Thursday, September 8, 2011

Johnny Come Lately

*Sigh* You would think that a ministry dedicated to fostering higher education – in fact, set up recently to provide better more focused guidance to the sector – would have thought of doing this from the get-go (excerpt):

Study on total universities required

PUTRAJAYA (Sept 6, 2011): The government is conducting a study to find out the total number of universities – public and private – needed by the country in order to produce the desired number of graduates.

Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin said the purpose of the study is to maintain the quality of Malaysian universities and strengthen the position of the higher education sector.

At the same time, any decision to build new universities or foreign university branch campuses here should benefit the country in producing human capital and contributing towards economic growth.

“The ministry is now studying how many universities we actually require. To be an international hub for higher education, how many foreign branch campuses (are) required?

“While welcoming foreign branch campuses, we also want to see the growth of local universities at the international level. So, all these we will take into consideration.

“We do not want every Tom, Dick and Harry branch university campus to be set up in this country, offering programmes which may not be relevant to our country,” he told reporters at the ministry after presenting the offer letter to HELP University College to be upgraded to university status.

The ministry’s plan is to enrol 150,000 international students in Malaysia by 2015, and 200,000 by 2020. As at April, the figure stands at about 86,000 students.

Currently, the ratio of university to population in Malaysia is about 1:400,000 compared to 1:200,000 in the United States. However, the accessibility to higher education in Malaysia is around 40% compared to between 60% and 70% in the US.

Asked when the study would be completed, Khaled said the ministry will not rush it as “we want to make sure our study can last many years”.

Until July 31, there are 20 public universities and 52 private institutions of higher learning in the country - comprising 25 universities, 22 university colleges and five branch campuses – apart from over 400 private colleges.

Given that the enrolment rate at local universities is sub-30% compared to over 50% in most developed (read: high income) countries, I’m wondering exactly what the Minister and the ministry are waiting for. It’s fairly obvious that more is needed and very soon (actually, five years ago).

Do the math – to get to the 50% enrolment rate, especially given the larger youth cohorts coming our way over the next ten years and the goal of increasing the number of foreign students, you need to at least double the number of universities or vocational colleges currently available (assuming current universities are at capacity and can’t expand further). That’s the bare minimum, simple back of the envelope calculation (you can donate my RM2 consultants fee Winking smile).

Another problem here is one of philosophy – quality versus quantity. Nobody’s going to be proud of claiming we have universities ranked 500th or 1000th in the world, but then that’s not the point. A college-level education, of at least some minimum standard, raises productivity and lifetime earnings, and contributes towards raising human capital within the country. If you go to a better university, the likelihood is that your lifetime earnings would be even better, but good university or not, you’ll still earn much more than someone without a tertiary-level education – the so-called college premium.

Maybe because our education system was initially based on the UK model that there’s this prejudice against “low-quality” tertiary institutions, and a corresponding desire for elite universities. Going this route certainly helps the status and prestige of the Ministry itself – maybe that’s why the benchmarks for our universities are their world rankings, and not the overall enrolment rate.

Whatever the case, I think it’s the wrong strategy to take. We should be more willing to consider the US approach, of yup, letting every Tom, Dick and Harry open a university, or at least a technical college. I’m reminded of the success of the post-WWII GI Bill as one of the foundations of America’s post-war prosperity, helping provide academic and technical education to a wider mass of the population.

Not everyone is qualified to enter Harvard or Oxbridge, but that doesn’t mean you should restrict their ability to rise to the level of their capabilities and talents. Anything else would be a tragic waste. And at an aggregate level, the diversity of learning experiences and teaching regimes over a wider swath of the population would serve Malaysia better than a combination of well-educated elites and less-educated masses.

I’m also thinking that if we want to upgrade our academic software, increasing the demand (and supply) for higher education necessarily raises demand and wages for lecturers and professors. While quality of teaching issues will be problematical initially (hey, you have to start somewhere), the higher returns to an academic career should attract better talent over time – so if Malaysia wants Nobel Prize winners, we’ll need this foundation.

In short, let’s have more tertiary level institutions please – right now.


  1. Bro

    Instead of "low quality" tertiary institutions the focus should be on creating vocational institutions which will cater to those Malaysians who are more ready to get into the skilled work and supervisory end of work. This leaves the tertiary institutions to focus on higher level thinking and research functions for innovation and adaptation of technology.

    Nice piece!

  2. The logic seems compelling - increase the supply of higher education and this will increase the supply of a more skilled, more productive, hence higher-income workforce.

    However the current reality seems far removed from this. Enrolment in IPTA has averaged growth of +10% per year over last five years (MOHE data), yet employability remains poor (in 2008, 30% of IPTA graduates were unemployed six months after graduation)

    Out of the 600k or students who enter into a cohort of primary education every year, only 130k make it to tertiary education of any sort (public or private)

    I do not think it's a problem of supply as the government and private sector has already done its best to meet demand by the opening of more and more universities and the upgrading of private institutions (HELP was just awarded university status this week).

    You can ask your friends in government but I think the real problem is that the primary and secondary education is not of sufficient quality to produce school-leavers who are prepared for the rigours of tertiary education.

    Hence you get some colleges and universities offering low entry standards and low passing marks to enable lower quality students enter and pass. Garbage in, garbage out.

    Let's try and address the source of the problem by focusing our attention on better performance at primary and secondary level first.

  3. Also worth looking at the Australian model of funding university education through government loans that are repayable overtime through the income tax system where income exceeds (say) RM 40,000 a year. The current practice of handing out scholarships should aimed at the very poor, those severely disabled and the orang asli, and should extend to all levels of education especially primary education. Middle class bumiputeras should repay their loans if their income exceeds the relevant thresholds.

    Allow universities to charge fees and pay their academics competitive salaries.

  4. @de minimis

    Totally agree - and the lack of news on that front is discouraging. There's another "study" being done on that to. Muhyiddin's leading this one, so there's no excuse for lack of political will here.

  5. @rodger,

    There are plenty of problems at primary and secondary level, hence the growth of independent private schools. Yes, there's a quality issue here too, and that's something we have to handle, not just collectively but individually as parents.

    Yet addressing primary and secondary education are long term issues, whereas we need more higher education institutions right now.

    Expansion of higher education, even of vocational or lower quality than existing, is still worth doing:

    Even lower quality tertiary education provides a "college premium", albeit lower than it would be if supply was restricted.

    A further thought - my own personal experience has been that of a late bloomer. I struggled through secondary school and university, but found my footing later in life. Who's to say that those rejected at university level now are any worse than those accepted?

    As you say, SPM grades don't appear to be a meaningful signal of capability, and those that don't do well there might in fact have the very qualities that would allow them to flourish in a different, less spoon-fed environment. As a society, we owe them the opportunity to try.

  6. @anonymous,

    Thanks, though if I'm not mistaken, many students in Malaysia are funded through PTPTN loans - of course, there's the slight problem of PTPTN's idiotic funding model.

    But I agree, especially with the last comment. Relying solely on government funding is losing our universities academic talent.

  7. We also have a few other challenges:

    1. those who have been enrolled in vocational schools don't seem to acquire precision engineering skills where machine manipulation with calculations is needed;

    2. two-thirds of our local university enrollments are women;

    3. few of the private tertiaries invest in real engineering or technical facilities for their courses which are preponderantly geared towards social science studies;

    4. most of the teaching staff in private tertiaries, for that matter public tertiaries, don't have formal teaching skills;

    5. only thirty percent of our teachers are fluent in english;

    6. we are not a reading nor knowledge-intensive nor research-inquisitive society.

    Even if we don't restrict vocational skills to just engineering-type skill sets, we cannot escape the conclusion that manufacturing will have to remain an important mainstay of our economic growth for the simple reasons that agriculture can't and services is too primitive; if it isn't, we wouldn't need to have this discussion.

    I fear all these points will impinge on even the most forward-looking recommendations out of any study the government will be doing.

    For me, it is small comfort that we are just somewhere in the middle of the supply chain and so our human resource challenges are not critical. I think they are the most critical thing for the future of our youths and this country because we not only have to hit it right in the near term, we also need to undo the damage done all the way back.

    As educational effects have gestation timelines, we are where we are today precisely because those same challenges had been tackled in the past based more on numbers and not with deeper strategic insights into how industries and service paradigms change.

    I can write a lot more but to add to the dismay would be thoughtless of me.

  8. Walla, there's plenty of problems to handle - my wife's a senior lecturer at a public research university, so I'm familiar with many of the issues. Especially about teaching skills (I get an earful at home).

    But you solve big problems one step at a time, one challenge at a time. If we can't do everything at once, then need to prioritise based on importance and urgency. And there's nothing in the immediate term that's more in important my mind than providing access to tertiary education.

    The qualitative issues are important, but not urgent, because there's little that can be done to address the issue immediately - any measures we take will take years to filter through. And research indicates that (believe it or not) the quality of teaching is actually less important than actual attendance.

    My own experience has been that in the end, the responsibility of education lies with the individual (and his/her parents), not society or the institutions of society. There's such an enormous leap between the academic knowledge obtained with a basic degree at university against real world requirements or even post-graduate education, that I think the main takeaway from a university education is less learning and more the ability to learn. That's why I'm pretty sanguine about educational quality - I'm not sure it really matters.