follow suit by introducing a four-year programme, the result might be two distinct and separate higher education systems.
“Can you imagine the implications if public university students were to graduate two years after those in private institutions? It would definitely exacerbate the unemployment problem among bumiputras as they make up the majority in public institutions.”
Lee says the decision would adversely affect Malaysia's competitiveness. Private institutions contribute greatly to attracting international students to the country and making Malaysia a regional education hub in the face of stiff competition from Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.
Colleges benchmark their degree programmes against international standards set by Australian and British universities, where three-year degrees are the norm.
“To lengthen this to four years may cause us to lose our competitiveness to our neighbours,” says Lee.
Sedaya's Chin expresses the same reservation. “The international benchmark is three years. Even in Australia and New Zealand where an honours degree requires an extra year of study, this is considered part one of a master’s programme.
“Malaysia might have difficulty in attracting international students if the degree here takes longer than other countries,’’ he says.
Padding a foreign degree programme to suit local requirements is not unheard of. Even 3+O programmes have had to include National Accreditation Board (LAN) compulsory subjects like Moral Studies and Bahasa Malaysia.
Prof Graham says that LAN subjects already act as a disincentive. “Forcing students to study longer will result in them going to other countries as they will complete earlier and enter the job market sooner.”
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