Paying more to learn

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 15 Jan 2017

EDUCATION has changed, says former secretary-general of the National Union of the Teaching Profession Datuk N. Siva Subramaniam.

In the past, parents and their children felt that the only way to get a good education was via public varsities; today, they see private institutions as the only path to a bright future.

The educationist believes that most parents are willing to pay even if it means selling off their property and wiping out their savings because private institutions are better managed financially, and they insist on meritocracy.

The future, he says, is competitive, so parents – even middle income ones – will make sure that their children get quality education, proper learning facilities and experienced academic staff.

“Many feel like the only way to get a good education is to go to a private institution because they’ll only invest in the best facilities, equipment and talents. Hiring in private varsities is based on merit so parents know that they’re paying for the best educators to teach their children,” says the 2011 Tokoh Guru recipient.

But education, he feels, isn’t just about facilities and lecturers. It’s about an entire ecosystem.

“Private sector employers only want the best. Malaysian parents want their children to have opportunities abroad. In private learning institutions, there’s stiff competition. Students are fighting to be among the best so they learn from their peers. Parents want their kids to be challenged by their peers and they don’t mind paying for this experience.”

Parents and students today are more well-versed about education issues and job opportunities available compared to previous generations.

“Parents looking to send their child for tertiary education only have two questions: Will my child be employable? Will a degree from this university open doors?

“Cost is secondary because a good education is about ensuring survival. Parents want to give their child an education that will be valuable for life,” he says, relating how a friend had mortgaged the family home to fund their child’s medical studies in Britain.

Malaysian Employers Federation executive director Datuk Shamsuddin Bardan agrees.

It’s not that bosses prefer one group of graduates over another. Hiring boils down to what’s required. Graduates from private institutions are more employable because they meet private sector demands better and have the right qualities.

“This is especially true when it comes to their ability to communicate in English. They’re more expressive because that’s how they were trained.”

Citing an example, he shares how the delivery of lectures in private institutions are more flexible and students have access to private sector practitioners who come and share their experiences. While such is also expected of public varsities, the reality is that it doesn’t happen very much.

On Jan 8, Sunday Star ran an exclusive report on how budget cuts in public universities have hit even the country’s premier higher institution of education, with the 111-year-old Universiti Malaya letting go of experienced academic staff, thus jeopardising its standards. The slashing of government funds has also led to the neglect of facilities, posing a risk to students and staff.

The budget slash, Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh had explained, was in line with the ministry’s planning since 2007. Public expenditure on higher education had tripled in just over a decade and universities have grown too dependent on public funding. Malaysia was one of the biggest spenders on higher education, yet its performance was still less than ideal, he had shared.

Education is the most important investment any country can make because it’s to build skills and competencies that can be used by generations to come. It’s as important as building dams and highways, Taylor’s College president Craig Sherrin feels.

“Education is like a two-way investment: The government invests in the future of the country, and the individual invests in himself,” he says.

Under Budget 2017, the funding for public universities were slashed by up to 42% compared to 2015.

Among the worst-hit are Universiti Teknologi MARA (36.16%), Universiti Malaya (42%), Universiti Sains Malaysia (40%), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (42%), and Universiti Putra Malaysia (38%).

Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation vice-president of operations Gurpardeep Singh reckons that the cuts are in line with current international trends.

Many public universities worldwide have been asked to find alternative sources of income to increase self-proficiency, he shares.

While the funding cuts have taken many by surprise, Gurpardeep says local universities should have been prepared as it started with corporatisation, which began a few years ago.

Corporatisation was introduced to reduce dependence on government funding. This is to make them more competitive, efficient, and sustainable, without losing their objective, he says.

An optimist, Gurpardeep doesn’t think the budget cuts will affect the quality of education in our public universities or demand for places there.

“Places like Universiti Malaya are an establishment. Their facilities are already in place so there shouldn’t be much change in the way the students are taught. And the demand for places will still be there because the fees are subsidised,” he says.

Siva Subramaniam feels that the slash in funding isn’t why public varsities are missing the mark. The rot, he thinks, stems from poor fund management. Instead of quality and meritocracy, focus has been on quantity. The result is that graduating from public varsities like Universiti Malaya and Universiti Sains Malaysia does not carry the same prestige as 50 years ago when it was difficult to get in, and graduate.

In the old days, he recalls, local graduates were sure to get a job unlike today where their counterparts from private institutions are more marketable because they have skills that are relevant to employers. Public varsities, he feels, aren’t producing graduates that are in line with the nation’s needs.

“Private institutions also face budget slashes, especially with the weak ringgit. All of us also have less to spend. Making do with less is a reality for everybody. We’re all learning to cope. And, like the rest of us, public varsities must learn to live with less without compromising on quality,” he argues.

The Government, he says, must take a good, hard look at what’s wrong. Get input from successful Malaysians working abroad to plan for the future. We must know what sort of graduate the world needs, he insists.

But while budget cuts have had an impact on local varsities, the quality of education has not been compromised, Education and Research Association for Consumers Malaysia (Era Consumer) president Datuk Paul Selvaraj says.

“I don’t think it’s going to result in a major drop in quality. Public varsities are still known for their academic experts and good tertiary education is still accessible to Malaysians. But, public varsities must manage their money better,” he warns, adding that private institutions are an alternative – not a substitute, to public varsities.

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