In pursuit of excellence

To cement Malaysia’s status as a global eduhub, plans are afoot to improve the nation’s higher education scene and the private sector is set to change in a big way.

WHEN Malaysia was ranked the world’s 11th most preferred study destination by the Institute of International Education, one would think that high-fives were being traded over at the Higher Education Ministry.

With 69,154 international students from more than 150 countries, the ministry’s target of 80,000 international students by 2010 was within touching distance.

And if this year’s 26.5% increase in international student numbers was anything to go by, the target would likely be surpassed.

However, there was no drowning in a storm of celebration and a different deluge was the order of the day. The global liberalisation of higher education would only generate – and intensify – competition for student mobility and this had to be addressed.

As the bulk of Malaysia’s international students read programmes at private higher education institutions (IPTs), the provision of quality had to be guaranteed and the ministry made this clear to the CEOs of leading private IPTs in a closed door meeting and forum at Putrajaya on Sept 15.

The present landscape

Chaired by Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin and Director-General Prof Datuk Radin Umar Radin Sohadi, the meeting saw the ministry projecting Malaysia’s higher education scene and the role played by private IPTs.

Under the present economic climate, any significant growth in the tertiary sector would have to come from private IPTs as public funding for higher education is not expected to rise.

“The Government will not be building any more new universities in the foreseeable future,” said Mohamed Khaled.

“Also, the research and Apex universities will focus more on postgraduate students and the freeing up of undergraduate seats offers an outlet for private IPTs to enlarge their student pool.”

Stressing the need to drive accessibility and equity in higher education, he added that the Government acknowledged the role played by private IPTs and that the higher education sector was singled out as an “engine of growth” by Malaysia’s Economic Planning Unit.

From an exclusive interview with Prof Radin – who is also the Registrar General (RG) – it is learnt that each international student would contribute at least RM30,000 per annum to Malaysia’s economy and with that in mind, the ministry wants to create a conducive ecosystem for private IPTs to thrive.

“We have many variants of private IPTs in Malaysia – perhaps too many – from the traditional business and profit driven IPTs to CSR-based ones to third party universities run by GLCs like Universiti Petronas, Universiti Tenaga Nasional and Multimedia University,” he opined.

“Apart from bringing in foreign students, these institutions reduce currency outflow by keeping local students here – at least for a while longer. On average, around RM600,000 to RM700,000 is spent on each Malaysian studying abroad and for long and costly courses, that figure can even exceed RM1mil.

Prof Radin added that by focusing on key disciplines, some private IPTs had done Malaysia a great service and the ministry intends to reward their efforts by providing avenues to improve their quality.

Christmas coming early

And what the ministry is planning puts paid to the saying that good things must come in small packages.

Private IPTs are encouraged to fulfill the ministry’s agenda in the National Higher Education Strategic Plan and proposals are in place to motivate private providers to jump on the bandwagon.

For example, Investment Tax Allowances (ITA) await private IPTs which offer more Science and Technology programmes to achieve a 60:40 ratio. The programmes involve Software Engineering, Healthcare (Medicine, Psychology, Pharmacy, Destistry), and Engineering courses, among others.

The ITA will be extended to encourage private IPTs to offer the above programmes at competitive fees, attracting local and international students alike.

To encourage private IPTs to upgrade their infrastructure and facilities, the ministry will propose that Industrial Building Allowance (IBA) be increased from 10% to 15%.

“The ministry will seek to provide greater incentives to private IPTs,” continued Prof Radin. “This includes double deductions on tax exemptions for sponsoring their staff to pursue postgraduate studies and on for fees paid in acquiring full accreditation from the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA).

“To promote the use of ICT, a 50% reduction on software license fees and tax exemptions for online journal subscriptions and broadband services will be proposed. And we will propose tax exemptions on income for private IPTs whose international student cohort comprise at least 40% of their total enrolment.”

The plot thickens

While this was encouraging, it was as good as it got for many private IPTs and the change in enthusiasm was evident the moment the ministry lay down the law.

Despite the influx of foreign students which gave Malaysia a 2% stake in the international student market according to the Unesco Institute for Statistics, the Malaysian higher education brand has taken some knocks of late.

It is learnt that the Nigerian Education Minister alleged that Malaysia was a country that offered low quality degrees during the recent 17th Conference of Commonwealth Education Ministers in Kuala Lumpur.

Much to the ministry’s chagrin, the imbroglio deepened with subsequent allegations in international conferences and the emphasis is now on the provision of quality.

And it isn’t just outsiders who are ambivalent – or critical – about Malaysian higher education. Prof Radin, for one, concedes that much can be done in terms of branding.

“Although we have strong private IPTs, we must acknowledge that many private providers operate in non-conducive learning environments by operating in shop houses, sharing premises with other businesses and lack recreational facilities for students,” he said.

Most of these IPTs are yet to attain full accreditation from the Malaysian Qualification Agency (MQA) and their lack of expertise and personnel when it comes to teaching and learning, curriculum design and quality control makes things worse.

In a bid to stop the rot, the ministry has stipulated that all private universities and university colleges must fully comply with the MQA’s framework by 2011 in terms of curricula, delivery and assessment while private colleges will follow suit in 2013.

Also, private IPTs can only enrol international students in programmes which are fully accredited.

Sword and shield

By imposing these measures, the ministry is aiming to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Prof Radin revealed that credible private IPTs would be strengthened while non-performing ones had to buck up or leave the market.

“Malaysia’s needs are different now,” said Prof Radin. “It was easier to set up private IPTs in the past as there was a need to provide accessibility to higher education but we have come to the point where we have to weed out non-performing IPTs.

“For branding purposes, we’d rather have a few elite providers that are the preferred choice of local and foreign students.”

The time for shadow boxing is over and from next year, private universities and university colleges will be graded in the Rating System for Malaysian Higher Education Institutions (Setara) to benchmark their performance against each other and public IPTs.

Minimum targets have already been set and all private IPTs including colleges must score three stars while all private universities must score 30% - or two stars - in MyRA’s (Malaysian Research Assessment Instrument) innovation and research scores.

Non-participation in Setara would see private IPTs getting slapped with moratoriums and their operating licenses could even be revoked.

“We’re particularly concerned about institutions in the bottom 20%,” continued Prof Radin.“The serious players have nothing to worry about and some of them have expressed support as it is important to add credibility to the private higher education scene.”

Amendments to the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996 have given more power to the minister and the RG to take action against errant institutions and Prof Radin believes that proper implementation of the law is needed to send a message.

Section 54 of the Act enables the minister to revoke the approval of a private IPT’s registration and licence while Section 55 empowers the registrar-general to cancel the registration of private IPTs on valid grounds.

Too much of something

Moving on, the “small” selection pool of courses and the presence of underqualified international students at private IPTs were other issues the ministry addressed.

Many private IPTs in Malaysia – including some bigger players – muster a symmetrical, if underwhelming, number of programmes and Prof Radin is calling for the provision of more courses.

“Approximately 35% of students at private IPTs read Business-related programmes and another 20% are in IT-related fields,” he said. “The market does play a part in determining which courses are in demand, but at the same time, we feel that much more can – or should – be done.

“Malaysia’s higher education landscape has matured to the point where private IPTs have more students than public universities. That maturity must also be shown in the selection of courses. The spectrum isn’t wide enough.”

Prof Radin said that the ministry was not faulting institutions as the current situation was probably the byproduct of franchise programmes which were popular amongst students.

Encouraging enrolments and the familiarity of running tried and tested courses – which are more cost effective to run – probably led many private IPTs to remain in their comfort zone.

“To add variety, we will offer incentives to private IPTs who are willing to branch into new fields and perhaps the time has come to give disincentives to those who want to venture into saturated fields,” he said.

Regarding foreign students, Prof Radin believes that finding the right balance is pivotal. While admitting that the ministry had its own foreign student figures to meet, he stressed that the local populace would be given priority and issues such as safety had to be considered.

Around 40 private IPTs see more than 40% of their international students coming from the Sub-Saharan while 38% come from Nigeria.

“We have situation where certain foreign student cohorts cluster together and this may worry locals,” he explained. “This isn’t good for an IPT’s international outlook. We want to encourage IPTs to seek students from all over the world and not just from a few particular markets.

“The students must also be qualified. Some governments send their scholars to Malaysia and we can’t have these bright students studying alongside those who will hold them back intellectually.”

The ministry has set a minimum CGPA requirement of 2.0 for all international students and private IPTs were advised to adhere to this benchmark.

Also, the issue of foreign students working in the country instead of studying was raised and the ministry will set up task forces to nip the problem in the bud.

According to Prof Radin, covert and overt methods would be used and action would be taken against private IPTs who failed to keep their students in the classroom.

The ministry has adopted this silk and steel approach to ensure that Malaysia’s private IPTs can rough it out with the best in the business.

And this means benchmarking Malaysian higher education against world renowned bodies such as the Ivy League in the United States, Brtain’s Russell Group and Australia’s Group of Eight Universities.

While Malaysia has the edge in affordability when compared to the traditional players, the same cannot be said about branding and the only way to improve in this respect concerns quality, hence the ministry’s measures to strengthen the private higher education landscape.

And how will this translate onto the world stage?

“We hope to see Malaysia breaking into the top 10 countries for tertiary education,” said Prof Radin thoughtfully. “We must build on our ability to provide affordable quality education and improve in terms of quality.

“Some measures may not be friendly to various private IPTs but we believe that this is the right way to progress.”

While the ministry’s initiative is bold, only time – and the effective implementation of the proposals above will tell whether the dream can be realised.

Thousands, and quite possibly millions, are watching. And that’s just Malaysians – and slightly over 2% of the world’s international student population.

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