In Asia, higher education is no longer considered an option but a necessity to be employable.
Society is taking higher education very seriously and hence the number of school-leavers seeking entry into higher education institutions has been increasing yearly.
The available number of public higher education institutions (IPTA) in Malaysia can only provide access to a limited number of students. In addition, limited resources at these institutions hamper accessibility for more needy students.
The government has to ensure that opportunities are created for students who were unsuccessful in gaining entry into IPTAs by allowing the establishment and growth of private higher education institutions (IPTS).
At the same time, the government is aware that the birth and growth of private institutions are not the same as those of public institutions.
In order for IPTS to complement the public sector, they must be able to provide quality higher education similar to that provided by public universities and colleges. This is to ensure that students enrolling in IPTA or IPTS receive quality higher education services.
Hence, it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) to formulate policies, incentives and initiatives that could assist private institutions to improve and strengthen their services to become attractive and offer value for money.
The private sector has become crucial as demand from international students has increased annually. According to the Minister of Higher Education,75,000 international students were expected to enroll in IPTS this year.
In addition, private higher education is considered the next 'engine of growth' for Malaysia. At present, Malaysia is placed 11th in the world as a destination among international students, who constitute about 2% of the world's international student population.
The Ministry of Education era
Private institutions were the responsibility of the Ministry of Education (MoE) before 2004. During that era, the role of the business sector in higher education was limited to providing scholarships and educational loans to students, allocating space for student internships, advising universities on the curriculum and employing the graduates.
The role of business then changed and they became key players in providing higher education services. The resulting IPTS began their role as complementing public universities in producing knowledgeable and skilled manpower.
During that era, companies had to apply for approval through the MoE when they wished to establish, register and operate a private college. As the role of IPTS became necessary and relevant in providing higher education services to meet increasing demand by both local and international students, the MoE adopted a strategy to facilitate the growth of private colleges. The number of IPTS grew rapidly, with a variety of business models and with varying enrolments of students and varying quality of higher education services.
Initially, private institutions were driven to support their companies' human resource needs. The higher education services provided by IPTS were primarily for preparing and supplying human resources to industries to meet their demand for skilled and semi-skilled workers.
This initial intention became profit-driven when there was demand from local students. However, the basic and additional requirement for human resources to qualify for recruitment began to change with the emphasis on soft skills, leadership, IT skills and problem-solving skills, apart from an academic qualification. This necessitated a change in the curriculum and teaching methodology.
Being a business, there was a high risk that private institutions would not initiate or develop strategies or activities to meet these new challenges, as working towards such a goal incurs high additional costs.
The government was made aware of this development, and the necessity to intervene became a priority to guide IPTS to provide quality higher education services.
To realise this objective, the MoE applied the Private Higher Education Institution Act 1996 (Act 555) and regulations to guide the success of the intervention.
The Ministry of Higher Education Era
From May 2004 the management of IPTS became the responsibility of the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE). The separation of the MOHE from the Ministry of Education allowed the management of private institutions to be more focused. Act 555 was improved and implemented in 2009 to meet new challenges.
These efforts resulted in the growth of private universities, private college universities, branch campuses and colleges.
As of 31 August 2009, there were 20 universities, 20 college universities, five branch campuses and 470 colleges that were registered with the Private Higher Educational Institution Management Sector. These IPTS provided access to higher education to 450,531 students, including 50,679 international students.
The government's policy on the operation of private institutions in Malaysia has allowed several major businesses, organisations and even political sectors to set up institutions.
For example, Universiti Teknologi Petronas, Universiti Tenaga Nasional and Multimedia University were established by government-linked companies. Sunway College of the Sungei Way Group and KBU of the First Nationwide Group are examples of IPTS established by large corporations. IPTS set up by political parties include MIC's TAFE College Seremban, MCA's Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman, and UMNO's UNITAR.
Branch campuses are IPTS that involve foreign universities invited to operate in Malaysia. Among them are Monash University Sunway Campus, Curtin University of Technology Sarawak Campus, University of Nottingham in Malaysia and Swinburne University.
The government believes that improvement in providing quality higher education services in the public and private sectors should be an ongoing process.
This effort is undertaken in order to compete with the rest of the world in providing quality services, with the intention of realising the government's objective of achieving world-class educational standards and transforming Malaysia into an education hub by 2015.
In 2007, the National Higher Education Strategic Plan focused on helping Malaysian public and private higher education institutions to become world-class.
The seven major initiatives or strategic plans include widening access and increasing equity, improving the quality of teaching and learning, enhancing research and innovation, strengthening higher education institutions, intensifying internationalisation, enshrining lifelong learning, and reinforcing the delivery systems of the MoE.
Upon graduation, students must possess first-class knowledge and attitudes, which Malaysia needs to remain relevant and competitive globally, as well as prepare graduates who are able to adapt to economic changes.
The government is aware of the challenge ahead to transform profit-driven IPTS into performance-driven institutions. In this regard, the government has to play the role of a regulator and facilitator of IPTS, to ensure their roles are strategically balanced.
IPTS are able to showcase the number of international students enrolled in their institutions. This is partly due to direct involvement of the government's policy on internationalisation, offering licenses to eligible and qualifying IPTS to recruit international students.
The MoHE will continue to introduce new policies and initiatives that can mould and shape IPTS to compete globally. The policy on internationalisation has, over the years, increased the number of international students in local IPTS.
Apart from encouraging foreign universities to provide higher education in Malaysia, the government also encourages local IPTS to upgrade their capacity and capability to provide higher education abroad.
At present, there are about 25 local IPTS providing higher education services overseas. Among them are the Asia Pacific Institute of Information Technology in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India, and Limkokwing University in the UK, Lesotho, Botswana, Cambodia and Indonesia.
The realisation of this development is a direct result of the government's policy of ensuring the quality of IPTS and its policy on internationalisation.
An initial analysis showed that apart from the marketing efforts of IPTS, word-of-mouth of international students on the quality of IPTS in Malaysia had contributed towards building the confidence of other countries in IPTS ability to provide higher education services of international standards. This has led to the emergence of local IPTS overseas.
Government policies, through the National Higher Education Fund Corporation, provide educational loans to needy and qualified citizens to enroll in IPTS. This initiative proved to be one of the major contributing factors in increasing the participation of Malaysian students in IPTS. Corporation-related programmes are popular with local students as they provide opportunities to obtain partial funding.
Students would prefer to enroll in ranked institutions, as their graduates are more marketable and stand a better chance of gaining employment. Realising this, the government encourages the IPTS to upgrade to a higher level. IPTS may upgrade from college to university college, and from university college to university if, and only if, they meet certain requirements.
In order for students to obtain bachelor and postgraduate degrees, IPTS are encouraged to recruit more lecturers with higher qualifications like masters and PhDs. This is expected to improve the quality of the teaching-learning process.
IPTS with higher-qualified lecturers will also create an opportunity to indulge in research and development, which will in turn attract postgraduate students. IPTS, with experienced expatriate lecturers or those with industry experience, could also showcase their teaching staff.
IPTS offering programmes with internship and entrepreneurship are likely to be more attractive, as these value-added features provide better opportunities for employment. The MoHE encourages the integration of internship and entrepreneurship.
The Ministry of Higher Education hopes such efforts are being shared by the IPTS to realise the vision of transforming Malaysia into an education hub with world-class standards, producing graduates who are able to compete globally.
* Dr Mohamed Ali Abdul Rahman is Senior Principal Assistant Director, Registration and Standards Division, at the Ministry of Higher Education in Malaysia.
* This article is based on extracts from a commentary written for QS WorldClass SHOWCASE and is reproduced with permission. Click here to view the SHOWCASE e-book.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters