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Roundtable discussion: Directions for IPTS 

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FOR MANY years now, private institutions of higher learning have been churning out 50% or more of the graduate manpower for the country. 

MUSTAPA: Has been given the task of putting private education back on track.

Public universities were responsible for producing 312,000 graduates and postgraduates two years ago while private institutions' enrolment was about 322,000. 

Despite the important role they play, private higher education institutions or IPTS as they are commonly referred to, are not accorded the recognition they feel they deserve. They have a limited say in higher education matters and are often persona non grata in the decision-making processes.  

The disenchantment among the industry stakeholders is deep and wide. Innovators of the concept of twinning and other linkage programmes, they have brought universities from United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, India and China to our shores.  

Way ahead of everyone else in offering foreign degrees at local prices in the 1990s, these first movers are, however, no longer the ultimate movers. Neighbouring countries like Singapore have leap-frogged over Malaysia, and British and Australian universities have taken a leaf from our book and set up campuses in China and elsewhere, offering similar programmes.  

Instead of being able to woo a growing number of Chinese students here, the IPTS (Institut Pengajian Tinggi Swasta) are hard pressed to keep the numbers from dwindling. Even more worrying is the reversal of trend. Malaysians – and the rest of the world – are seeking to gain paper qualification in China for perceived manifold advantages.  

Where does that leave the Government’s plans to make Malaysia a regional hub for education excellence, a goal set in 1998? Our foreign students numbers have been stagnating at around 26,000. 

Man of action 

With the new Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed taking over from Datuk Seri Dr Shafie Mohd Salleh three weeks ago, the private institutions are keeping their fingers crossed for an effective agent of change.  

Dr Shafie, who was generally well liked by the IPTS as he was approachable and willing to listen, had a slow start as he had to set up his then new ministry from scratch.  

Over the past 20 years, private higher education institutions have made an immeasurable contribution to the country by producing hundreds of thousands of graduates.

His successor will have the advantage of administrative and policy matters put in place. Mustapa also brings with him a good networking of public universities' vice-chancellors where he has had continuous dealings through various projects not known to many, including the programme for the commercialisation of research findings, while with the National Economic Action Council (NEAC). 

The challenge for the new minister – who has been involved in policy-making bodies that also cover education – is to implement the big picture.  

Mustapa, who has the reputation of a doer and not a talker, moved swiftly into action by calling for a dialogue with heads of IPTS on Feb 27. He listened and pledged to resolve the urgent matters by the middle of the year and the rest later.  

Bad impressions 

At the dialogue, one of the problems raised that took the minister by surprise was the random and rampant detention of foreign students by the authorities. A couple of IPTS operators complained about having to bail out foreign students detained by the authorities  

This is one of IPTS’ biggest headaches. Practically every one has a similar story to tell. Their foreign students are picked up and sometimes held, with reports of their being charged exorbitant prices for basic needs and food.  

Foreign students here are also forced to carry their passports with them – a practice not found in countries where our students flock to study – and penalised when they fail to.  

In this digital age, such tales of horror are a mere phone call away; word of mouth, good or bad, is the most effective form of positive advertising or adverse publicity. While foreign students and their families are seen to bring in tourism dollars – 50,000 foreign students would translate into RM1.5bil in revenue – yet little has been done to facilitate their arrival and presence. The much-awaited one-stop agency that houses various ministries for the purpose remains on the drawing board.  

Industry stalwarts like Limkokwing University College of Creative Technology president Tan Sri Lim Kok Wing and Help University College president Dr Paul Chan are concerned that if nothing is done to redress inherent problems in the system – as well as the lack of direction and political will – the private higher education sector may collapse in five to 10 years.  

A host of problems plague the industry, from over-regulation and a lack of transparency to irregular implementation of policies and the lack of government-to-government efforts to procure recognition for IPTS qualifications.  

Mustapa recognises that there is a lack of co-ordination among parties involved in the areas of accreditation, student visas and recognition of qualifications, among others. But most of all, he is aware there is a dire need for a roadmap which will spell out clearly what directions the private sector must take in keeping with the Government's own agenda, at the same time mindful of global and regional competition.  

It would be a real shame if this exercise turns out to be another round of memos, proposals and reports and little else. Representative bodies of the IPTS like the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu) and National Association of Private Educational Institutions (Napei) have submitted numerous proposals, only to be kept in the dark after that. 

Despite all that the sector has achieved, it hasn't been completely successful in shaking off its bad boy image – private institutions are seen to lack integrity, prioritise only the bottom line, abuse loopholes in regulations and sell false promises. 

There have been some bad press and the delinquents as well as the above-board operators have all been tarnished by the same brush. Sadly, this industry is both over-regulated and under-enforced at the same time. 

The education providers in this highly competitive industry have always been trying to out do each other with their respective recruitment strategies. It is only in recent years that some have begun expressing the need to stop fighting with each other and tackle the bigger battles out there as Malaysian institutions. 

With too many players, rising costs and falling student numbers, business has not been easy for the IPTS; even the public listed ones have been in the doldrums in the last few years. Thankfully, for the first time in last year’s budget, private institutions were able to enjoy some tax breaks.  

Not treated equal 

Unfortunately for the IPTS, they have never been treated as equal partners with their public counterparts or IPTAs (Institut Pengajian Tinggi Awam). They are merely seen to play the supplementary or complementary role to public universities.  

They are adamant that the situation no longer holds true. With IPTS contributing more than IPTA to the graduate manpower output, this must be reflected in the way the private sector is treated, be it in policy-making, student allocation or funding. 

The private institutions also find it hard to stomach the prescriptive approach of the ministry.  

Public universities' standards and requirements are being imposed on IPTS when the latter does not receive any financial or other assistance from the government.  

In fact, they claim they are running their programmes much more cost-efficiently and are faster to respond to changes in curriculum and trends. Instead of helping, the National Accreditation Board has been hampering their growth. 

To facilitate the growth of higher education, a development board like the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority (Mida) needs to be set up. It must have a strong representation from the private sector and the board must have the power to draw up policies. 

The message from the private sector is: treat IPTS as equal partners in tertiary education. Set out clear policies that are supported by strategies and programmes.  

For a start, let the stakeholders draw up the draft roadmap, not the civil servants.  

Related Stories:Speaking with one voice 

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