Filling up Malaysian colleges – mission impossible?

3 Key Questions are raised in this article:
(a) What are the number of new students we need to fulfill the aspirations of the power that be for the National Education Blueprint 2015 -2025 to bear fruits?
(b) What are the projected number of new students from existing sources, both local and foreign?
(c) If there is indeed a deficit, what other sources of new students that Malaysia can muster?

Commentary (Feb 23, 2017)
When I was preparing for my public lecture at Taiwan’s Tunghai University ( entitled “Malaysian higher education: past, present and  likely future.”) in June 2016, I was researching on the data of the numbers of local and foreign over a few years and crunched these numbers to see if these have the potential to fill up the large collective capacities of Malaysian colleges and universities which are already having surplus “seats” at present.  While I was pondering the implications brought about by the National Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education) it suddenly appeared clear to me that my research work should indicate if fulfilling the numbers indicated by the power that be may be a mission impossible. I then went ahead to ask three crucial questions and attempted to analyze these with the data available to come up with my viewpoints.

In this article (which was written in August 2016 & updated in September 2016 when newer & more accurate data was available after my public lecture in late July 2016), I tried to lay out the bare facts based on my asking three crucial but simple questions:

(a) What are the number of new students we need to fulfill the aspirations of the power that be for the National Education Blueprint 2015 -2025 to bear fruits?

(b) What are the projected number of new students from existing sources,  both local and foreign?

(c) If (b) shows a deficit, what other sources of new students that Malaysia can muster?

The article that follows, the second one in a series of three, was first published in Han Chiang News portal in August 2016. My former colleague, Ms Kristina Khoo had produced the infographics to help readers to comprehend the data presented better.

First article in the series: How many colleges and universities can Malaysia truly sustain?

Those of us who serve in the higher education industry can finally breathe a sigh of relief when the National Education Blueprint 2015 – 2025 (Higher Education) (NEBHE) was unveiled on April 07 2015.  At least the strategic direction for the higher education sector for the coming 10 years was charted.

However, one important segment of the higher education sector was not adequately covered. The private higher education sector did not get the detailed attention that it deserves. This is surprising given the fact that the private sector is responsible to educate over 40 per cent of Malaysian students pursuing tertiary studies.

Under the NEBHE, the entire tertiary education sector should see the enrollment rate rise from 36 per cent  (1.42 million) in 2012 to 53 per cent in 2025 (2.49 million). To achieve this different sub-sectors within the higher education sector will have a differential rate of growth.

The private higher learning institutions are expected to grow its enrollment by 5.1 per cent annually whereas the corresponding rate of growth for the public universities is 2.6 per cent per annum. The largest rate of growth will be for private and public technical, vocational education and training (TVET) institutions at 7.8 per cent per annum while the remaining state-owned tertiary institutions (operated by different ministries) will see a modest 1.4 per cent annual growth.

All these impressive figures give the private higher learning institutions badly needed sense of the nation’s direction and how they could play their collective role. However there are three crucial questions that were not addressed by the NEBHE….

Summary of findings (click to view bigger image)

Summary of findings

Question 1: What is the number of new students that we need to recruit in 2025 if we are to attain the targets set by the National Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education)?

Typically Malaysian students studying in private universities and colleges enter these institutions straight from high school after taking their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (equivalent of “O” level) and they will take about 4 years to complete their undergraduate studies. Their counterparts studying in public universities will be required to have pre-university qualifications such as STPM (equivalent of GCE “A” level), Matriculation or similar qualifications, and they only need about 3 years to graduate. Students in the TVET sub-sector will take around 1.5 years  to 2 years to complete their studies. To estimate the number of new students for each year for different sub-sectors, all we have to do is to divide the current total number of students enrolled in that sub-sector by the average years that it takes a typical student to graduate. So Table 1 and 2 summarise the number of “freshies” (new students) that each sub-sector needs per year for the reference year of 2017 and 2025 (as provided by the NEBHE).

We use 2017 as the “reference” year for two major reasons. Firstly we could estimate (based on available data) more accurately the number of students for each of the six sources and this data is more current and reflects the latest changes in the environment of higher education sector that are not so well reflected in the data of 2012. The total enrollment in each sub-sector in 2017 was calculated based on the corresponding compounded growth rate as stated in the NEBHE. For example, the Private Institutions sub-sector was estimated to grow by 5.1 per cent from 2012, thus the total enrollment of 555,000 was calculated from the base-year (2012) figure of 455,000 compounded by 5.1 per cent over 4 years

Table 1: Estimation of new students needed for each sub-sector in 2017

Sub-sector [annual growth rate] Total Enrollment (‘000) Typical study duration New enrollment needed (‘000)
Private institutions [5.1%] 555 4 139
Public universities [2.6%] 604 3 201
Public & private vocational institutions [7.8%] 335 2 167
Other governmental institutions [1.4%] 182 1.5 121
Total 1494 629

Let us use the annual growth rates for each sub-sector to estimate the compounded enrollment of each and in turn work out the number of “freshies” required by each sub-sector in 2025 (as shown in Table 2).

Table 2: Estimation of new students needed for each sub-sector in 2025

Sub-sector [annual growth rate] Total Enrollment (‘000) Typical study duration New enrollment needed (‘000)
Private institutions [5.1%] 867 4 217
Public universities [2.6%] 764 3 255
Public & private vocational institutions [7.8%] 656 2 328
Other governmental institutions [1.4%] 205 1.5 137
Total 2492 936

Hence, based on our simple calculations, for 2017 we will need about 629,000 new students to feed into the entire tertiary education sector in Malaysia. Based on the same principle we can estimate that by 2025 (as shown in Table 2), to provide for a total enrollment of 2.49 million, we shall need to have around 936.000 new students.

Question 2: Do we have enough youngsters to “feed” into the entire scheme of work?

To answer this question, we shall need to take a look at the sources of students for tertiary education. Traditionally there are six main sources of students for tertiary education institutions.

We can estimate the figures for each sector for the year 2017 and 2025 based on the following categories of “sources”: (a) Sixth formers; (b) Matriculation students; (c)  SPM students; (d) International students; (e) Independent Chinese high school students; (f) private school students.

Based on the population estimation and projection published by the World Bank, the population of 17, 18 and 19 year-olds in Malaysia by 2025 will be 560,000, 566,000 and 574,000 respectively. These figures are matched by the Malaysian Statistic Department’s projection of the nation having a total of 2,573.500 fifteen to 19 year olds by 2025, giving an average of around 515,000 persons per year group. These demographic data provided the basis from which the estimation of the number of students for each of the six categories of sources stated and presented in Table 3.

Table 3: An estimation* of the sources of students for tertiary institutions in Malaysia for 2017 and 2025

Sources of students Estimated number (‘000) For 2017 Estimated number (‘000) For 2025
(a) Form 6 42 60
(b) Matriculation 27 30
(c) SPM (Form 5) 441 400
(d) International students 43 71
(e) Chinese independent high schools (UEC) 15 19
(f) Other private schools 10 16
Total: 578 596

*Some of the data presented in this table has been revised (Sept 23, 2016) in consideration of more accurate data being obtained by the author after publication.

We assumed that both the (a) Form 6 and (b) Matriculation student population will only have a modest growth over the 9- years period. Basing on recent trend, we expected that the number of SPM school leavers to continue to decline yearly and will drop from 441,000 in 2017 to around 400,000 by 2025. We estimated (d) International students number from the figure of around 150,000 published for 2016 where on average overseas students spend around 3.5 years in Malaysia (we divided 150,000 by 3.5) and did likewise for their numbers by 2025 based on the published target of 250,000 international students by 2025 as stated by the NEBHE. As the collective capacities of the (e) Chinese independent high schools are already in saturation point in 2016, there should be a modest growth over the next 9 – 10 years in the number of new students that they are able to accommodate and hence the corresponding slow growth in the number of students graduating from these high schools. With the massive growth in numbers and capacities of the private schools and international schools sub-sector, it is prudent to estimate that the number of students graduating from this subcategory will double over the next 9 years.

By just comparing the answers to Question 1 and 2, we can see that, based on our estimation, even in 2017 there will be a “shortfall” of around 33,000 students if the target enrollment numbers for each subcategory of tertiary institutions are to be met. This “shortfall” shall widen greatly over the 9 years to 2025 when there would only be a “supply” of 611,000 students but with a collective capacity / target number of around 936,000. A huge deficit of around 350,000 students.

Question 3: Do we have any way to source for 300,000 – 400,000 students per year to fill up the collective capacities of our colleges and universities by 2025?

A Malaysian Statistics Department report  stated that, 55.5 per cent of the Malaysian labour force had only a secondary level education, 15.5 per cent had primary level education and 2.6 per cent had no formal education. This means that if we just focus only on those in the labour force with secondary level education, with around 14 million in the total labour force if we just send 4 -5 per cent of these people a year to tertiary institutions, there will be over 300,000 students to make good the shortfall.

However, with increasing participation rate of school leavers in tertiary education (already stated at 53 per cent by 2025) and a massive upskilling of the labour force to tertiary education level, there will be a fast “depletion” of low skilled labour force in 10-15 years. Unless there is a massive growth in the population of 18-year-olds, the country will still face with the issue of having insufficient number of students to fill up the capacities of her colleges and universities.

Perhaps the power that be should instead be looking into consolidation of the whole tertiary education sector. Maybe it is prudent to take a re-look at the ambitious enrollment targets set forth by the NEBHE.

The bulk of the content of this article came from a talk given by the author as a guest speaker of Tunghai University, Taichung, Taiwan on July 28 2016 entitled “Malaysian higher education: past, present and  likely future.”

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