EDUCATION revolution. This was a priority with Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi when he became Prime Minister. Certainly, the wheels are now in motion with the division of responsibilities between two ministries – the Education Ministry and the newly created Higher Education Ministry.
The announcement of the new ministry on Saturday caused quite a stir in the education sector, especially among the institutions of higher learning.
While the 17 public universities and university colleges are rather autonomous and self-sufficient, never short of student enrolment and comfortably funded by the Government, the private sector feels somewhat like a stepchild in need of more attention.
Private university colleges and colleges are now excited and optimistic that the Government, through the Higher Education Ministry, is ready to focus on the general development and growth of the private sector which has contributed in no small way to the economy. With next year’s target of 50,000 students from all over the world studying mainly at these institutions and bringing in a projected revenue of RM1.5bil, education is a serious export business.
Malaysia was steps ahead of the others when it started offering franchised foreign degrees via twinning and linkage programmes back in the early 1980s. But since the Government decided to make the country the regional hub for education nine years ago, the neighbouring countries have been on a similar pursuit and are fast catching up, if not overtaking, in some instances.
The public universities too are concerned with the quality of graduates being churned out; many are unable to meet global and industry needs. The numbers are growing but the quality is declining.
With these demands and more, Higher Education Minister Datuk Dr Shafie Mohd Salleh has a challenging task ahead of him. He will be dealing with a highly competitive industry where the players are aggressive and impatient with long approval time because any delay in enrolment means loss of revenue.
In the private sector, education is a cash business – fees are paid upon signing up – where rules are often bent and sometimes blatantly ignored to get the numbers.
Former Education Minister Tan Sri Musa Mohamad applied a firm hand in taking the errant institutions to task. He personally vetted applications for new courses or upgrades as well as claims made by colleges in their advertisements.
Institutions could not pull the wool over the eyes of the former vice-chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia. However, his very hands-on approach did not sit well with college operators – the approval processes were time-consuming and sometimes course content, especially for IT, became out-of-date even before the programme could be approved.
Another matter of concern is the upgrading of private colleges to university colleges. A main objective is to wean the upgraded institutions off franchised foreign degrees within a five-year framework in favour of their own brand of degrees – a rather ambitious move. Will foreign students, for that matter, local ones, want to pay for Malaysian university college degrees instead of British, Australian or American in the near future?
Dr Shafie has to draw a fine balance between giving the tertiary institutions enough room to move and grow and ensuring that quality is not compromised for expediency. For a healthy development of the higher education sector, there has to be real consultation with the parties involved, transparency in policy implementation and a review of current policies to achieve the government’s goals.
With two new ministers coming on board, there will be much learning. For this, nothing beats getting to the ground and listening to what students, teachers, parents and educators want.
Education Minister Datuk Hishammuddin Hussein will find the pace at his new office much more demanding and the seat “hotter” than his old. Any “reform” he institutes in schools will have repercussions on generations of students; he will find it hard to please everyone because of the political implications of any decision.
One of his main tasks will be to handle the political considerations so that his officers can carry out their professional work.
The division of responsibilities between the two ministries is currently being sorted out and there are some officers who are concerned that this may affect the cohesiveness of the education system – pre-school to post-graduate studies must remain one seamless and continuous process.
Hishammuddin and Dr Shafie will have to work closely to minimise the gaps, continue to build on the foundation of our education system and institute changes which will meet the needs of a knowledge society.
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