Private higher education in Malaysia: How it started, how it’s going (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this article series, we explored the history of private higher education in Malaysia, the role of the government in driving its involvement in the education sector and how it has affected the demographic of student enrolment in higher education institutions. In this part, we shall explore the various problems caused by private higher education institutions and attempt to address some resolution options.

Is everyone getting a fair shot at education?

After approximately 35 years since private colleges first appeared in Malaysia, it is about time that we look at how they have affected the higher education landscape in Malaysia.

Firstly, the expansion of private higher education supposedly has given the opportunity for thousands of Malaysian students to pursue tertiary education. But the high cost of degree programmes at many of these private institutions has been a barrier for many local students, especially those from the B40 group. For example, while the average fees at a public university such as the University of Malaya is RM19,500 for a three-year engineering degree, at a private university such as Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR) a three-year civil engineering course may cost RM46,800 ( Not only are tuition fees and living costs in many private colleges higher than public institutions, they also vary from institution to institution, depending on factors such as the infrastructure, learning and residential facilities, location and quality of faculty members.

So, this pay or perish policy effectively means that the corporate owned and local branches of elite foreign universities are out of reach for most students from poor families. Although these institutions benefit from the policy of liberalising private higher education, it does not in real terms benefit a lot of local students. As a result, programmes such as medicine, dentistry, engineering, accountancy and pharmacy, which could cost anywhere between RM300,000 to RM500,000 are beyond the means of even lower middle-class families. The doors may even be closed to those with excellent results in pre-university programmes because there are not many scholarships given by these universities.

According to Dr. Geoffrey Williams and Dr. Paul Lim, 86% of private tertiary institutions are “for profit “companies and only 14% are actually “not for profit”. Can we expect such private institutions to be generous in awarding scholarships or bursaries?

Clearly, admission to study for example, medicine, dentistry and engineering, at these elite institutions of higher learning are clearly unaffordable in a pay-for-profit system. As a result most of the students have been contented with getting a degree from “any other university”.

Interestingly, when the private higher education institutions were raking in millions, they were able to pay handsome dividends to their shareholders and generous salaries for their top officers. Thirty percent of these payments came from PTPTN funds paid to the institutions by way of student loans (according to Dr. Geoffrey Williams) and many deserving students were not given scholarships to continue their studies in these institutions.

Some mushrooms are toxic

Over the years, the mushrooming of private colleges and universities has caused some overzealous colleges to act beyond the bounds imposed. According to Dr. Geoffrey Williams, “private universities regularly introduce new courses to attract more students.” He says that the “pressure to earn revenue or increase income,” would sometime force them to promote new courses even before such courses get the green light from the ministry or department of higher education and also despite the fact that these courses need experts to teach.

Acting without approval like this affects unsuspecting students who are “persuaded” to sign up, to only discover later that the course has not been granted approval – ending up as victims of these schemes. Similarly, many students sometimes commit themselves to signing up for courses through the combination of peer influence and persuasion by the college or university, which sometimes offer goodies such waiving or discounting registration or tuition fees for “early birds” along with incentives such as generous concessions for introducing and convincing their friends to sign up as well.

Most students who eagerly look forward to strong teaching and learning support in addition to good facilities such as hostels, transport, libraries, tailor-made course content and structure, lecture halls, science labs, recreational facilities and so on, end up very disappointed when the promised campus turns out to be in fact cramped spaces in renovated shop lots bereft of the promised facilities. The provision of adequate and excellent physical facilities is an indicator of an institution’s academic worth and the lack thereof a sign that the institution may be cash strapped.

Then there is the issue of the quality of the curriculum and the academic staff. Many private colleges need to address the problem of teachers, trainers and academic leaders who lack the relevant knowledge and skills, and at the same time be able to supervise student activities and measure learning outcomes.

The established, reputable private institutions with a tradition of teaching excellence such as the branch campuses of foreign universities and some corporate or government backed colleges and universities do not have many problems about quantity and quality as far as their teachers and trainers are concerned. But some colleges or universities have lecturers and instructors who are not competent. In addition, many of these establishments also have a high turnover of academic staff because of the poor pay and bleak career advancement prospects.

More oversight required

The ultimate question is – what’s the role of government? One key task of the Ministry of Higher Education is to fine-tune the regulatory framework to ensure that programmes offered by private institutions at all levels are comprehensive, inclusive of the latest developments in the specific field of knowledge, and that the courses offered will increase employability.

An equally important task is to create uniformity in the course content and the assessment methods employed. Similarly, a coordinating body to guarantee reliability and validity of the evaluation system will be an added guarantee of quality. This is not meant to kill or reduce autonomy and creativity but to increase confidence in private higher education.

Another crucial element is to reduce the number of institutions offering the same programmes so that a glut of graduates who cannot be absorbed into the job market is not created.

Opportunity for a reset

We cannot discount the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the private higher education sector. The closure of international borders and several phases of the movement control order (MCO) have impacted on enrolment numbers, in particular international students. Although Malaysian higher education institutions could enrol foreign students since January 2021, slow visa approvals and students’ concern over the pandemic is a big discouragement. The National Association of Private Educational Institutions has said that about 60 private higher education institutions closed down in 2020 primarily due to financial issues.

Were these closures the direct result of the pandemic? Or were they already suffering from poor management, positioning and perhaps already operating in an overcrowded environment? Higher education specialist Dr Geoffrey Williams through his research found that private universities and university colleges were already in dire straits in 2018, with 64% per cent facing critical debt problems. Of this, around half of them were technically insolvent – bleeding up to RM50 million and RM400 million, respectively, in annual and cumulative losses (NST, June 18 2020). If those private higher education institutions were already in the red pre-pandemic, then it wouldn’t take much to push them over the edge, what more a shock like the pandemic and the MCOs.

While there may be temptations to bailout of some of these institutions, it would be unwise if the problems that caused their poor financial state are not addressed. The pandemic therefore presents opportunities for the private higher education sector to address structural issues in their organisation and within the sector. More importantly, it’s a chance for the government to review, reform and reset the sector – returning the original goal, education for all.

Banoo Vasudevan
Parti Sosialis Malaysia Kedah

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