‘World-class’ bid may have caused admissions fiasco

Malaysia’s bid for world-class university status and the channelling of government funds into research and postgraduate studies at several public universities may have caused this year’s fiasco in which a large number of non-Malay ethnic minority students failed to get into undergraduate courses of their choice despite scoring top marks in school-leaving exams.

Wee Ka Siong, education bureau chief of the Malaysian Chinese Association, or MCA, told local media recently: “I believe this could be one of the reasons why many top scorers failed to get into universities or the courses of their choice.”

In July the allocation of seats at public universities sparked an uproar after ethnic Chinese and Indian students failed to get onto preferred university courses – particularly in medicine and dentistry – despite achieving higher results in school-leaving exams than some Malay students.

Data provided by the MCA youth wing showed that for the past three years the total intake for medical, dentistry and pharmacy courses had shrunken by almost a third. The number of Chinese students accepted into these three fields had also declined by between 19.2% and 31.9%.

A Malaysian Education consultant and former programme manager at UNESCO in Bangkok, Molly Lee, said: “The Malaysian government in 2008 upgraded five public universities to the status of research universities, which means they give extra funding to these research universities. The rationale is to increase their postgraduate programmes and intake.”

“What happened is that the universities tried to reduce the proportion of undergraduates to postgraduates. Instead of increasing [the number of] postgraduates fast and maintaining undergraduate numbers, they started cutting back on undergraduates.

“They said they needed to remobilise resources. It might have affected critical courses like medicine, dentistry and pharmacy, where the numbers are reduced in general. It has hit the non-Malays real hard,” Lee told University World News. She said research universities should not cut back on undergraduate students.

MCA’s Wee said that if the number of seats had been increased, the current situation would have been alleviated. “There is no valid explanation [for] the low enrolment," Wee said.

The number of places in medicine courses in public universities shrank from 983 in 2011 to 700 this year. Dentistry places were down 30%, from 174 in 2011 to 119 this year, and pharmacy courses reduced places by around 12%, according to MCA figures.

Chinese student numbers declined from 339 admitted to medical courses in public universities in 2011 to 188 this year. For dentistry the number reduced from 77 admitted in 2011 to 38 this year, and pharmacy places allocated to Chinese students dropped from 125 in 2011 to just 50.

Wee said the ministry had failed to provide an explanation as to how students with lower grade averages were offered places on courses such as medicine and dentistry when some ethnic minority students with the maximum score did not.

A system of ethnic quotas in public universities to improve the access of Bumiputra – ‘sons of the soil’, or ethnic Malays – to higher education was abolished in 2002, with the government insisting that public university admission be on merit.

However, ethnic groups complain that pro-Bumiputra policies remain entrenched in the mindset of public administration officials and policy-makers.

“These rows occur every year” over scholarships and intakes, said Lee.

According to the national news agency Bernama, 68,702 school-leavers applied for places at public universities this year – a 7.6% increase compared to last year. Of these 41,573 applicants (or 60.5%) were offered places.

Of the applicants, 73.59% were Malay, 17.56% ethnic Chinese, 5.22% Indian and 3.63% students of other ethnicities. Of the 41,573 who received offers at public universities in July, 74.3% were Bumiputra, 19% Chinese, 4.4% Indian and 2.3% other ethnicities.

Those with high marks who could not secure places in public institutions have little choice but to enrol in more expensive private universities, which are keen to admit high-performing students.

With ethnic minority resentment running high, Deputy Education Minister P Kamalanathan said the ministry was looking at ways to help the 16,229 students with no offers at public universities using the national loan scheme, the Higher Education Fund Corporation or PTPTN, to fund some private university places so the fees “won’t be a burden on them”.

“The students will be given the PTPTN loan to pursue their studies. They will be able to convert their loans to scholarships if they can obtain first class honours,” said Kamalanathan.