Best choice for college ever in 2017 for SPM holders

Similar to their seniors of the past few years, SPM 2016 cohort is also in the “buyer’s market” but with one distinct advantage. The SPM 2016 cohort is enjoying greater scholarship awards at more generous terms in 2017. With private institutions of higher learning in 2017 facing more severe competition among themselves he common strategy seems to be to offer scholarships to attract the best students. SPM 2016 cohort who are college hunting perhaps are well advised to follow the six tips offered by this article.

The entire private higher education sector, especially those working on student recruitment was thrown into major chaos when the Ministry of Education announced suddenly in mid February 2017 that there was a delay by two weeks on the release of Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM – Malaysian Certificate of Education) for 2016 cohort. Education fairs had to be rescheduled, marketing plans and newspaper advertising insertion plans etc. all had to be re-worked. Although most major players interviewed by The Star put on a brave face and said that their intakes would not be affected, signs as received from the ground (i.e. education fairs) are indicating otherwise. However the reason may not be the delay in the release of SPM 2016 results as will be explained later.

In my humble opinion those who told us not to read too deep into this delay did not take into considerations on the huge costs incurred for this sudden change of date for the release of SPM 2016 results. People who work in the student recruitment area would have had their personal plans messed up, hotel & transport bookings re-booked and at the company level, extra cost would have to be borned. One such “casualty” of this affair is the Star Education Fair in Penang which had to be postponed from March 4 – 5 by three weeks. One can only sympathize with the people who handled the logistics, installation and setting up for this event as well as the people who have to pay the exhibition venue owner for the sudden change of dates.

On the fateful day, March 16, 2017 many from the SPM 2016 cohort went to their respective schools with anxious anticipation. This author’s daughter (including her father and mother!) waited with great anticipation for the release of her SPM result, one which would have the effect of defining her next education path and perhaps her entire career path. When my daughter called back and sobbing heavily and semi-comprehensibly, my first thought was, “gee, she must have done badly” and I consoled myself with the fact that as a contingency plan, I had sussed out a vocational training programme equivalent to the learning pathway chosen by my daughter if she “tanked” her SPM. But as it turned out, my worried was unfounded. My daughter did not shame her grandfathers (both her paternal and maternal grandfather, as well as her mother were hailed from the teaching profession). She scored straight A’s (i.e. ten grade A’s). She was simply too happy and could not believe her own attainment. [For anyone who is unfamiliar with the SPM grading system, here is a quick explanation: SPM grades are split into nine grades with “grade A” having three sub-grades starting at the top with A+, A and A-, then “grade B” and “grade C” both having just two sub-grades of B+ or C+ and B or C followed by “single” grades in descending order of “grade D”, “grade E” and “grade G” which is a “failed” grade.]

Armed with my daughter’s official result slip, I went with my family for a visit to an education fair at Mid Valley Exhibition Hall on Mar 19, 2017. The plan was to visit the shortlisted colleges and find out with 10 grade A’s which are not all in the highest “A+” category how much in terms of scholarship would this young student manage to secure (this is because my daughter, did not score A+ in all ten subjects). All three institutions approached offered the same level of scholarship: 100% tuition fees waiver. Of course some would be more generous with the other fees such as laboratory fees, facilities fees etc. but the base line was the same.

As I have been serving in the private higher education sector for over two decades, it was natural for me to meet some of my old friends and acquaintances at this education fair. One of my old friends mentioned the severe competition he observed and that the “body snatching” was the reason why almost all players were very generous in giving out scholarships this year.

In 2013 when this author’s son was at the same stage of college hunting as his younger sister, computation for grade A’s for the purpose of scholarships was done by recognising only subjects where the students scored the magic grade A+ and sometimes grade A. Almost all institutions did not recognize grade A- as “grade A” for the purpose of deciding on scholarship awards. The fact that four years later in 2017, there is a “downward revision” in the definition for “grade A” to include grade A- means only one thing: there is intense competition in 2017 which is more severe than 2013. Each institution which offers this more generous definition of “grade A” for scholarship awards is hoping to grab as many students as possible.

Higher education business is essentially a number’s game. Each class / programme in a cohort will have a magic “break-even” number. Once you have breached this magic figure with full fees equivalent number of students, any further students that you add to the cohort (subject to the regulatory upper limit of student to lecturer ratio; 25 : 1 for non-technical programmes; 15 : 1 for technical programmes down to 7 : 1 for medical related programmes) you are going toward the surplus territory even if this extra student pays virtually no tuition fees. This is because of the fact that most scholarship awards do not cover miscellaneous fees, laboratory fees and facilities fees and thus providing a source of revenue to the institution even from those students having 100% tuition fees waiver. A lot of people do not know that in higher education, there is no marginal cost, it is just fixed cost and variable cost. For classroom-based classes, once the fixed cost has been covered by the break-even number of students, the variable cost for any additional students is virtually zero. For laboratory / workshop-based classes, this variable cost will be easily covered by the lab fees and other fees that each student, regardless of their scholarship status, must pay.

In actual fact, scholarships and bursaries as provided by the private higher education institutions in Malaysia are just product discount. A broad analogy can be made with the budget airline industry, once a plane (in this case a class / cohort) has filled up to the break-even number, revenue from any further passengers (students) will be the surplus, even if these people pay a very reduced fare (fees) disguised in one form or another. The higher education business model does sound very much like that of the budget airline industry does it not?

Similar to their seniors of the past few years, SPM 2016 cohort is also in the “buyer’s market” but with one distinct advantage. The SPM 2016 cohort is enjoying greater scholarship awards at more generous terms in 2017. A player informed this author that even those applicants offering just a single grade A (again it doesn’t matter if it is a A+, A or A-) would be qualified to receive some scholarship starting from RM500!

With private institutions of higher learning in 2017 facing more severe competition among themselves (having to compete with many “branded” institutions such as Xiamen University, Newcastle University, Reading University and Heriot-Watt University among many which have entered the market recently), the common strategy seems to be to offer scholarships to attract the best students.

The economic uncertainties faced by many in Malaysia together with the new and better structured Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM – Malaysian Higher School Certificate) will have the effect of attracting more SPM 2016 cohort to take up STPM. This author expects more than the usual forty five thousand or so of the SPM cohort to take up STPM. He further predicts that there may be fifty thousands or more students from SPM 2016 cohort opting for the STPM this year, draining at least a further 5,000 students from the private institutions’ market.

The increasingly attractive offers from Taiwanese universities (with increasing number offering programmes that are delivered in English) which have tuition fees level that are lower than many Malaysian private institutions of higher learning is another pull factor on the SPM 2016 cohort. This is especially so among the forty four thousand of the SPM 2016 cohort who took and passed SPM Chinese.

It is therefore a better buyer’s market for SPM 2016 cohort than ever. Students from SPM 2016 cohort who are college hunting perhaps are well advised to follow the following six tips:

  1. Check what level (and thus the absolute value in terms of tuition fees waiver) of scholarships the various colleges shortlisted by you can offer. Weigh this against No. 2 to No. 6 below.
  2. Check the conditions for the scholarship awards. Institution A may insist on you maintaining a CGPA of 3.7 throughout your studies compared to Institution B that demands only a CGPA of 3.0. This means that in order to continue to receive your scholarship, you will need to score a lot of grade A’s if you opt for Institution A, while for Institution B, you just need an average B+. Unless you are very confident of doing well, it will be risky to take up the offer from Institution A!
  3. Check what are the miscellaneous fees, facilities fees, laboratory fees, computer fees etc. that you have to pay. Often these could add up to a substantial sum. If any institution is unable or unwilling to provide data on these fees, your alarm bell should start ringing!
  4. Check what sort of college services or “community services” that a scholarship holder of an institution needs to contribute. While most institutions are only interested in using their scholarship holders to help with marketing and recruitment activities, some do have high demand of the said students to serve during term time. Some even demand their scholarship holders to work during term breaks. In general, the workload should not affect one’s studies. The good point for this is, you will have some working experience while studying, even if you do not get paid!
  5. Check what are the penalties if you decide to withdraw from the programme after you have commenced studies. To protect themselves and to ensure that the recipients are serious about accepting their scholarship offers (and serious about studying) almost all scholarship providers impose a penalty for scholarship holders who withdraw from their studies. The penalty could be substantial as you, by withdrawing is taking away the opportunity for another student and would mess up the financial projection for the institution too. This situation may arise should you, after commencing studies, receive a “better” offer somewhere else, a similar offer closer to home or there is a change of your family’s circumstances.
  6. Check that the programme that you are interested in is accredited or provisionally accredited (PA) by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA). A programme generally will receive a PA from the MQA after it is approved to be offered and the said programme will be eligible to be accredited only when the first cohort of students are nearing completion of their studies. Thus an institution holding a PA for a diploma programme should have this programme accredited by the MQA at the third year of its being offered. You should check MQA’s lists of accredited programme and provisionally accredited programmes for the institution that you are interested in. However, MQA has not been fast in updating the data of these lists. So do ask to have sight of the letter of accreditation or PA if the programme you are interested is not on either of MQA’s lists.

For those from SPM 2016 cohort who did not obtain the required grades to enter academic studies at tertiary level, there are plenty of options for you in the vocational education sector where there are still many private colleges and public training institutions which provide good alternatives. The Perbadanan Tabung Pembangunan Kemahiran (PTPK – Skills Development Fund Corporation) provides loan which covers training fees and living expenses to trainees taking approved courses. It is worth noting that not all SKM courses are eligible for PTPK funding. However all SKM programmes will need to be approved by the Department of Skills Development whose database of accredited centres and training programmes are worth checking prior to signing up.

In general, those who take the Sijil Kemahiran Malaysia (SKM – Malaysian Skills Certificate) route up to SKM Level III, if possess one credit and a “pass” certificate in SPM will still be eligible to enter academic diploma upon completion of the relevant SKM training. However individual academic diploma programme will have slightly different specific requirements for holders of SKM Level III and there is a need to double check with MQA. Indeed many vocational institutions are offering SKM up to Level IV (Vocational Diploma) and above with a few premier public polytechnics given the right to offer vocational-based degree programmes, the prospect for students from the vocational sector to earn academic degrees is getting better each day.

Good luck to all in the SPM 2016 cohort in their hunt for higher education. Be a smart higher education consumer, ask lots of questions and do your “homework” before committing, and whatever you do, don’t rush into a decision until you (and your parents) have analyzed all the facts and figures!

Registry of Ph.Ds – how it could be best administered

The establishment of the Registry of Ph.D Holders will have one very clear “side-effect”. It will go a long way in separating the wheat from the chaff but since not all accredited overseas institutions award Ph.Ds, the list of institutions in the Registry may not fully represent all accredited overseas institutions but it does provide at least the first list of institutions where their Ph.D awards are recognised in Malaysia.

Commentary: (April 11, 2017):
On Apirl 03, 2017,  Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Datuk Dr. Mary Yap Kain Ching reported that her ministry will roll out a registry of Ph.Ds soon. But this will be confined to Ph.D holders from local institutions. This is a step in the right direction indeed. However one major problem area, those using fake Ph.Ds from foreign institutions or from degree mills are not covered. Based on my own gut feeling, the bulk of the pretenders are in the latter crowd. So this Ph.D registry may only catch the tip of the ice-berg.

I would like, if one of my readers forward my suggestions below to the power that be to tackle the issue still hiding below the ice-berg!

One comment in the above news report that caught my eyes was what Datuk Dr. Mary Yap said, “We all know those who said they finished their PhD within 10 months are fake PhD holders,”

In fact, the good Datuk took 5 years to complete her Ph.D and my learned beautiful and multi-talented friend (from our Doctorate Support Group in Facebook), Dr. Soo Wincci (#drsoowincci) took 6 years to complete hers proved that there is no short cut!

There has been a lot of news for the past few weeks on the need to set up a registry of Ph.D holders in Malaysia. These calls have been brought about by the increasingly serious issue of bogus Ph.Ds and people claiming to have honorary doctorates etc. which was proven to be bogus. I have also made references to this matter in an earlier post and there is a commentary on this issue recently.

In October 2016, the National Council of Professors (NCP) in Malaysia called for the setting up of this registry and hinted that they be given this task by the power that be. However, since not all Ph.D holders are members of this council, and by that, not many Ph.D holders actually are professors (and not all professors in Malaysian universities hold Ph.D or professional doctorates), this body may not be the best representation of the nation’s academic-intellectual power. The NCP further suggested that some charges be levied for the administration of this registry which implies that there may be some monetary gain by the said organisation should they be granted this task.

It was reported that the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) would be working on setting up a Registry of Ph.Ds for Malaysia where all Ph.D holders from local universities (both public and private) would automatically be added to this Registry. It was mentioned that Malaysian Ph. D holders with their doctoral degrees awarded overseas will have to seek verification of their doctorate degrees. So far I have not been able to find the mechanism for such a verification process. Needless to say, this verification process will have to be effective, efficient, fair and transparent. There is also (as mentioned earlier) the need to sort out a cost effective way of administering this Registry.

I think perhaps the following suggestions might be considered by the power that be before deciding on how this Registry is to be administered.

  1. Ownership:
    The MoHE should be the custodian of this Registry which should be “owned” by the Malaysian Government. This will ensure that no parties can gain any financial advantage for owning the data the Registry so contained or make monetary gains for the administration of the Registry. The MoHE’s Registrar General and his/her staff is the right team to handle this since they have ample experience handling the registration of around 500 active private colleges and universities where many of the Ph.D holders are already in the MoHE’s databases. This will make cross checking of data and verifications work more effectively accomplished.
  2. Criteria of admission:
    There must be a clear, but simple to use set of criteria for admission to the Registry. The admission of a Ph. D holder should be done once all the criteria have been met. There should not be any hint of any “approval” step or steps in the process. Anyone with a bone fide Ph.D (that is verifiable) shall be admitted to the Registry. No one should be denied a place in the Registry because of his/her colour, creed, ethnicity, religion or political affiliation. Getting on the Registry should be considered the same as getting on to the electoral roll –  it is a right and not a privilege. Thus the cost of registration should be made as low as possible where I would suggest that the MoHE be granted a yearly budget by the Treasury for the administration of the Registry. We need to stress the fact that not all Ph.Ds are earning big bucks. There are the freshly minted ones who may not have a job or the senior ones who have already retired. Thus the cost to register in this Registry shall not be made a deterrent to those who may not be so financially endowed. RM10 – RM50 should be the the range for the registration fees for  the administration of this Registry.
  3. Transparency & Peers Review:
    The entire process of registration should be fully transparent to give the Ph.D holders and the other stakeholders confidence in the entire system. Perhaps the transparency can be extended to the data held such that each registrant will be having a “page” where her/his expertise, papers published etc. (but not personal details) will be listed. This will serve one further purpose: anyone who have slipped through the filtering process may be “caught” at this stage as the page will be open to anyone on the internet. Peers review is a very powerful tool for the Registry administrator to use. The power that be should take a leave from the career/job/hiring social medium platform, Linkedin where few of the members have (or dared) to put in false credentials as these could be easily “discovered”. Perhaps for more senior Ph.D holders, the need to verify their credentials may not be that stringent as many would have Linkedin profiles where their respective “contacts” would have studied and scrutinized their credentials before accepting them as “contacts”.My Linkedin profile is more credible not because of my own data but the “contacts” that I have who are more established scientists, entrepreneurs etc. than yours truly had verified my credentials and are willing “to be seen” as a part of my network. This philosophy is actually the key success factor of Linkedin. “I am credible because my many contacts have verified my credentials directly by linking with me”. It is not the same as Facebook! Thus the Registry may have features that mirror that of Linkedin to allow senior, established Ph.D holders to help in the verification process in the “Linkedin” way. In fact, I would risk saying that the MoHE should discuss with Linkedin to find a way to maximize the “social verification” features of this platform and the MoHE may be well advised to considering “putting” the Registry on this platform.
  4. Leverage on Foreign Universities:
    All bone fide institutions of higher learning worldwide will want their academic awards be recognized. This should therefore be the key to getting foreign institutions to contribute to the work needed to administer the Registry. However there are key questions that the power that be needs to have answer to, namely:
  • Is there a way to make sure that overseas universities submit themselves to be included in the Registry?
  • Can we make it simple and accept all universities that are accredited in their home countries?
  • Can we make use of the diplomatic missions in Malaysia to be responsible for keeping this list updated for their respective countries?
  • What about those countries without representation in Malaysia? Can we use some international association like The Association of Commonwealth Universities … even the listing for Malaysia is not complete with only 21 institutions (with many Malaysian public universities not listed the organization)…

MoHE can also leverage on the foreign universities to shoulder a big part of the burden in verifying their own graduates’ credentials. It is after all, to the very institution’s advantage to make sure that their graduates are fully recognized. Thus the MoHE could in fact make a “standard” arrangement with the education authorities of each of these nations so that the list of new Ph.D holders (with verifiable details provided) each year (and that of previous years) could be supplied to the MoHE by each interested institution. My son’s alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA even has a website that provides verified details of its graduates principally for the benefits of prospective employers. Thus giving them confidence of the data held at the website and a way to cross check the resume of UNL’s graduates readily. Perhaps MoHE can tap into this sort of databases to make the verification process a lot faster and effective.

The establishment of the Registry of Ph.D Holders will have one very clear “side-effect”. It will go a long way in separating the wheat from the chaff but since not all accredited overseas institutions award Ph.Ds, the list of institutions in the Registry may not fully represent all accredited overseas institutions but it does provide at least the first list of institutions where their Ph.D awards are recognized in Malaysia. What the Registry also need is a “compliant” segment where if anyone’s credential is challenged, there is a fast-track way for the complaint to be studied and verified. There must also be a heavy penalty for the supply of false information by the registrants. Thus I suggested that the Registrar General’s office shall be the best authority to deal with this as there are already some provisions in ACT 555 and related acts of parliament that have penalty clauses which can be used.

When the Registry is ready, I shall be one of the first to want my name to be on it!

Lock in your tax benefit from SSPN-i saving NOW!

Hands up, if you have heard of SSPN-i?…

Hands up, if you have heard of PTPTN?…

My guess is, if you are a Malaysian living in the homeland, I would be surprised if you do not know what PTPTN is. Perbadaan Tabung Pendidikan Nasional (PTPTN or National Higher Education Fund Corporation) is the body that Malaysian students studying in accredited tertiary institutions apply for funding for their studies. One cannot help but notice news about PTPTN due to its defaulters issues.

Wait! What is SSPN-i? Is it related to PTPTN in any way? You may want to ask.

In fact SSPN-i (Skim Simpanan Pendidikan Nasional – National Education Saving Scheme) is the saving scheme of the PTPTN. It encourages parents to save for their children tertiary education. In fact, since Jan 01, 2012 tertiary students will need to have a SSPN-i account before they are eligible to apply for any PTPTN loans. SSPN-i pays dividend yearly which hovered between 2.5% to 4.25% with the latest figure for 2015 at 4%. Not impressed? But this should not be the main reason for you to invest for your children tertiary education fund in SSPN-i, especially if you are paying income tax. The key attraction to investing in SSPN-i for a tax payer like me is in the RM6,000 maximum amount of tax relief per year for net deposit in your child’s SSPN-i account.

You need not be a mathematics boffin to work out that the RM6,000 tax relief will count for RM1,200 for me as my average tax rate is around 20% (… gee am I revealing too much here?). Look at it another way, I would “gain” RM1,200 because I had deposited RM6,000 in 2016 to my daughter’s SSPN-i account. I would still gain a tax-free dividend of around 3 – 4%, which will be the same as what one would get from a normal bank saving account. 23% return on my investment with 20% “guaranteed” and “immediate” when I compute my tax for 2016 next year is nothing you can get legally anywhere in Malaysia. SSPN-i is also a government guaranteed investment. It is a no-brainer really, that is if you are liable to pay income tax for 2016.

In my case, I have just deposited another RM3,000 today adding to the RM3,000 I had already invested in October 2016 to  maximize my “returns”. As my wife’s business earning for 2016 is very minimal, and we have only one child who is a minor (thankfully our son has graduated from university last week!), we could not take full advantage of the “RM6,000 per child” SSPN-i tax relief. However if you have a dual-income  family where both spouses pay income tax (i.e. each of you earn more than the minimum “qualifying” annual income to earn the privilege to pay income tax), and you have children, you will do nothing better than to raid your children’s piggy bank, saving accounts etc. and invest to the maximum sum.

As the profile image has shown, if you hurry to deposit cash in related bank (I went to Maybank, USJ Taipan), a nice PTPTN staff will be on hand to help you with your SSPN-i if you need one and he/she will give you a nicely shaped “golden egg” as a piggy bank for your child and a very good quality recycle bag for mom or dad. Do hurry, at the time of writing (Dec 22,2016) there are only five more banking days left! If you have already opened SSPN-i accounts, you need not go the bank to deposit, Maybank and CIMB online banking portals also accept your money online. Whatever you do, please beat the Dec 31, 2016 deadline!

Since 2015, there is another type of SSPN-i account called SSPN-i Plus which comes with life insurance (Takaful) coverage. However you can only gain the additional RM6,000 tax relief (in addition to the RM6,000 for SSPN-i) if you have not topped the Employee Provident Fund /Life insurance quota of RM6,000. And for SSPN-i there is some monthly commitment of a minimum of RM50. So for most income taxpayers, SSPN-i may be the better choice. More details are found in this Lowyat discussion forum.

Wishing all my readers Merry Christmas (for those who are celebrating) and a happy and prosperous 2017.

Whose choice is it anyway?

I still get calls or Whatsapp messages a few times a year from friends asking for advice on how they can choose tertiary studies for their offspring. My favourite response, “It’s their future, let your kids chase their dreams. By all means, influence their choices but let’s not force them to live YOUR dreams!”

This article was first published in 2015 as a part of my contribution as a working committee member of Penang Chinese Chamber of Commerce’s Newsletter Publication Committee. As I am not sure of the reach of the newsletter, I am publishing this article on my blog to benefit more of my readers.

I still get calls or Whatsapp messages a few times a year from friends and acquaintances asking for advice on how they can impose their choice of tertiary studies on their offspring or which field of studies is “hot”. My favourite response, “It’s their future, let your kids chase their dreams. By all means, influence their choices but let’s not force them to live YOUR dreams!”

I published a related article on this area in late December 2014 citing an article I wrote for the now defunct The Heat (but the online version is still alive).

A survey carried out and published by Penang Han Chiang College on over 300 college-going-age students in early 2015  confirmed two important trends in Malaysia. When it comes to the choice of study and choice of college for high school students: (a) Parents are often the decision makers; (b) Students want to decide for themselves. One will wonder why these two trends are at a tangent to each other.

Parents in Asia, including those in Malaysia are very concerned with their offspring’s education. While Malaysian parents usually make pretty straightforward choices concerning primary and high school education, the same cannot be said about the tertiary education level. High school graduates and more importantly their parents are faced with more and more tertiary education choices and an information explosion that compounded the issue. While the bulk of the high school graduates want to decide on their choice of study and college, many, because of deep-rooted Asian upbringing differ to their parents’ wishes.

“I want him/her to study medicine/law/engineering etc.” is a common phrase one will hear from fellow parents with teenage children. In many cases parents think that they know best without learning about their child’s aptitude for the field of study and the child’s preference for a particular college. They also have the wrong impression that one must take up a career in the field of one’s undergraduate studies. This article gives four real life examples (though only the real name of this author is given!) of university graduates not taking up a career in their fields of study and making a success (or in this author’s case, a good career)  in what they do.

My Story

I studied agriculture at Queen’s University of Belfast, Northern Ireland and moved on to read Biotechnology for my Master’s degree culminating with a PhD in plant tissue culture. As yet, I have never farmed after my undergraduate studies. I have also not worked as a plant tissue culture scientist for close to 20 years after my stints at the National University of Singapore and later in a commercial plant tissue culture laboratory.

Instead, since 1996, I have been serving in the education and training industry at diverse capacities, allowing me to learn enough to be hired as the CEO and Principal of a private not-for-profit college (in 2015), working to upgrade it to be a university college. However, my three university degrees are not “wasted” as they allow me to pick up more knowledge and skills and prepare me to take on many difficult tasks. When I first started to work as a lecturer in Klang, Selangor, I had to call upon what I learned in “Farm Management, Planning, and Control” to provide tutorials to a group of engineering students on a twinning degree programme with the University of Adelaide, Australia in  a subject on project management. The “Business Policy” subject  I learned during my Master’s degree became very handy when I served as the Director of Special Projects for a publicly-listed education group where I often had to churn out full business proposals complete with financial details to bid for funding or “sell” to prospective business partners. The six months of 12-hour day writing my Ph.D. thesis forced me to pick up writing skills which allowed me to serve as a columnist and feature writer for the weekly publications, Focus Malaysia and The Heat recently. I think ‘education not wasted’ is a good way to describe my experiences in utilising what I learned at college!

ML’s Story

While at university, ML and I became very good friends. In fact, I stayed at ML’s house for almost two years when I was completing my Ph.D. studies. ML was trained as a surgeon and in 1988, he bought his first second-hand personal computer and asked me to teach him how to use it (I, being a scientist was always curious and was already a self-taught advanced user by then). ML also used to take things apart, fixed them and put these back together to work better. ML and I once spent a few days working in the pit of the garage of Belfast’s Malaysian Centre where he and I took apart the engine of his car, sent it for repair and put it back together (with me providing just the muscle as I was not into cars). Towards the end of 1990, ML got a job in Singapore, working for an international computer hardware & software company as its medical system specialist.  He came from nothing to an expert in a medical computing system in less than 18 months! He went on to form his own IT system company a few years later, but sold it when it was at its peak, finding his first pot of gold. Despite the bursting of the “dot-com” bubble in the early 1990s, ML founded the first share discussion platform in Singapore and built it to be the talk of the town, eventually selling it to a large publication house in Singapore. This medical doctor friend of mine retired at the age of 48. He had not practiced as a medical doctor for about 20 years, yet I think, like me, he made use of all the knowledge and skills he had picked up at medical school and from his many hobbies and applied these to his best advantage.
[Sadly, my good friend of 34 years, ML passed on on Feb 12, 2016, RIP.]

SB’s Story

I first met SB when she was a Jabatan Perkhidmatan Awam (JPA – Malaysia’s Public Service Department) scholar who was sent to my university. SB was very popular, smart, and networked readily with her peers. She earned her degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering with ease. Our paths crossed again in the early 1990s when I was working in Singapore and she was then working as an electrical and electronic engineer. We met up again in the late 1990s in the Klang Valley when I learned that SB was doing well as an investment adviser handling her clients’ mutual fund portfolio. Naturally, I became SB’s client and I must say, I have not been disappointed with her professionalism and sound advice. Today, SB is very established in her business which brings her tremendous financial freedom. I think if she had stayed as an engineer she would not have attained her wealth so quickly. SB made use of her knowledge as an engineer to quickly became adept at financial investments to provide good advice to her clients. I was once told by a financial analyst that the best people to pick up financial analytical skills are those with engineering degrees as they know how to apply their mathematics knowledge easily. I think SB provides the classic example for this!

MP’s Story

MP was heavily pregnant when I first met her while I was working as the head of a department at a private college in 2001. She was very friendly and humble. I allowed her the 5-minute sale pitch that I would entertain sales people whose disposition earns my attention. She was at the right place at the right time as I was looking for some medical insurance for myself and my family. I soon learned that MP graduated from a local public university as an electrical engineer. Like SB, she did not pursue a career in engineering. MP gives great professional service and was willing to service my life insurance policies bought from another company. She also looked after my family’s general insurance needs. Naturally, not only my family but my sister-in-law also became her client. When my sister-in-law needed to file for her medical insurance claims, MP was fast and efficient in her service resulting in a quick settlement of the claims. One day, during one of MP’s routine visits to my home, I asked her why she did not pursue a career in engineering. I was not surprised by her answer: she wanted flexibility and a way to build up a business. Like SB, the technical training as an engineer made it relatively easy for MP to pick up the new skills and knowledge needed to be an effective professional investment advisor in the insurance sector.

You are what you make out of your knowledge

‘You are what you make out of your knowledge’ is perhaps the most appropriate way to describe why in the four real life examples above the people concerned did not follow the paths of their undergraduate studies when it comes to a career. So if you are the parent of teenagers, you should perhaps sit back and hear out what tertiary study plans that your offspring have. Your job is not to dictate which field of study your child should take. People of Generation Y are a lot more independent-minded and they have access to multiple channels to information relating to tertiary study options. As parents, you must try to draw out from your teenage offspring his/her real interests. You can influence them by providing sound advice while at the same time take their views into consideration. Parents should not impose their view forcefully upon their offspring. I have personally witnessed a few examples while I was at university of friends struggling to cope with their studies due to the lack of aptitude and interest. Give your child the benefit of thinking about his/her future “under their own steam” i.e. without you putting words in their mouths.

In my own experience, my son was able to decide on his choice of studies pretty fast when he was studying for his Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM is a public examination taken by high school students in Malaysia before graduation) and is now on the verge of completing his studies in Finance at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA. My 16-year-old daughter’s tertiary education desire (now completing her SPM examination) was a bit more challenging for us to discover. But through many sessions of discussions and our sharing of our views and knowledge about different professions, my wife and I finally found out what she wanted to study recently. She was taking selfies as a child with my camera (and later my mobile phone) long before the word “selfie” was invented. Naturally, she hopes to pursue her studies along the videography and allied field!

Whichever the study options my children choose for their tertiary education, I am not sure these would be their career paths in the future. What I know for sure is, if they have inherited the combined wisdom of my wife and I, they would be using the knowledge and skills that they have gained at college to strive out a career for themselves in whichever fields that they so desire. Our job as parents is simple, to provide our children with our RINGGIT and support them with our SPIRITS.

Let your children chase their own dreams!

I mooted the idea of writing a commentary about Malaysian parents, especially Chinese Malaysians wanting to dictate the fields of studies for their offspring way back in January 2014. This was because I regularly get requests from acquaintances, friends, and families to provide “free advising” to their college-going children.

As a freelancer (on and off since 2011), the idea of providing a fee-based advisory service on higher education opportunities and options was a very attractive one. I even managed to get myself appointed as a recruitment adviser by a few overseas institutions. But to base my bread and butter on this kind of work is not exactly child play. It is a pay-on-success-only kind of arrangement. You will get nothing for the time, effort, parking charges, restaurant tabs etc. that you have spent on a student unless the parents concerned sign up their offspring. I had wasted many hours and lots of expenses giving this sort of free advising.

Then I decided to levy a small charge of RM100.00 (about US$28.60 in Dec 2014) for providing unbiased advising. After all, people have no issue paying for professional advisory from their lawyers, accountants, etc. why not education advisers?

Did I earn any income for the advising I have been providing to my “clients”? You may incline to ask. The answer is absolutely NIL!

Either all the people who have engaged my time, knowledge and services are cheapskates or they just did not know that as a freelancer I need to generate some income for my time. So I hope this article will help in a way to sow the seeds for my friends, relatives, and acquaintances to pay my bills! People should be aware that unbiased advice comes with a price tag and mine is a modest RM100.00 only! Doesn’t your kid’s future worth this small sum?

So have I stopped all these pro bono work? Not exactly.  I just become more incline now to refer requests for free education advising to the many education establishments directly and have become very “economical” with my advising unless the request comes from a close friend or relative.

Whatever the message this article below conveys, I would like all parents to do what I have done. Guide your children in their choice of studies which may or may not lead to a career in the same field, but let them chase their own dreams. Whatever their choices, your job as parents is to support them both in spirit and in Ringgit (or US$). Let the kids realize their own dreams. They need not take up the profession of their choice of studies. If they find out that they have to change direction, don’t get mad. It is part and parcel of learning to find a suitable path.

Just look at me. An agriculture graduate who was trained to be a farm manager or farm adviser. The fact is, after graduating with an Honours degree in General Agriculture from the Queen’s University of Belfast in 1985, I have never worked in the field of agriculture. In fact, for 18 years now, I have not worked in the field of expertise I gained from my postgraduate studies, plant tissue culture! Instead, I become an education management specialist.

Luckily for me, the field of plant tissue culture progresses at a snail pace and an armchair “old dog” lab scientist like me can still find my expertise being valued and fortunately, I can still keep pace with developments. But “old dogs” still need to learn new tricks, that is where Massive Open Online Courses come in handy, but that is another story! The broad-based agriculture degree prepared me well to lead the life of an academic when in the heyday of private college growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s this broad knowledge helped me to be a much better educator. The farm management, especially farm marketing and accounting courses that I studied helped to horn in my entrepreneurial skills. The list of applications for knowledge I had picked up during my university days is very long indeed. There again, I spent almost 3 times longer than the average British-educated person in university!

It may be great to know that (and I am very proud to be associated with this man) one of my buddies, Dr. Michael Leong who was trained as a surgeon became a serial entrepreneurs (who retired a very wealthy man before he was 48 years old) is one of those people who did not follow the typical career path of a medical doctor! I don’t get to meet with Micheal who is based in Singapore often enough, but every time we meet he would insist on buying the drinks and food and I usually could not argue well with a self-made multimillionaire on that!


By Dr Chow Yong Neng
12/27/2014 5:00:00 PM
Young students must be given the freedom to realise their own dreams

Being an 18-year veteran of the education and training industry has its perks. Every year, especially after the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) examination (a public examination for all Malaysian high school graduates), I get invitations to lunch or dinner from friends and relatives to provide advice to their offspring on the next step after high school.

I would be expected to give my unbiased and learned views. My round of questions would usually not solicit much of a reply from the young student involved. Dad or mum knows best is the theme. Mostly, the kid realistically has no say in his choice of studies.

Many parents, even those who have had the benefit of university education, do not understand the real reason for their children having a university education. The notion, especially among Malaysian parents, is that students must choose and seek their career in their respective fields of undergraduate studies. That is why parents are so concerned and usually take over the decision-making in the fields of studies that their children should undertake.

A former colleague, Dr. CGB, who was a practicing engineer and lecturer in structural engineering, once commented: “Most fresh graduate engineers are half-baked; we need to put them through at least three years of rigorous industrial exposure before they are ready.”

I think Dr. CGB’s view can be applied to almost all fresh graduates. University education is a means to provide students with the opportunity to learn new knowledge, skills and social networking. A person holding an undergraduate degree demonstrates to the world that he has the ability to think, analyse and assimilate factual knowledge to solve problems better than those without such an advantage.

That’s why I had adopted a liberal view in helping my own children choose what they want to do. I exposed them to what different career choices entail and explained what they need to do to be in various different professions.

My son, having learned these quickly, discarded the idea of being a medical doctor right from the age of 15 and decided by the time he was in Form 4 that he would like to study mathematics, finance or actuarial science. He settled on the finance option when he embarked on his tertiary education.

Exposing your children to different professions at an early age lets them gain the knowledge that they need to make the right decision on a course of study when the time comes.

As parents, it is our duty to guide our children on their choices of study. The key phrase here is “their choices”. We should be flexible and should refrain from deciding on the choice of study for them. Young students must be given the freedom to realise their own dreams. They should not be expected to accomplish and live the dreams of their fathers or mothers. Parents force their children to take a study choice that they do not have an aptitude for, there may be damaging consequences.

While you are explaining and exposing different professions and career choices to them, never attempt to look down on non-traditional choices of study. Not everyone is interested to be an engineer, doctor, accountant, lawyer or banker. Many people who did not choose to be in any of these professions in their university studies ended up doing just as well or better.

In 1982, I had chosen general agriculture as my choice of study. My parents, who were paying for my education, supported my choice without hesitation. I met many fellow Malaysian students at the Queen’s University of Belfast who were reading medicine, engineering or accounting. Some of them thought I chose to read agriculture because (a) I must have had poor grades for my GCE ‘A’ levels, (b) I must have some predilection for the smell of cow dung or (c) both.

They were gobsmacked when they learned that with two A’s and two B’s, I was offered to read medicine, engineering or accounting but I had chosen agriculture instead. I like biology and the most practical form of biology was agriculture.

Interestingly, you would think that an education consultant would be able to earn a living from satisfying regular requests for unbiased advice. In reality, no one seems to be willing to pay my consultancy fees of RM100 per hour. My friends and relatives either do not think that my advice is worth RM100 or they think I am too wealthy and therefore will not need this small fee.

[This article was originally published on November 1st, 2014 edition of Focusweek  & is re-published in The Heat Online on December 27, 2014]

Reading deep into university ranking

This is the original unedited text of an article that was published in Focus Malaysia on Sept 28, 2013 under my moniker of Plantcloner.


Each year when the “season” for various world rankings of universities descend upon us, there would be knee-jerk reactions if Malaysia’s “top” universities do not perform well. Institutions that“performed” better in the latest ranking will have lots of explanation for their “successes” and if they do not do well in one ranking but “so-so” in the next, we will also be given plenty of coverage in the media too.

However, I wonder if anyone bother to ask this simplest of question: are we comparing apples with oranges when we compare across different rankings? Did the Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings look at similar criteria as Quacquarelli Symonds’s QS World University Rankings? How about U.S. News’s Best College Rankings (of U.S. institutions) compared with Forbes America Top Colleges List? How come some universities “did” reasonably well under one ranking system but not another?

Unless we know the methodology of each of the ranking systems and “adjust” the data accordingly, we are always comparing apples with oranges as no two ranking systems adopt the same methodology. Even if they look at the same criterion, the weighting given and the manner in which the data has been compiled and analysed vary greatly between ranking systems. However, one thing is clear, the same top 10 to 40 institutions usually appear in the same range in most of the ranking systems. But this does not tell us if a particular ranking system captures data relevant to the key stakeholders: the students and parents. Ranking systems that award similar rankings to these top 40 institutions could just be looking at the same criteria or these 40 institutions have the same sort of features that result in favourable scores that resulted in the high rankings.

I have evaluated four ranking systems mentioned earlier and unsurprisingly, Times Higher Education and QS World (and to a lesser extent, U.S. News) have many similar criteria in their respective ranking systems. This could be the key reasons for many institutions appearing in similar ranking positions across these two systems.

Only Forbes places any relevance in asking students to score their learning experience and satisfaction. Forbes also is the only one that uses several evaluation channels to provide some measure on “returns on investments”such as the salary of alumni and alumni who have made a name for themselves and appear in Forbes lists (Power Women, 30 Under 30, CEOs on the Global 2000), plus Nobel and Pulitzer winners, Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellows, those elected to the National Academy of Sciences and winners of an Academy, Emmy, Tony or Grammy award etc. Hence Forbes puts some weight in how “powerful” and influential the alumni of an institution are/were in society as a measure of their successes. Forbes also gives significant weighting on the ability of student to service their debt as key criteria and hence covers the employability and salary commanded by the graduates via such a measure.

I think a good ranking system will answer four basic questions that a student (or parent) needs to consider:

(a) How easy for me to get accepted to this institution? The relevant entrance requirements for a range of fields of studies need to be evaluated. Perhaps SAT or CAT scores for the North American college systems, GCE “A” levels and other pre-university qualifications need to be provided and evaluated.

(b) What percentage of applicants are accepted each year? This gives a good indication on how popular an institution is and how stringent is its selection process.

(c) How much will it cost? Are financial assistance provided for high achieving students? This give a measure of how much it will cost to finance a student through his/her studies. The provision of financial assistance to high achieving students is a measure of how well an institution is endowed .

(d) How fast does the average graduate gets a job after graduation and what is the average starting salary for fresh graduates of this institution? What percentage of graduates get jobs in their areas of studies?

Most of the ranking systems cover (a) to (c) in some measure of detail but only Forbes covers (d) which is one of the most important reasons for a student to go to university: to be able to secure a good job and build a career in his/her chosen field .

Another measure of academic quality is the percentage of fresh graduates that progressed to postgraduate studies. However a more precise measure is the percentage of PhD graduates that secured postings to carry out postdoctoral studies within 6 months of graduation. This shows how “popular” an institution’s PhD holders are and how the other institutions rate the quality of the research training of that institution. None of the ranking systems evaluated cover this which is a very good direct peer-review of an institution.

A good ranking system, aside from measuring the outputs (i.e. the quality of the graduates) also needs to provide a measure of students’ happiness with their lives while at college. Only Forbes provides a good measure of this aspect to rate the facilities, the teaching and the overall experience of the students.

Apart from the various criteria used by a ranking system, the manner in which the data are collected requires detailed evaluation. Some like Times Higher Education and QS World rely heavily on scoring of the academic reputation of institutions by their peers or professional students recruiters / counsellors. In addition, heavy weighting is often given to this criterion. To me this serve no purpose at all as it is highly subjective without any concrete data that can be used by the scorers to objectively assign a score to an institution. Measuring the research output of institutions (such as the number of papers published per PhD thesis approved; the average number of citations received by each teaching staff per year, the percentage of PhD holders getting postdoctoral research jobs etc. ) serves as a better yardstick.

Some ranking systems like QS World use “employer reputation” (how employers rank the institutions in terms of the quality of their graduates) which covers the employability aspect well. This is rather a very subjective way of measuring reputation. A more objective measure would be to rank or score an institutions on what percentage of their fresh graduates are hired each year by multinationals, Fortune 500 companies, 100 largest companies etc. in the country. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. We need to know if getting a degree from an institution will allow the graduate to a) get a job readily, b) join a network of powerful and influential alumni (to enhance his/her career development prospect); c) get a job that pays her/him sufficiently to allow the servicing of any debt incurred in the process of studying for the degree. In fact way back in 1999 when I first visited New Delhi on business, I was amazed to read advertisements placed by private higher education institutions in major newspaper that read something like this: “90% of our graduates found placements in multinational and major Indian corporate giants such as XYZ. with starting pay of ZZZ rupees per month”. There was (and still is) intense competition in the market and these private institutions of higher learning were trying to distinguish themselves by getting job placements for their graduates with major employers that paid well. I feel that any university ranking systems that ignore this crucial criterion is not giving the readers an accurate picture of the “value” generated by each institutions for its graduates.

Another measure of an institution’s reputation is in its industrial linkages (and hence the ability to place its graduates in industry). This could simply be the amount of research funding per faculty member that it receives from industry. Related to this, how well an institution is perceived to serve industry can be measured by the value that research and development activities of this institution bring to industry. This can be measured indirectly by the value of commercialization per faculty member per year that an institution has carried out. This also measures the innovative capability and entrepreneurship of an institution.

This is not a comprehensive evaluation of the different university ranking systems. I merely demonstrated that with a bit of drilling down of the methodology we can discover a lot more about these ranking systems and their relative shortcomings. One should therefore, when reading reports of these ranking systems take a heavy pinch of salt. We can use them as rough yardsticks to gauge the “reputation” of an institution at best but one should not read further beyond this. We should be reminded that, no matter how high an institution is ranked by a system, if its graduates are not able to secure jobs in the relevant fields, then there is a disservice being performed by that institution to its stakeholders.

Plantcloner has evaluated many institutions in Asia Pacific when he served as the regional quality manager of a UK-based publishing-education company. He believes that an institution’s reputation is only as good as the graduates that it has produced.