Laying down the law

  • Education
  • Sunday, 17 Jul 2011

The ministry gets tough to ensure quality is upheld in Malaysia’s higher education landscape.

FOR the longest time, errant private higher education providers deliberately broke the rules and got away with it.

Anything more than a cursory disciplinary glance from the relevant authorities – or the occasional media frenzy – would be as good as it got, and misdemeanours largely passed under the radar.

No longer. The Higher Education Ministry has stepped up its efforts to curb the problem over the past few years and breakthroughs have been achieved of late.

Coming mostly in the form of legal action and hefty compounds, errant private providers are increasingly brought to justice and two recent cases in May highlight the ministry’s resolve.

Interestingly, both cases stemmed from the same offence: the enrolment of students for courses which were not approved by the Registrar General.

Ministry director (enforcement and inspectorate division) Dr Naimah Md Khalil pointed out that the two private providers contravened the guidelines stipulated under the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996 (Act 555) and this was a serious offence.

“Only the registrar-general can approve courses which have been given the stamp of quality from the Malaysian Qualifications Agency,” she said.

“The approval process is an important step to ensure private providers only offer quality courses. There is no guarantee on the quality of a programme which has not been approved.”

She added that students in such programmes ran the risk of missing out on job opportunities or avenues for further study by reading unaccredited and unrecognised courses.

It goes without saying that appropriate action was meted out on the guilty parties.

In the first case, a college in Petaling Jaya – which has since changed its branding – which specialised in fashion and jewellery design was fined RM120,000 for offering five unapproved courses.

Information provided by the ministry revealed that several factors were considered by the Sessions Court judge, such as the number of students enrolled and the course fee for each programme, among others.

As a result, the fine for offering a degree programme in fashion design cost the provider RM50,000 as compared to an RM10,000 penalty for offering a degree in jewellery design.

The second case involving a university college in Kuala Lumpur was more intricate, as the private provider realised – albeit too late – that they had made an error.

Attempts to rectify the problem – the offering of five unapproved undergraduate and postgraduate courses related to music – were made and the judge factored everything into account.

However, the initial mistake could not be overlooked and a cumulative RM65,000 compound was slapped onto the guilty party to ensure there would be no repeat.

In students’ best interest

Reflecting on the verdicts, Dr Naimah said that such action passed as deterrents to ensure that there would be no more errant education providers in the future.

“The court action is important in the ministry’s efforts to safeguard the best interests of students, particularly those from the general public,” she said.

“The charges also send a strong message to all private providers regarding the seriousness of such offences.”

The recent developments encapsulate the not-so-nice element in the ministry’s carrot-and-stick approach to ensure private providers toe the line.

It has long been said – most vocally by former director-general Datuk Dr Radin Umar Radin Sohadi – that such efforts are not restrictive as they ensure that newer, and sometimes weaker, institutions acquire the structural and management solidity which is a prerequisite for success at the top.

The court cases in this story complement recently released ministry statistics which revealed that 47 compounds were slapped on errant private providers from January to March this year, as compared to 47 last year and a mere nine in 2009.

The cumulative amount of compounds issued up until March was around RM470,000.

In April, Higher Education deputy director-general (pri­vate higher education institutions) Prof Datin Dr Siti Hamisah Tapsir said that common errors committed by private providers included the offering of unregistered or unapproved programmes, relocation to new premises with­­out approval, and the employment of lecturers without valid teaching permits.

She added that other errors which directly contravened the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996 (Act 555) included the provision of courses beyond an agreed timeframe and inaccurate advertising.

Then, Prof Siti Hamisah reiterated the ministry’s desire to get tough with errant private providers who misled the public through gimmicky advertising where “goodies” like “free laptops and accommodation” were promised to new students.

She also announced the ministry’s plans for a nationwide campaign to educate the public on how to select the right institution for tertiary education.

In recent years, amendments to the Act have given more power to the Higher Education Minister and the registrar-general to take action against errant institutions and senior sources in the ministry say that proper implementation of the law is needed to send out the message effectively.

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

In this light, the trend to bring errant private providers to justice shows no signs of stopping and if rumours are to be believed, the fish can only get bigger in the ministry’s clean-up efforts.

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