Despite the economic crisis, education institutions here seem to be fairing better - at least for now.
THESE days it is as if talk of the economy is as commonplace as conversation about the weather; a shadowy overcast of retrenchment, unemployment and making ends meet.
On the higher education front, a much lauded “recession-proof” industry, the bubble seems to have finally burst.
Numerous American colleges and universities are slashing prices of their courses in a bid to raise student numbers, while some British universities face the suddenly real potential of bankruptcy.
However, at the local scence, the impression is that lecture halls and classroom doors are still open for business.
The Malaysian Association of Private Colleges & Universities (Mapcu) president Dr Parmjit Singh thinks that it is still too early to gauge the effects of the economy.
“If the higher education sector is going to be hit, it will only happen at the tail end of the downturn. This was the trend in the previous economic crisis of the mid-1980s and mid-1990s.”
He elaborates that unless the situation is exceptionally dire, parents will rarely interrupt their children’s education.
“But on the whole, I think that private colleges here are doing well at the moment.”
Deputy Higher Education Minister Dr Hou Kok Chung reckons that while the current situation is fine, higher education providers need to have long term goals if they want to ride out potential rough times.
“Private colleges need to be serious about the education business if they want to survive. They need to continuously look after their academic standing and work on providing a holistic environment for students.”
Dr Hou also stressed that colleges here have bright prospects beyond the local market.
“They should take advantage of the fact that with this crisis, Malaysia is capable of attracting more foreign students because we can offer them quality education at a low cost.”
Binary University College vice- chancellor and chief executive officer (CEO) Datuk Professor Joseph Adaikalam echoes this sentiment of affordable quality.
“The current economic situation has a positive impact on Binary as more international students have started patronising us,” he said, adding that the institution’s graduates have a competitive edge in the employment market.
There are around 70,000 international students enrolled in local higher education institutions, and the ministry plans to up this number to 80,000 by next year.
“Education is an industry that is recession-proof,” says SEGi chief operation officer (COO) Hew Moi Lan.
“This is because no matter how bad times are, parents will still want to provide an education for their children, and they will want to provide the best.”
She adds that SEGi has always been known for its competitive prices and good track record so by word of mouth, there would be a continuous influx of students.
Taking note of the credit crunch, Hew thinks that students may be more likely to study locally due to the rising cost involved in overseas education, hence the increase in local private university intakes.
Having been around for 40 years, Taylor’s University College (Taylor’s) has weathered many storms and not just survived, but thrived, despite the premium fees they charge.
Taylor’s vice-chancellor and president Prof Datuk Dr Hassan Said reckons it is their academic quality, long-standing history and graduate employability that continue to attract students.
He does not think the college would need to lower their fees during the economic crisis.
“We must look at the value for money,” he says.
“There is no point reducing the fees if it means that the quality is also reduced.”
As far as whether or not big institutions would survive better than small institutions, Prof Hassan said, “I think it would depend on the creativity of the college, marketing strategies and sensitivity to students, as smaller institutions could be more focused on certain areas.”
However, he believes that one area private institutions should take advantage of is re-training working people who seek to improve their skills and position themselves for better opportunities when the economy picks up.
INTi Education Group deputy chief executive officer (CEO) Graham Doxey feels that credit crunch or not, students comprehend the value of having a degree.
“This might explain why INTi has hit a record high in terms of our student intake as of May this year.”
Understanding that cost is a factor in the current economic climate, INTi has tied up with a local bank to offer its students interest-free instalment plans.
“This is in addition to our commitment to offer 100 postgraduate scholarships over four years under the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI),” adds Doxey.
Sunway University College Executive Director Elizabeth Lee says that Sunway offers plenty of scholarships that encompass various categories of students.
These include full and tuition-waiver academic scholarships, sports and extra-curricular based scholarships, as well as those that are specifically for the needy.
Lee explains that the college has always been involved with helping students in the community.
“Sunway University College has been put into a trust since the 1997 economic crisis and that is why it is possible for the institution to provide such vast opportunities and encouragement for students.”
The trust fund has recently been converted to a foundation, and aims to disburse even more funds to deserving students.
Lee is confident that there are plenty of avenues available for students to finance their higher education.
“Students should look for alternative quality education locally instead of going overseas for full duration or part of their studies. Education is something most people would invest in for the long-term benefit.”
At a time where most business seem to be grinding to a halt, some colleges are even expanding due to rising student numbers.
For instance, UCSI University President Peter Ng is more concerned about how the institution will be able to cope with the student population, rather than the opposite.
“One of the reasons we have been doing so well could be because we have been upgraded to a full status university,” said Ng, adding that plans for new courses and infrastucture are already in line.
In the intrest of student welfare, UCSI offers on-campus jobs for students who are in need of financial support.
Examples of on-campus jobs provided are those like gym-instructors, and lifeguards at the university’s swimming pool.
“We also provide teaching jobs for our postgraduate students if they are qualified enough in a subject to teach the first year undergraduates, and for those who are good in other things, we would try to cater for them by providing them a job in a field they are good in,” said Ng.
Ng stressed the importance of work experience, saying that all their students go through a co-op programme with an industry relevant to their course.
“This programme is beneficial to our students, as it will help them tremendously when they graduate and come out into the workforce.”
Sacrifices for the future
While colleges boast of staying afloat, the reality for students is not as cheery.
A first year pharmacy student in a private college, Ying Swee Keng, 23, sums up the practical price of furthering her studies.
“Education is supposed to build a better future, but it is actually becoming a burden to our family.”
With two other siblings who have also just commenced their tertiary studies in different private institutions this year, many sacrifices have to be made in order to pay their tuition fees.
Despite getting National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) loans provided by the government, Swee Keng and her siblings are fully dependent on their father, a single parent working as an insurance agent.
“I recently got my PTPTN loan approved, but a lot still has to come out of our own pockets as the RM40,000 given is not even enough to pay for the first two years of my four-year degree.”
Asked if she worked part-time to help in the family income, Swee Keng said, “I would but I don’t have the time to work because of the amount of work we get from class.”
However, she admitted to cutting back on a lot of additional expenses, such as shopping and going out with her friends.
Her brother Ying Wei Ee, 18, sees the matter in a similar light.
Having a passion for interior design, Wei Ee is braving the financial storms to pursue his dream.
“I have definitely cut down on a lot of things, and since I have to buy my own material for my assignments, I save up my allowance and invest in the materials I need for class instead.”
Wei Ee admits that there are times where his designs have to compromise with the cost of the materials, which is something he has to accept and learn to work around.
Second year Law student, Jeremy Tai landed himself in a private university after failing to get himself a place in a public university for the course he wanted.
“My mind was quite set on studying Law, so I guess I didn’t really have a choice but to apply to a private university.” The 22-year-old lad is currently studying a 3+0 twinning degree because he does not see the need to study overseas, especially since he has a younger sister who is also starting her bachelors degree at a private institution.
“I don’t think it is necessary to pay so much more just to study overseas, especially when you can get the same qualifications locally.”
But for Matthew Eng, 21, going overseas is merely a part of tertiary education that he looks forward to experience.
Currently doing a 2+2 twinning course with a university in the UK, Matthew said that going overseas was only possible because of the PTPTN loan.
A pharmacy student who is determined to make the most of his education experience, Matthew worked part-time in a hospital as a helper in the physiotherapy ward, and will be working in a local community pharmacy soon to gain additional income, as well as work experience.
As with many of his peers, Matthew hopes for more finanical assistance than what is currently available.
“I think private education institutions should give out more scholarships, or offer a better loan scheme so that we have more time to pay off our fees.”