Higher education in Malaysia: Quantity over quality

Four hundred and fourteen private colleges for a population of just 28 million people, of whom three million are migrant workers, must seem like an eye-popping number to most people.

Students work in front of a giant red ribbon made of 10,000 balloons at a local university during an HIV/Aids awareness campaign in Kuala Lumpur.

What was the Malaysian government thinking when it allowed all these schools to mushroom?

Whatever it was thinking, it has now changed its mind. Effective from Feb 1, no more new private colleges will be allowed for two years.

Notwithstanding the ban, the government will still review the cases of a handful of schools seeking to upgrade their status, seeking international rankings or considering building new campuses.

All these colleges have created a sea of unemployed graduates who cannot find the cushy jobs they hoped would be waiting for them when they graduated. But there is no point in giving out too many scrolls if the scroll is not worth the paper it is printed on. In any case, will a two-year moratorium make any difference? This is not the first attempt to slow the growth of private colleges. The government imposed such bans earlier in the fields of dentistry, medicine and nursing.

The thinking now is that there are ample private higher learning institutions in the country to meet the demand.

As of November 2012, Malaysia had 37 private universities, 30 private college universities, seven international branch campuses, and 414 private colleges offering certificates and diplomas in various fields.

It is clearly a situation of oversupply and competition among the colleges is intense. In their eagerness to create more graduates, some are willing to close an eye to the weaknesses and shortcomings of students.

Hence there are many unemployed graduates who cannot string two sentences together, can’t hold a conversation in English, and are disappointed when they are turned away by employers.

In the aviation sector more than 1,000 graduate pilots are jobless. In the nursing field, there are too many teaching hospitals and private colleges, and nurses from some of the private colleges still need training at teaching hospitals before they are fully equipped to work.

Yet while youth unemployment is high, overall unemployment in Malaysia is still a very modest 3.1%, a sign that the government has managed some things very well.

Even on the education front there may be some longer-term hope. The government has issued a flurry of licences for international and private schools for primary and secondary education. It has also lifted the restrictions on the number of Malaysian students that can go to an international school. That bodes well, as the number of people unable to produce two sentences in English in the future should be reduced.

So while primary and secondary education receive deserved attention, the rationale for the ban on colleges is obvious; there is a serious need to weed out some of the unsustainable programmes and even schools. A day after the ban was announced, the government said it would set up a committee of education experts to undertake “health checks” of some colleges.

Nine colleges were named, not necessarily the worst, but some were selected at random. Others were seen to have weaknesses and/or complaints from the public about services and performance.

The idea of the health checks is to monitor schools’ administration, services and programmes. Essentially it is a sustainability review. The checks will begin this month for an undisclosed time, with about 10 colleges a year monitored.

If the government can identify and weed out poor institutions, the resulting reduction in the sheer number of colleges should be healthy and help strengthen others.

Though this is something that should have been done earlier, Malaysia has to start somewhere because it has a big dream of becoming the education hub of the region. Thus far it has managed to attract some big names to establish campuses in Malaysia. They include Johns Hopkins University, Epsom College, Raffles College, INTI International and, more recently, Xiamen University, which will open its campus by 2015.

In the final analysis, it should be quality over quantity. Churning out graduates is easy but producing quality graduates who get quality employment will keep the enrollment numbers up. It is indeed foolhardy for any educational institution to make claims of good employability just to draw high enrollment numbers.

About the author

Writer: Jen Rita