Taiwan – Malaysia university collaborations MUST be win-win!

The flow of tertiary students has been only one-way: only from Malaysia to Taiwan. Very few Taiwanese students are found in Malaysian colleges and universities. This article set out to find ways in which a more balanced and mutually beneficial framework of relationships between Taiwanese and Malaysian institutions of higher learning could be forged.

There must be ways to check the current one-way flow of students from Malaysia to Taiwan for the benefit of institutions and students of both nations. The prospect of losing another 5,000 high school graduates students each year will be bleak for the private colleges in Malaysia. The cut-throat competition is getting deadlier this year!

Commentary (Feb 26, 2017):

This is the third and final part of my series of articles based on my public lecture, “Malaysian higher education: past, present and likely future” delivered at Tunghai University, Taiwan where I was a guest of Professor Lin Hsiou-wei.

The aggressiveness and seemingly well-funded campaigns by Taiwanese universities (including high-ranking ones) to recruit Malaysian students to fill up the large gap in capacities to student had mainly only receiving good attention in Malaysia’s Chinese press with the English press giving it scanty reports. The majority of the private colleges in Malaysia still do not have strong relationships with Taiwanese universities. This could be based solely on the uninformed assumption that students must be very proficient in Chinese language in order to study at tertiary level in Taiwan. Well, many Taiwanese universities, in line with the trend in China, have been having undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes entirely delivered in English for some years now. In addition, despite the difficulties in scoring grade A+ for Chinese language at national senior high school examination in Malaysia (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia or Malaysian Certificate of Education) there are still a substantial number of students taking the subject each year. Hence there would be many high school graduates with the requisite proficiency in Chinese each year to study in Taiwan. Of course some very savvy private colleges have woken up to this Taiwanese “fear factor” lately.

I had done a bit of research on the data I obtained from various sources which showed a very disappointing trend: the flow of tertiary students has been only one-way, that is from Malaysia to Taiwan. Very few Taiwanese students are found in Malaysian colleges and universities. I then set out to find ways in which a more balanced and mutually beneficial framework of relationships between Taiwanese and Malaysian institutions of higher learning could be forged.

I presented this in my public lecture but I am not fully convinced that my message was getting through to right people in Taiwan. I do hope that somehow someone will see the imbalance and try ways to address this. I for one do not subscribe to the notion that Taiwanese universities would intentionally bring about the decimation of private higher education industry in Malaysia. Hence this seemingly zero-sum game will need to be altered, and altered fast for the long term betterment of people of both Taiwan and Malaysia.

I have been asked by some of my readers and friends to translate this article into Chinese in order to attain my aim. You never know, I might take up the challenge later!

An article entitled, “Facing brain drain, Taiwan looks to poach Malaysian students” appeared on September 15, 2013 in Malay Mail Online. It was in response to the push by Taiwan to target Malaysia for new students to fill in excess seats available in their 160 or so universities and colleges. The alarm bells were starting to ring in the recruitment offices of many Malaysian private colleges in reaction to this news.

Dr Chow Yong Neng (second from left) receiving a warm reception from Professor Lin Hsiou-wei (fourth from the eft) and his staffs at Tunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan

Then in late May 2016 the Sun Daily reported that there are 15,000 Malaysians already studying in Taiwan. Around the same time Sin Chew Daily in turn reported that Taiwan will target to have a total of 25,000 Malaysian students studying in Taiwan within the next two years, an increase of 5,000 on average in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

With the “drought” of students hitting the industry in 2016, the Malaysian private higher education sector is already facing a collective lowering of enrollment caused mainly by the increased in Sixth Form enrollment for 2016. The further prospect of losing another 5,000 students on average caused the alarm bells at the recruitment offices of private colleges in Malaysia to ring non-stop ever since!

One cannot begin to imagine the impact of losing another 5,000 high school students each year will do to the private higher education sector in Malaysia. Table 1 shows the number of Malaysians studying in Taiwan from 2013 to 2018 (2016 to 2018 figures were projected).

able 1: The number of Malaysians studying in Taiwan from 2013 – 2018 (Data Source: 2013 – http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aedu/201412230014.aspx and 2014 & 2015 – http://english.moe.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=16738&ctNode=11414&mp=1)

The Taipei Economic and Cultural in Malaysia kindly shared with this author the number of Taiwanese studying in Malaysia (provided by the government of Malaysia in October 2015). A total of 116 Taiwanese students were studying in Malaysia in 2015 with only 96 students being in private colleges. These figures show the severe imbalance in the movement of students between the two countries.

So what chances do small and medium sized Malaysian private colleges (and even some of the larger ones) have in competing against well funded and highly reputable Taiwanese universities and colleges which have been very liberal in awarding scholarships lately? This is made worse by the fact that the only silver lining that Malaysian private colleges had, which is the delivery of academic courses in English is also being eroded. Many Taiwanese universities and colleges with teaching staff who are trained in USA, UK or Australia are offering international academic programmes that are fully delivered in English.

Can this seemingly zero-sum game of student recruitment be reconfigured for the long term mutual benefits of the students and institutions of both countries?

This author believes that it is not the intention of Taiwan to create the “fear-factor” in Malaysian private higher education. A zero-sum game will always have a winner (Taiwan) and a loser (Malaysia). However, given the strength in the “New Go South” policy of President Tsai Ing-wen, is there any way players in higher education in both Taiwan and Malaysia can collaborate on a “1 + 1 = 4” principle?

“Collaboration outweighs competition” should always be the motto when it comes to Taiwanese-Malaysian higher education institutions’ relationship. For the “1 + 1 = 4” principle to be realised, there must be a think-out-of-the-box collaboration model between the two countries’ universities and colleges.

A "think out of the box" model of collaboration between Malaysian and Taiwanese colleges and universities will replace the one-way flow of students from Malaysia to a bidirectional flow of students between Taiwan and Malaysia to the benefit of both nations.
A “think out of the box” model of collaboration between Malaysian and Taiwanese colleges and universities will replace the one-way flow of students from Malaysia to a bidirectional flow of students between Taiwan and Malaysia to the benefit of both nations.

Something must be done by both countries to address the severe imbalance in the flow of students which at present, for all intent and purposes is unidirectional: only Malaysian students would go to Taiwan and essentially there is insignificant flow towards Malaysia.

Hence for an equitable collaboration to work, the flow of students MUST always be bi-directional. “Share and share alike” shall be the key to successful collaboration efforts between institutions of higher learning of both countries.

To make this work, Taiwanese universities and colleges must not treat their Malaysian counterparts as “feeder colleges” but as equal partners in the sharing of students. They must be prepared to send to their Malaysian partners an equivalent number of Taiwanese students to make this work.

By having (and sharing) Taiwanese and Malaysian students we can create the “1 + 1 = 4” principle. For starter, instead of recruiting Malaysian students directly to attend all 4 years of undergraduate studies in Taiwan, we can have a modified “2 + 2  model”.  Malaysian students will be recruited by a Malaysian institution partnering a Taiwanese university or college. These Malaysian students will stay in Malaysia to complete the first part of their studies (either in diploma or in a homegrown degree programme) before credit transferring to the Taiwanese university. At the same time, the Taiwanese university partner will send a similar number of its students to the Malaysian counterpart. These Taiwanese university students could be studying on a “student exchange”, “study abroad” or credit transfer mode. So long as there is an equitable flow of students each year, both institutions stand to gain extra headcounts. Thus both institutions will have an additional student for everyone that it has sent to its partner institution, thereby creating two student headcounts on both sides, making the  “1 + 1 = 4” principle a reality.

There are also other variations to this model aside from the example above where a bidirectional flow of students between Taiwan and Malaysia can be effectively implemented:

  • Setting up dual awards in undergraduate and postgraduate programmes between institutions of higher learning in both countries (students from both countries can opt to take up both or one of the academic awards).
  • Taiwanese universities leveraging on their Malaysian partner colleges/universities to tap into the non-Chinese speaking students market (instead of just targeting the Chinese Malaysian, Taiwanese universities, through their Malaysian partners can widen their reach). These students can be placed in the Malaysian partner institutions for preparatory courses (e.g. Chinese proficiency classes) before their stint in Taiwan, thereby sharing of such students between the two partners.
  • Tapping into “seniors” and “executive development” markets in both countries by co-branding of programmes and deliver part of these programmes in the partner’s institutions on “short study visits” basis for example utilizing Malaysia’s Mobility Programme.

With a deeper collaborative relationship, both the Taiwanese and Malaysian institutions can then leverage on each other’s strength, brands and reputation to tackle other non-traditional areas of collaboration. Research and development, consultancy projects, bidding for research funding and commercialization of research are some of the “offshoots” of such collaborations. Essentially the Taiwanese and Malaysian institutions can then leverage on each other to expand their “market” and effectively reach into each other’s territory to be fully transnational.

Having bidirectional flow of students will benefit Taiwanese students by giving them exposure to Malaysia in an in-depth manner which would increase the cultural and economic intertwining of both nations, directly increasing the sphere of influence of Taiwan and still adhere to the New Go South policy of President Tsai, albeit with some modifications.

All it takes now is the collective willpower of the leaders of Taiwanese universities to put this into action and to engage with their counterparts in Malaysia (mainly the private colleges and universities) to put the current zero-sum game to bed.

The ball is now in the Taiwanese court!

Read more on Part 1: How many colleges and universities can Malaysia truly sustain?
or Part 2: Filling up Malaysian colleges’ seats – a tall order indeed

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.”

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.”

How many colleges and universities can Malaysia truly sustain?

Based on the US model of population and income and compare these with the equivalents for Taiwan and Malaysia….the wisdom of Taiwan’s decision to reduce her universities by one third is apparent. It means also that Malaysia cannot sustain the high number of tertiary institutions. Wake up call?

I was invited by Professor Lin Hsiou-Wei, Distinguished Professor and Dean of Management College, Tunghai University, Taiwan to visit his university in late July 2016. Professor Lin also invited me to give a public lecture entitled, “Malaysian higher education: past, present and  likely future.” This is the first of three articles that I had written and first published in Han Chiang News in 2016 based on the research I had done to prepare for that public lecture in Taiwan which I delivered in Mandarin. It was the first time I was given the opportunity to give a talk  delivered in Mandarin where I was more comfortable doing so in English! My former colleague, Ms. Kristina Khoo thought that I could make my points better by presenting the key arguments in videos and being the CEO and Principal of the College, I had to put my money where my mouth was and agreed to perform in front of the camera and well directed by Ms Khoo.

By Dr Chow Yong Neng

In April 2015, a bombshell was released by the Ministry of Education in Taiwan. Up to 52 of its existing 167 tertiary institutions will have to either close or merge with others within 10 years.

Taiwan and Malaysia have very similar population of 23.4 million and 30.5 million respectively. However Taiwan has more than twice of Malaysia’s per capita GDP at US$22,979 compared to Malaysia’s US$9,766 and its 167 tertiary institutions are considered as 52 too many.

Malaysia currently has 20 public universities, 37 polytechnics, 94 community colleges, 43 other state-funded training centres, 99 private universities and university colleges and 402 private colleges. These add up to a total of 695 tertiary institutions in Malaysia*.

What about Malaysia which has a total of 695 tertiary institutions? Can our economic and demographic factors support this more than 4-fold in the number of colleges and universities in Malaysia compared to Taiwan’s figure? In other words, if Taiwan needs to reduce her universities by more than 30 per cent over a ten-year period would Malaysia, with a lower per capita GDP need to follow suit?

Taiwan has a tertiary education enrollment rate (i.e. how many percent of its youth receive tertiary education) of close to 99 per cent compared to Malaysia’s 37 per cent. Does that mean Malaysia still has plenty of scope for its tertiary education sector to secure the enrollment of students and fill its collective capacities?

Proportional comparison with US’s figures

Let us look at the best example available as a “base model”, that is the United States of America with a population of around 321 million, per capita GDP of US$55,837 and 4,726 accredited tertiary institutions** (please refer to Table 1). We can compare both Taiwan’s and Malaysia’s tertiary education sector using the data of the USA to estimate the “maximum sustainable number of tertiary institutions” by asking just three questions.

Table 1: Comparison of 3 nations’ tertiary education: population, per capita GDP & number of tertiary institutions
Country USA Taiwan Malaysia
Population (millions) 321 23.38 30.75
Per capita GDP (US$) $55,837 $21,979 $9,766
No. of accredited tertiary institutions 4,726 167 695
Tertiary student population (millions) 21 1.34 1.42
Average population per institution 67,922 140,000 44,245
Average number of students per institution 4,444 8,024 2,043

Question 1:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBPuKEo-hHI]

Based solely on USA’s population and the number of US tertiary institutions, what will be the maximum number of institutions that Taiwan and Malaysia can support?

We can easily answer this question by dividing the population figure of Taiwan or Malaysia by that of the US  then multiply the results by 4,726 (the number of accredited tertiary institutions in the USA). Essentially a proportional comparison which is presented in Table 2.

Table 2: Comparison of Taiwan’s & Malaysia’s sustainable number of tertiary institutions based on the USA’s model using population data
Country USA Taiwan Malaysia
Population (millions) 321 23.38 30.75
Maximum sustainable number of institutions 4,726 344 453

It is clear that, based on population alone, Taiwan can easily have twice her present number of tertiary institutions. However the same cannot be said about Malaysia. At 695 Malaysia is already having an excess of 242 tertiary institutions.

Question 2:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QeG5kL_jEY]

Based solely on USA’s per capita GDP and the number of US tertiary institutions, what will be the maximum number of institutions that Taiwan and Malaysia can support?

As in Question 1, we can use the same logic to do a proportional comparison of the data for both Taiwan and Malaysia using the USA’s as the “base figures” as presented in Table 3.

Table 3: Comparison of Taiwan’s & Malaysia’s sustainable number of tertiary institutions based on the USA’s model using per capital GDP data
Country USA Taiwan Malaysia
Per capita GDP (US$) $55,837 $21,979 $9,766
Maximum sustainable number of institutions 4,726 1,860 827

If we consider per capita GDP in isolation, the economy of Taiwan could easily sustain over 11-folds the number of tertiary institutions that she presently has whereas Malaysia will still be able to “top up” the present 695 institutions by another 132.

Question 3:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBRJjU4xFEE]

What will be the maximum sustainable number of tertiary institutions for Taiwan & Malaysia if we factor in the combined effect of per capita GDP and population as compared to the USA model?

We really need to combine both the economic and demographic figures in our proportional comparison to determine the maximum sustainable number of tertiary institutions for each country. To come out with the comparison, we divide each figure (be it population or per capita GDP) with the corresponding USA’s figure, multiply the result of both economic and demographic comparison together with the USA’s current number of tertiary institutions. The result of this comparison is presented in Table 4.

Table 4: Comparison of Taiwan’s & Malaysia’s sustainable number of tertiary institutions based on the USA’s model using both population & per capita GDP data.
Country USA Taiwan Malaysia
Population (millions) 321 23.38 30.75
per capita GDP (US$) $55,837 $21,979 $9,766
Maximum sustainable number of institutions 4,726 135 79

The combination of both economic and demographic figures of the respective countries reveal something very staggering. Both Taiwan and Malaysia are already having too many tertiary institutions and the Taiwanese government has rightly put up a policy in April 2015 to reduce the number of tertiary institutions in the country in view of dwindling college-going population and the country’s already close to 99% tertiary enrollment rate.

When one looks at the maximum sustainable number of tertiary institutions for Malaysia of 79, one will not be blamed for suspecting some mistakes were committed in its calculation. But this figure has been estimated based on available data. With 616 “excess” number of tertiary institutions, what can Malaysia do to address the problem? Is it possible at all to reduce the number of tertiary institutions in Malaysia by close to 90 per cent?

Will increase in tertiary enrollment rate from the current 37 per cent to 94 per cent (USA’s current rate) be sufficient to solve the problem? Let us just do another proportional comparison:

[94% / 37%] * 79 institutions = 201 institutions

Thus even if we have 94 per cent tertiary enrollment rate, we will still need to close / merge around 500 tertiary institutions in Malaysia.

In fact, even if we miraculously increase Malaysia’s per capita GDP by 50 per cent to say US$15,000 and we have 94 per cent tertiary enrollment rate, Malaysia can only sustain:

[94%/37%] * [US$15,000 / US$9,766] * 79 institutions = 308 institutions

We will still be needing to merge or close down 387 tertiary institutions in Malaysia!


With not much scope to raise the population of 18 year-old by a significant figure annually for the foreseeable future, Malaysia will have to follow in Taiwan’s footsteps. The key difference between Malaysia and Taiwan is that the bulk of the struggling institutions are privately owned and funded, there is no such thing as the withdrawal of grants and subsidies to entice these owners to consider merging or closing.

The fact remains that this issue has been overshadowing the entire private tertiary education industry since its reaching a peak of around 730 private tertiary institutions around 2002. The past 14 years did see some form of consolidation in the private tertiary education industry where the number of private institutions have dwindled down by close to 230 to the present 501 institutions (data as provided by the Ministry of Higher Education for May 2016).

The billion Ringgit question is whether this figure could be further reduced by another 380 to 400 to provide the industry with sustainability.

One thing is perfectly clear, “Consolidation is certain, resistance is futile!”

One may ask, “When shall we expect a bombshell be released by the power that be in Malaysia?” To this I shall answer, “Your guess is as good as mine!”

*More accurate estimations were available along with more up-to-date data being acquired by the author since the publication of this article in August 2015 and the revised analysis though did not affect the conclusion but nevertheless the author feels that it should be presented to the readers.

The number of higher education institutions in Malaysia should be computed to include only those institutions which offer diploma and higher academic qualifications and hence shall exclude community colleges. Based on this principle, the number of tertiary institutions is revised as follows: Public universities (20), Polytechnics (37), State-funded vocational institutions with capability to offer diploma and advanced diploma (20), private universities & university colleges (96), private colleges (401), making a total of 574 (and not 695) higher education institutions. 

In addition to the 94 state funded public community colleges, there are 813 private accredited training institutions, 80 public vocational colleges and 320 other training institutions funded by various ministries making a total of 1307 institutions in Malaysia offering vocational skill training programmes (below diploma level), catering mainly to school leavers.

**Based on data compiled from US’s National Center of Education Statistics, the total number of accredited colleges and universities in the USA (2013 -2014 survey) was 4,599 and not 4726 as reported earlier. The population of the USA has also been revised upward to 324 million to reflect the latest (2016) figure. Likewise the GDP of Taiwan has been revised based on the latest figure obtained.

Hence the following tables with the revised data are being presented to our readers.

Table 1: Comparison of 3 nations’ tertiary education: population, per capita GDP & number of tertiary institutions (revised)
Country USA Taiwan Malaysia
Population (millions) 324 23.38 30.75
Per capita GDP (US$) $55,837 $22,294 $9,766
No. of accredited tertiary institutions 4,599 167 574
Tertiary student population (millions) 21 1.34 1.42
Average population per institution 70,450 140,000 53,5711
No. of student per institution 4,566 8,024 2,474
Table 2: Comparison of Taiwan’s & Malaysia’s sustainable number of tertiary institutions based on the USA’s model using population data (revised)
Country USA Taiwan Malaysia
Population (millions) 324 23.38 30.75
Maximum sustainable number of institutions 4,599 332 436
Table 3: Comparison of Taiwan’s & Malaysia’s sustainable number of tertiary institutions based on the USA’s model using per capita GDP data (revised)
Country USA Taiwan Malaysia
Per capita GDP (US$) $55,837 $22,294 $9,766
Maximum sustainable number of institutions 4,599 1836 804
Table 4: Comparison of Taiwan’s & Malaysia’s sustainable number of tertiary institutions based on the USA’s model using both population & per capita GDP data. (revised)
Country USA Taiwan Malaysia
Population (millions) 324 23.38 30.75
per capita GDP (US$) $55,837 $22,294 $9,766
Maximum sustainable number of institutions 4,599 133 76

Comparing Malaysia’s student loan crisis with that of the USA

Malaysia has its own version of student loan crisis. This article gives an in-depth analysis of the crisis, identifies great gaps in data & compares Malaysia’s case with that of the USA.

My article entitled “Looming student loan crisis” was published on August 23, 2014 in the now defunct print weekly, The Heat. An edited version of the same article also appeared recently in Theantdaily which was also syndicated by Malaysia Today.

The idea for this article came to me in late June 2014 when I read about the news related to the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN), especially related to defaulters and the fact that 50,000 new applicants to PTPTN loans may be turned down due to the lack of fund because of the high rate of defaults.

The first version of my article was deemed to be too “academic” with too many facts and figures and hence I went back to the drawing board to work on the second version which was accepted for publication. I have reviewed and edited the first version which is published here. I shall leave it to the wisdom of my readers to judge if this version (which differs substantially from the one published in The Heat) provides a deeper analysis of the issue of student loan crisis in Malaysia and its analogy with the same issue in the USA. 

In November 2014, PTPTN announced a drastic reduction of loan amount to new applicants which trimmed 5% off the maximum loan quantum for borrowers from public institutions of higher learning but levied a massive 15% reduction in the maximum amount of loan for those studying in private institutions. The mean-testing criteria have also been tightened up further. These proved that my prediction in August 2014 was right on the bull’s eye!


Malaysia’s looming student loan crisis

In 2012, USA’s outstanding student loan shot over the psychologically important US$1.0 trillion mark. In March 2014, US News reported that this figure has breached US$1.1 trillion. This is significant because by 2012, the total amount owed by United States’s student loan borrowers had exceeded the country’s citizens total credit card debt. Many financial experts are now saying that the US student loan crisis is getting to the dimension of the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2008. With a total of over 37 million borrowers holding outstanding student loans, 6.8 million (or 18.4%) of whom being defaulters who collectively account for US$95.9 billion it is no wonder that alarm bells are ringing in the USA.

Table 1: Comparison of student loan data between Malaysia and the USA
Malaysia USA
1 Total amount of student loan disbursed (1997 to 2014) RM54,510,000,000 N/A
2 Total amount of outstanding student loan (2014) RM49,390,000,000 $1,100,000,000,000
3 Amount of student loan in default RM1,300,000,000 $95,900,000,000
4 % of total loan in default [(No. 5 / No. 4)*100%] 2.63% 8.72%
5 Total number of borrowers (1997/2013) 2,390,000 N/A
6 Total number of borrowers still with outstanding loan (2013) 1,240,000 37,000,000
7 No. of defaulters (2014) 183,000 6,800,000
8 % of borrowers who defaulted (2014) [(No. 7/ No. 6)*100%] 14.8% 18.4%
9 Underemployment rate of graduates 40% 44%
10 Repayment rate (2012) (RM7.83 billion due, RM3.48 collected) 49.07% N/A
11 Amount of total loan recovered (Mar 2014) RM5,120,000,000 N/A
12 Repayment collected (2011) RM737,000,000 N/A
13 Repayment collected (2012) RM800,470,000 N/A
14 Repayment collected (2013) RM1,200,000,000 N/A
15 Average debt owed per defaulter (No. 3 / No. 7) RM7,104 $14,103
16 Average amount of loan taken by each borrower (No. 1 / No. 5) for Malaysia; (No. 2 / No. 6) for USA RM22,808 $29,730
17 Total National Debt (July 2014) RM543,236,000,000 $17,806,000,000,000
18 % of PTPTN outstanding loan as national debt [(No. 2 / No. 17)*100%] 9.09% 6.18%

If we take a look at the statistics for Malaysia’s National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) loans and compared these with the equivalents in the USA (Table 1), there are worrying indications that Malaysia is heading the same path as the USA towards student loan crisis. Between 1997 and 2013, PTPTN had provided RM54.51 billion loan to 2.39 million borrowers. To put things into perspective, the total amount of outstanding PTPTN loan currently is around RM49.39 billion and every year PTPTN disburses around RM5.0 billion to over 200,000 borrowers. The best year of loan repayment that PTPTN has recorded was 2013 at RM1.2 billion. In simple arithmetic, discounting defaulting loans, the total outstanding PTPTN loan will grow at least RM3.8 billion each year. In comparison, the dividend paid by Petronas to the Malaysian Government has been around RM30.0 billion each year (for 2013 it paid RM27.0 billion). Thus what is owed to PTPTN is about RM20.0 billion more than what the Government of Malaysia receives each year from Petronas.

The average amount owed by undergraduate borrowers in Malaysia, at RM22,808 is comparable to the USA’s figure of US$29,400 if one takes into consideration of the much lower cost of higher education in Malaysia.

Table 2: Statistics of PTPTN Borrowers: the unexplained reduction in numbers
Item Number
1 Total number of borrowers (between 1997/2013) 2,390,000
2 Total number of borrowers still with outstanding loan in 2014 1,240,000
3 Number of borrowers who have settled their loans (based on calculation: No. 1 minus No. 2) 1,150,000
4 No. of defaulters (2013) 412,245
5 No. of defaulters (2014) 183,000
6 Reduction of defaulters between 2013 & 2014 (No. 4 minus No. 5) 229,245
7 Number of borrowers actively servicing their loans (2014) 956,018
8 Number of borrowers unaccounted for in 2014 (after deducting no. of known defaulters, active borrowers from total no. of borrowers with outstanding loans) (No. 2 minus No. 5 minus No.7) 100,982
9 Amount of loan repaid by borrowers in 2013 RM1,200,000,000
10 Total amount of loan recovered (up to 2014) RM5,120,000,000
11 Amount of loan attributed to the reduction in number of defaulter between 2013 & 2014, assuming the average owed is the same for the 2014 defaulters, RM7,104. (No. 6 * RM7,104) RM1,628,516,393
12 Estimated amount owed by the unaccounted borrowers, assuming the average owed is the same for the 2014 defaulters, RM7,104 (No. 8 * RM7,104) RM717,358,470
13 Total amount of loan from unaccounted borrowers (based on average default amount per defaulter in 2014) (No. 11 + No. 12) RM2,345,874,863
14 Amount of loan attributed to the reduction in number of defaulter between 2013 & 2014, assuming the average owed iby individual borrowers in 2014, RM22,808. (No. 6 * RM22,808) RM5,228,512,531
15 Estimated amount owed by the unaccounted borrowers, assuming the average owed by individual borrowers in 2014, RM22,808. (No. 8 * RM22,808) RM2,303,150,134
16 Total amount of loan from unaccounted borrowers (based on average owed per borrower in 2014) (No. 14 + No. 15) RM7,531,662,665

With 14.8% (or 183,000) of the 1.24 PTPTN borrowers holding outstanding loan being defaulters (a higher figure of 19% was reported recently), the default rate is fast approaching the US level. Although only 2.63% of PTPTN’s outstanding loans (or RM1.3 billion) are in default, which is about three times less than that of the USA (at 8.72%) the confusing data provided by the relevant authorities in Malaysia at different times points to a possibility of a much higher default figure (as shown in Table 2). Based on data released to the press in April 2014, there was a dramatic reduction in the number of defaulters from 412,245 in 2013 to 183,000 in 2014, a staggering fall of 229,245 borrowers. No explanation has been given to this fall in defaulters. Basing on the average amount owed by defaulters in 2014 of RM7,104, these 229,245 “rehabilitated” borrowers should account for around RM1.63 billion of outstanding loan and the collected amount (assuming that each borrower opted for the 10 years tenure, excluding interest) should be at least RM163 million. If we base our calculation on the average amount owed by a borrower in 2014 of RM22,808, these figures shall change to RM5.23 billion and RM523 million respectively.

Accordingly, there is also another discrepancy in the figures given relating to the number of borrowers actively servicing their loans. In April 2014, it was revealed that there were 956,018 borrowers active in repaying their PTPTN loans and the total number of borrowers with outstanding loans was given as 1.24 million. If we take away from this 1.24 million people the number of defaulters and the recorded number of borrowers actively repaying, there are strikingly 100,982 borrowers unaccounted for. Granted some of these people could have been the top students with first class honours degrees whose loan have been converted to scholarships, in reality producing over 100,000 first class honours graduates who are also borrowers in one year is stretching one’s imagination a bit too far. These 100,982 unaccounted borrowers could be responsible for between RM717 million to RM2.30 billion of loan, if we assume they owe an average of between RM7,104 to RM22,808 (based on the borrowers data for 2014 in Table 1).

Hence the total unaccounted borrowers collectively could owe PTPTN between RM2.35 billion to RM7.53 billion, either of which is a very huge number that dwarf the loan repayment collected in 2013 of RM1.2 billion. Somehow this fact has escaped the attention of the Auditor General office which has uncovered system problems in PTPTN but this alone could not explain the huge number of borrowers unaccounted for.

The amount of student loan owed and the default rate are tied fully to the employment status of the borrowers. In the USA, it was estimated that around 44% of graduates are underemployed which means that they are not in jobs that are relevant to their training and thus not earning sufficiently. In Malaysia, the figure of 40% underemployment has been given for fresh graduates. Hence being underemployed and therefore not earning one’s full potential is the most crucial factor leading to student loan default. Will this lower pay affect the repayment of PTPTN loans? Will this be the trigger to higher level of PTPTN loan default?

PTPTN will need at least RM5.0 billion per year to cover the loan demand of Malaysian students. Assuming that the collection of repayment stays at least RM1.2 billion as per 2013 data, and the default amount stays at 2014 level of RM1.3 billion, the RM5.0 billion will not be enough to cover the needs of new students. Will we see a cap to the amount of PTPTN loans?*  Will the private higher education sector bear the brunt of the cut in PTPTN loan funding? How will the private institutions, especially those with high reliance on PTPTN funding for their students fare?

The percentage of national debt accounted for by student loan debt is about 6.18% for the USA. For Malaysia, the figure is about 9.09% of total national debt. Thus if the USA, at 6.18% of national debt is close to having a financial crisis, how will Malaysia fare with closer to 10% of national debt accounted for by outstanding PTPTN loan?

With all these indicators, one cannot help but surmise that there is indeed a looming PTPTN loan crisis in the same dimension as that of the USA. The sooner that every stakeholder recognizes this as a pressing issue, the faster can a plethora of solutions be implemented.

*This article was written in mid July 2014. In fact in early November 2014, PTPTN has announced a 5% reduction in loan amount for borrowers from public institutions of higher learning while their private institutions counterparts have to endure a massive 15% reduction in loan amount. More stringent mean-testing measure was also announced.

The profile of student loan borrowers

US News reported in March 2014 that although the bulk of the loan in the US (60%) are for borrowers taking undergraduate courses, a worrying trend is that the remaining 40% is owed by graduate students who account for only 16% of the number of borrowers. The average owed by 70% of those graduating with an undergraduate degree in 2012 was US$29,400, in contrast the amount owed by the average graduate student was US$57,600 with many facing debts of US$100,000 or above.

In contrast, most Malaysian graduate students are only eligible to apply for PTPTN loans if they enroll in public universities and a handful of private universities.  In addition, different levels of financial support ranging from full scholarships at public and private universities, various government scholarship schemes and jobs as research assistants have diminished the reliance of graduate students on PTPTN. It can be assumed that the bulk of the borrowers of PTPTN loans are for undergraduate studies. An attempt to obtain the percentage and amount owed by borrowers pursuing graduate studies has not been successful. The financing of graduate studies by working adults in Malaysia also traditionally rely on EPF withdrawal, commercial bank loans or own savings. Only those enrolled for part-time studies at public universities and a limited number of for-profit institutions are eligible for PTPTN loans.


What the US experts have predicted regarding student loan crisis

  • There might be a cap to student loan guarantee by the US government. This would spark off a crisis mirroring the sub-prime mortgage financial crisis of 2008. With difficult availability of student loans, colleges, especially the for-profit institutions will find it hard to fill up seats, collapse of the higher education industry could occur.
  • There will be diminished economic productivity from young graduates in the long run as they are spending higher percentage of their income to service student loan debt. This coupled with the 44% US graduate underemployment rate means that the income level of a significant number of borrowers may not be sufficient to cover their student loan repayment fully.
  • The spiraling US college tuition fees over the period between 2001/2 to 2011/12 have seen public universities tuition and other fees rose by 40% and that of private institutions rose by 28%. This coupled with the ready availability of student loan have increased the amount of debt held by each US borrower.
  • For-profit US institutions have only 13% of the total population of students but account collectively for 31% of student loan. Their students also have higher default rate of 22% compared to those studied public institutions. 72% of for-profit institutions produced graduates who earn less than the average high school dropouts. This is a reflection on the market perception of the quality of some of these US for-profit colleges. Many have significant reliance on government-backed student loans to sustain their operation. Corinthian Colleges which has 72,000 students received US$1.4 billion of its US$1.6 billion revenue in 2013 from government funded student loans. It has to sell off all its 85 of its campuses and closing down 12 because of the trouble with government funded student loan issues.

The majority of the predictions above regarding US higher education institutions, especially for-profit colleges may have similar reflections in Malaysia. A PTPTN loan crisis will definitely result in the tightening of the rules regarding the eligibility criteria of borrowers. A squeeze of funding source of PTPTN (coupled with high default rate and relatively low repayment collection) may also curtail the number of for-profit institutions and the type of study programmes that qualify for PTPTN loan. This will lead to a second wave of consolidation of not only the number of for-profit institutions but the types of programmes (as did the tightening of the funding rules regarding nursing programmes a few years ago which resulted in the collapse of a number of smaller private nursing colleges). There is no indication that graduate from for-profit institutions in Malaysia are more prone to defaulting their PTPTN loan. This could be due to the cap in the amount that PTPTN imposes on each type of study programme. There is also no indication that graduates of for-profit institutions earning less than their public university counterparts as shown in the US.

One aspect of the US higher education scene that may not play out in Malaysia is the spiralling of tuition fees. This is a combination of market condition and the way the regulatory authorities and funding bodies exerting tight control over the tuition fees that for-profit institutions are allowed to charge in Malaysia. Additionally, public institutions’ tuition fees level is determined by the Malaysian Government with most degree programmes receiving 90% or more in subsidies to keep these fees low. With PTPTN having a cap on funding for different degree programmes at for-profit institutions coupled with the fierce competition  in the private higher education sector means that most private players (with the exception of the market leaders such as Taylor’s University and Sunway University which can command higher than market rates) will price their tuition fees around the PTPTN capped levels to stay competitive.Thus dramatic rise in tuition fees is not an issue in Malaysia.

Comparison of some effects on student loan defaulters in the USA & Malaysia:

  • US education debt cannot be eased even if one dies or files for bankruptcy. In contrast, PTPTN loan scheme includes loan insurance to cover the loan in the event of the death of the borrower but bankruptcy may not be covered by insurance. PTPTN in 2011 declared that although it has the right to declare defaulters with loan that is over RM30,000 as bankrupts, it has decided not to pursue this route to recover its fund.
  • Since 2004, student debts in the US has increased by 56.8% per person on average but the average salary for young people in USA has in fact dipped by 10%. Fresh graduate salary in Malaysia actually grew by 8% in 2013 but the starting salary is still low at RM2,400 to RM2,800. A fresh medical graduate from a for-profit medical school with a RM300,000 loan for tuition fees will find it hard to pay off the study loan with a starting salary of around RM3,000. But PTPTN’s cap for medical degree programme is RM30,000 per year or RM150,000 for the programme. However, most PTPTN loan borrowers, especially those who have graduated from public universities who are employed should be able to service their study loans. These salary data from Malaysia was collected for fresh graduates entering jobs relevant to their fields of study. The 40% and 44% underemployment of fresh graduates in Malaysia and the USA respectively may limit those trapped in this circumstance to service their student loans adequately.
  • The 6.8 million student loan defaulters in the USA will find that their credit rating drops drastically, they may not be eligible for government jobs. They may not even get their transcripts (which are increasingly being demanded by employers) for them to apply for jobs.  While Malaysian for-profit institutions practice the same withholding of transcripts for graduates who have outstanding bills, they are not bound by any regulation to do the same on behalf of PTPTN to make loan defaulters pay up. PTPTN has been directed not to blacklist a large proportion of the defaulters with credit agencies but it is interesting to see if more defaulters do not pay up will this be one of the measures implemented. [In November 2014 PTPTN did announce the listing of loan defaulters in the credit agency’s blacklist which have since saw an increase in repayment rates by borrowers]
  • Some states in the USA will disqualify student loan defaulters from professional licences such as nursing, some will voke driving licences of defaulters. In Malaysia, PTPTN may not have the power to do likewise but it can work with professional organisations such as the Malaysian Medical Association, The Nursing Board, Institute of Accountants, etc. to come to some arrangements to bar loan defaulters from registering with the relevant boards.

Remedies for treating the problem of student loan defaults:

There have been many diverse opinion on what should be done to alleviate the problem of student loans default in the USA. Student loan “forgiveness” is one of the remedial actions taken in the USA. This has been implemented since 2007 where if a borrower fulfills certain conditions he/she pays back the loan according to how much he/she earns and not how much he/she owes. There is a cap of US$57,500 that can be forgiven in this way but those taking up graduate studies are not subjected to any cap. The cost of this “loan forgiven” scheme initially cost the US Government US$1.7 billion but has since ballooned to US$7.6 billion by April 2014.

Since 1965, the US Federal government have been providing Pell Grant to needy student to enable them to pay for college education. The amount of Pell grant that an eligible person can obtain in 2014 is US$5,730 for a maximum lifetime value for 6 years (i.e. US$34,380). In 2014, Pell grant benefited 9 millions US citizens at a cost of US$33.0 billion. Some believe that extending the Pell grant by relaxing some of the mean-tested qualifying criteria may be one of the remedies.

In comparison Malaysia’s PTPTN does have a “loan forgiven” scheme for borrowers who scored first class degrees to convert their entire loan to scholarships. What this scheme costs so far and how many have been benefited are not available at present. [as of September 2014, PTPTN has converted the loans of 22,150 high achieving borrowers to scholarships, costing the fund RM603.1 million]. However there has not been any other criteria set that will trigger “loan forgiven” by PTPTN. Perhaps “loan forgiven” can be considered for cases whereby certain categories of borrowers for instance those with medical, allied health science or teaching qualifications can be enticed to serve for an extended period in remote areas of Sabah or Sarawak in return for full or partial “loan forgiven” scheme.

There is also an equivalent of Pell grant in Malaysia in the form of Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA) bursary and scholarships that it has been disbursing for decades. However MARA scholarships and bursary are provided only for the bumiputera community and are not universally available depending on the financial neediness of the applicants as in Pell grant’s case. Perhaps the Malaysian Government should take a look at Pell grant to ensure the very poor have equal access to higher education?

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The trouble with input-centric education system

Input-centric education decisions have been hampering the advance of Malaysian learners.

The move in September 2014 by the Malaysian Ministry of Education to disallow private higher education institutions (PHEI) to use forecast results for the national high school examination, Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) as a provisional entrance qualification for high school graduates to enter college caused a big row.

The key justification cited by the power that be was that there were abuses by PHEIs and students who did not score the required SPM grades (5 credits for Foundation Studies and 3 credits for diploma, along with specific requirements such as credit in Mathematics etc.) were found to be allowed to continue their studies by some institutions. What was never mentioned in fact was the statistics of such non compliance and what was done to these affected students and PHEIs.

In my column in the first edition of Focusweek (October 17, 2014) I highlighted the issue of Malaysia’s obsession with inputs in all education policies and neglected to evaluate learners’ output, that is, what they have learned and can applied in policy decisions.

Using input-centric policy to be the sole deciding factor on learners’ suitability to be admitted to college is just but one of the idiosyncrasies of Malaysia’s education system. In this system, there is no provision for learners who marginally missed a cutting point for admission into college to have the opportunity for a “second” chance in proving their academic ability. While I was working for Pearson plc as its Regional Quality Manager, I was exposed to the concept of the “Challenge Route” practised by UK’s university for its very popular MBA programme. Anyone, regardless of their academic credentials, if he or she wishes, is given the chance to study for the MBA. Those who did not have the prescribed academic credentials would be given the opportunity to pass three of the 9 required modules as a condition for acceptance. The “Challenge Route” measures the output of these learners. The idea is, if anyone could pass these three MBA modules demonstrate that they have acquired the core knowledge to undertake the remainder of their studies. I think this is a better way to foster a learning culture and pulling down barriers to academic attainment for many people.

Another area I covered in my column is the other grouses of the PHIEs: the insistence of the approving and accreditation authorities on strictly prescribing the input-centric policy of the teaching staff must have a qualification higher than the level of the class that they are teaching. This doctrine of education policy shows that those policy designers really could not tell the difference between academic qualifications, teaching abilities and the value of industrial experience. The policy, at one stroke disallows the great contributions of master craftsmen, artists and designers from imparting their great skills, experiences and insights to younger generations of learners.

Having a PhD does not make one a great teacher. In fact when I started my career in Malaysia’s academia after my postdoctoral stint in Singapore, I did not have any training to be a lecturer. The only teaching I had done was when I served as a demonstrator in laboratory classes and later tutor for undergraduate students. I think the same goes for many PhD holders. People like me, learned quickly on the job and observed how experienced lecturers teach and emulated them.

In 1979 when I was studying for my G.C.E “O” levels at South Shields Marine and Technical College, UK, we had a very good pure mathematics lecturer by the name of Morris Gowland. Gowland did not have a degree. He went to a teacher training school. Yet, compared to other pure mathematics lecturers with Master’s and PhDs, Gowland was far superior in his teaching skills. One look at a struggling student’s work on a pure mathematics question, Gowland would say, “There, you have miscalculated this step,”  As a results, most of us, 4 Malaysians and 5 Hong Kongers passed our mathematics with flying colours. On the other hand, when we were working on our G.C. E. “A” levels, our head of Department Dr. Croucher who holds a PhD in nuclear physics was struggling to teach us nuclear physics in our Physics class. Thus measuring a person’s teaching ability by solely judging if his/her has a degree, Master’s or PhDs is like measuring the size of one’s waist when buying shoes. Thus solely measuring the input (in this case the kind of qualification a teaching staff has) to determine a person’s suitability to teach is a very inaccurate way to reach a crucial decision. It is much better to have an evaluation of a teaching stuff “live” teaching ability rather than his/her having an academic qualification a level higher than the class he/she is teaching as the only gauge. Sadly this is what happens in practice in Malaysian PHEIs.

So why should we be alarmed every year when world university ranking by various systems are published with Malaysian institutions either languishing at the rear end or being “no shows” on the list.

We are not tapping into the vast expertise of our own people. Who would be best to teach business subjects especially entrepreneurships (even as guest lecturers for a few sessions each) than the captains of the respective industries? Yet unless these high flyers have the requisite academic credentials (at Master’s level at least!), the PHEIs would not be allowed to engage them. What a waste of talents! What a loss to the younger learners in Malaysia!

As I  said in my column, unless we as Malaysians break free from our shackles of input-centric mentality, we will always be chasing the tail wind of our competitors.

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