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!

Insight into Hong Kong’s tertiary education

The Hong Kong Government and the HK Jockey Club provide substantial financial support to self-financing colleges.

Mr. Lim Soon Tiong (林顺忠先生), a graduate of the original Nanyang University of early Singapore (fondly known in Malaysia and Singapore as “Nanda”- 南洋大学) is a Malaysian who has made his many pots of gold in Hong Kong. He has been generously donating and funding educational initiatives to benefit young people in Hong Kong and Malaysia. One of his

Ms. Lim Soon Tiong, a graduate of the original “Nanda” (南大) is a Malaysian who has made his mark in the business world of Hong Kong. Our delegation’s visit was his brainchild and was generously sponsored by him.

latest kind deeds was his organizing and funding of a five-days-four-nights study-visit by a group of seven college/university leaders to learn more about the tertiary education scene in Hong Kong. Fortunately for me, Mr. Lim had invited me to be a member of this group which we called ourselves in Chinese “大马民办高校香港高等教育考察团” (Delegation of Malaysian Community-supported Institutions of Higher Learning to Hong Kong).

Our group, led by Dr. Lim Chong Keang (New Era University College’s Chairman of the Board of Governors) was comprised of leaders of Malaysia’s three tertiary institutions which are fully funded and supported by the Chinese Malaysian community, namely New Era University College, Southern University College and Han Chiang College (in which I was associated and was in the process of being registered as a university college). Our benefactor, Mr. Lim Soon Tiong had managed to rope in Professor Nyaw MK  (饒美蛟教授), who is a very respected and accomplished educationist in Hong Kong to be the leader, chief planner and organizer to maximize the impact of our trip.

Professor Nyaw MK (left) is a former Vice-President of Lingnan University here with Dr. Lim Chong Keang (Leader of the Delegation & Chairman of the Board of Governors, New Era University College).

The three institutions are considered by many Chinese educationists in Malaysia and Singapore as the successors of the original Nanyang University and hence many initiatives have been carried out by graduates of “Nanda” for the benefits of these three institutions.

Within a short time span of three full days, we visited six universities and colleges, all with its uniqueness that would give our group a deep, 360 degrees insight of the higher education scene in Hong Kong.

Day 1: The Chinese University of Hong Kong & Hang Seng Management College

We started off our hectic three days with one of Asia’s highest ranked universities, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. As I have had the opportunity to work as a postdoctoral researcher at the National University of Singapore (NUS), which is of the same “league” as CUHK, I could see many of the key characteristics of such high ranking institutions in CUHK. Starting from the greatly effective and efficient way that the international office planned out our visit to the arrangement for the meeting with the Vice-Chancellor that was done with military precision! The OxBridge-styled collegial system which was started from the inception of CUHK by the coming together of three independent colleges in 1963 has been proven to be highly effective in providing a sense of belonging for all students. It was a privilege and honour for me to have met Vice-Chancellor, Professor Joseph J.Y. Sung who is one of the “Asian Hero”, having led the team that contributed selflessly to the fighting of SARS epidemic in Hong Kong in 2003.

CUHK’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Joseph Sung (2nd from the right) is a prominent medical scientist and doctor who is one of the “Asian Hero” that fought the SARS epidemic in 2003.
CUHK’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Joseph Sung (2nd from the right) is a prominent medical scientist and doctor who is one of the “Asian Hero” that fought the SARS epidemic in 2003.

As all three Malaysian institutions had had a successful students exchange with CUHK this year (also sponsored kindly by Mr. Lim Soon Tiong) we felt very much “at home” at CUHK with several familiar faces such as Ms. Wendy Lou and Mr. Raymond Leung (who must have put in a lot of extra effort to make sure that we could maximize the impact of our visit). We were treated by Mr. Lim ST to a great lunch at the Hong Kong Jockey Club at Sha Tin. The Club has been the biggest benefactor of higher education institutions in Hong Kong for years.

Hong Kong Jockey Club is one of the biggest donors to higher education institutions in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Jockey Club is one of the biggest donors to higher education institutions in Hong Kong.

The second institution we visited on Day 1 was Hang Seng Management College (HSMC) which was founded as the Hang Seng School of Commerce by several directors of the famed Hang Seng Bank (and the Hong Kong Hang Seng Index for stock market). Unlike CUHK, Han Seng Management College is a fully private and not-for-profit institution. Despite this big funding difference, HSMC is a very well equipped and well staffed institution of higher learning where many retired professors from the public institutions, notably CUHK have taken up appointments at HSMC thus conferring upon it a strong academic team under the leadership of President, Professor Simon S.M. Ho. Those of us who have visited or even worked for top ranked private universities and colleges in Malaysia would easily find HSMC as being better equipped (and better staffed) than their Malaysian equivalent. The hostels of HSMC was practical and yet reasonably priced for students. The campus, though not huge but is very well facilitated and well designed and built. Again the financial support of Hong Kong Jockey Club as well as that of the families of directors / founders of the Hang Seng Bank is very evident. Unlike CUHK, HSMC is very focused on niche areas of business and finance, mass communication, supply chain management, and interpretation & translation. HSMC also provides a niche area in humanities as well.

The training theatre for students reading interpretation and translation at Hang Seng Management College is one of most modern state-of-the art facility in Hong Kong.
The training theatre for students reading interpretation and translation at Hang Seng Management College is one of most modern state-of-the art facilities in Hong Kong.

We were introduced to the office bearers of the Chinese Executive Club (an association under the auspices of The Hong Kong Management Association) who treated us to a great dinner. Our benefactor, Mr. Lim ST is a former chairman of this Club which was founded to help business leaders who find it more comfortable to socialize and exchange ideas in their native tongue, Cantonese.

Day 2: Lingnan University & Chu Hai College of Higher Education

Lingnan University being known as “The Liberal Arts University of Hong Kong” has lived up to its mantra as it was named as one of the top ten liberal arts colleges in Asia by Forbes in 2015. Lignan, one of the eight public universities in Hong Kong, is the only institution of higher learning that practices a full four years residential system for all its undergraduate students. Thus being fully residential has conferred Lingnan with a unique way of enriching the on-campus lives for the students. It has a very innovative way of being “liberal arts centric” for its curriculum which stands its degree programmes apart from other institutions’ equivalent degree programmes. The teaching and learning at Lingnan which follow a very broad, almost North American curriculum styled, is a mix of liberal arts, humanities and general knowledge which gives its undergraduate students a more holistic education compared to the other Hong Kong colleges and universities which tend to favour and mirror the British system. I think because of this, Lingnan provides Malaysian diploma graduates with a more seamless transfer than other institutions in Hong Kong. Professor Leonard K. Cheng, President of Lingnan University hosted a working lunch for our delegation where he provided our group with a great insight to the higher education scene in Hong Kong. I was very intrigued by his account of his personal experiences of rising from a “semi legal” migrant from China to be an accomplished academician of today.

Professor Leonard Cheng (4th from the right) receiving a souvenir from our group leader, Dr. Lim CQ.
Professor Leonard Cheng (4th from the right) receiving a souvenir from our group leader, Dr. Lim CK.

Chu Hai College of Higher Education (CHC) is an independent, self-finance and privately operated institution. It traces its origin back to 1947 when the institution was founded in Guangzhou, China. Today it occupies a campus overlooking the mouth of the Pearl River which in the opinion of many, gives it one of the best scenery of Hong Kong. It gives significance to many Chinese Malaysians as it would have been the view that our ancestors were looking at when they left their homeland a century or more ago to come to “nanyang”, South East Asia. In contrast to Hang Seng Management College, CHC academic programmes cover four broad areas of Arts & Social Sciences; Science & Engineering; and Business. The academic programmes offered by CHC range from Communication, Journalism; Computer Science, Civil Engineering & Architecture; to Business Administration, Banking & Finance. It has a very state-of-the-art broadcasting studio for its journalism and communication students.

This view taken from Chu Hai College President Chang Ching Nan's office, offered the best view of the Pearl River mouth.
This view taken from Chu Hai College President Chang Ching Nan’s office, offered the best view of the Pearl River mouth.

Day 2 concluded with with a dinner at a posh restaurant specializing in cuisines from northern China at Tsim Sha Tsui area overlooking Hong Kong island which was a special treat by Professor Nyaw. We were also rewarded with the best night scenery of Hong Kong.

Day 3: The Open University of Hong Kong and The Institute of Vocational Education @ Chai Wan

I had the privilege of visiting The Open University of Hong Kong (OUHK) in 2000 when I worked for Pearson plc where I was fully impressed with the then 3-years-old university. Sixteen years later, OUHK, which modeled after the Open University of the United Kingdom (OUUK) has progressed by leaps and bounds from offering just the “traditional” distance and open learning university programmes to offering full-time studies for high school graduates along the same model as the eight Hong Kong public universities. Although OUHK was established by the Hong Kong Government, it is operating as a self-financing institution. Along with undergraduate, postgraduate and research academic programmes, OUHK is well known for its strengths in the continuing education and professional training sectors. OUHK’s motto in Chinese is (a) 有教无类 (learning opportunity regardless of race, prior qualifications and gender); (b) 宽进严出 (ease on entry but strict on graduation); (c) 终身学习 (lifelong learning) which it has, over the years been servicing the needs of working adults (and now young people) successfully. Perhaps due to its OUUK influence, OUHK is more advanced in its collaboration in terms of delivery of its programmes with foreign institutions. We were enlightened by Associate Vice President, Professor Y.K. Ip of OUHK’s successes and milestones. Professor Ip also gave us many ideas where potential collaborations between OUHK and our three institutions could be forged. We learned that OUHK’s thriving nursing programme was one of the most sought after by students as the profession provides one of the highest salary in Hong Kong.

One of the most popular degree programmes of OUHK is the nursing programme.
One of the most popular degree programmes of OUHK is the nursing programme.

I had the opportunity to visit the Vocational Training Council (VTC) of Hong Kong during my stint at Pearson plc. in early 2000 to learn about the effort by the Hong Kong Government to bridge the gap between academic and vocation education to serve the craving of Hong Kong’s economy for technical and vocational professionals. I had suggested to Mr. Lim ST and Professor Nyaw that our delegation’s visit would not be complete unless we look at Hong Kong’s tertiary education sector in totality by visiting one of VTC’s vocational training institutions. Our last stop for this visit was therefore to Hong Kong Institute of Vocational Education, Chai Wan (IVE-CW), hosted by Professor Sampson Poon, Principal of IVE-CW. The VTC is a government department which operates nine IVEs in Hong Kong which are fully funded by the Hong Kong Government. Hong Kong’s IVE perhaps have a lot of similarity with private colleges in Malaysia but with three notable exceptions. (1) Their facilities, especially the IT/computer science, culinary arts, videography, finance & investment, engineering and dispensary science (as evident in IVE-CW) are state-of-the-art, reflecting the vast investment by the VTC from the Hong Kong Government’s funding; (2) Their campuses aside from being better equipped than most Malaysian colleges, are very large, with great industrial linkages that ensure a career for every graduate; (3) The School of Higher and Professional Education (SHAPE) under VTC has been collaborating with foreign universities to offer top-up degree programmes for IVE’s higher diploma graduates for many years which is similar to top-up degree programmes that Malaysian private colleges were offering before the era of tight regulatory control of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency.  Another VTC’s institutions which is located at IVE-CW, Technological and Higher Education Institute of Hong Kong (THEi) offers its homegrown degree programmes under three faculties, namely, Design & Environment; Management & Hospitality; and Science & Technology. All together, twenty two homegrown bachelor degree programmes are offered by THEi. Thus together with SHAPE, THEi offer both homegrown as well as top-up degree programmes from external universities to IVE students.

The IVE in Hong Kong are better equipped than most private colleges in Malaysia. This is a shot on the Virtual Reality studio of IVE-CW.
The IVE in Hong Kong are better equipped than most private colleges in Malaysia. This is a shot of the Virtual Reality studio of IVE-CW.

The IVE system not only cater to the vocation education needs of Hong Kong people but also provides a “second chance” for high school graduates who are academically inclined but for whatever reason, have missed the boat of public/private universities to use the IVE’s diploma-higher diploma route towards an academic degree. The seamless continuation pathway for students in vocational training of the IVE system is one that Malaysia will do well to emulate. I was also intrigued by Professor Poon’s philosophy of teaching practical English usage to his diploma students rather than the “standard” academic English that some would find daunting.

From the left: Prof Nyaw MK, Prof Simpson Poon (of Institute of Vocational Education, Chai Wan), Mr. Lim Soon Tiong, and Mr. Mok Chek Hou (Deputy Chairman, Board of Governors of Southern University College) during a dinner hosted by Mr. Lim ST where the famous “大闸蟹” (lake large crab) was served.
From the left: Prof Nyaw MK, Prof Simpson Poon (of Institute of Vocational Education, Chai Wan), Mr. Lim Soon Tiong, and Mr. Mok Chek Hou (Deputy Chairman, Board of Governors of Southern University College) during a dinner hosted by Mr. Lim ST where the famous “大闸蟹” (lake large crab) was served.
Take Home Insights

Despite its economic strength and having a population of over seven millions, Hong Kong has only 20 degree-awarding higher education institutions compared to around 500 plus public and private tertiary institutions in Malaysia, about half of which offer degree programmes (either homegrown or in collaboration with local / foreign universities). This goes perhaps to show that quality and quantity as far as higher education is concern must be well balanced!

  1. The eight public universities are very well funded by the Hong Kong Government and overall their collective reputation worldwide is very high.
  2. The Hong Kong Government invests heavily in the remaining 18 degree-awarding institutions which are self-financing by generously providing them with land for their campuses, thus removing one of the highest investments in any such institutions.
  3. The self-financing institutions have access to interest-free loan for the development of their institutions from the Hong Kong Government.
    Thus via (2) and (3) above, the Hong Kong Government exerts indirect control over the development of the higher education sector and ensures its sustainability.
  4. Although the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications (HKCAAVQ) which is the equivalent body to the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA), exert control over the standard of higher education in Hong Kong, all non-public institutions are allowed to award homegrown degrees without having Malaysia’s equivalent of “university college” status so long as all requirements of HKCAAVQ are fulfilled. This provides Hong Kong colleges with a competitive advantage over their Malaysian counterparts.
  5. The Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) annually provides a huge amount of funding to higher education in Hong Kong. All the six institutions we visited have received substantial funding from HKJC which allowed buildings to be erected in the respective campuses, thus defraying another substantial cost element, especially for the self-financing institutions.
  6. The technical, vocational education and training sector of Hong Kong is very well run by the VTC and well funded by the Hong Kong Government. The seamless progression pathways to academic degrees for IVE higher diploma holders and the fact that the VTC has gained HKCAAVQ’s approval to offer twenty two homegrown degree programmes are testament to this observation.

There is just one big issue for any Malaysians who aspire to study in Hong Kong for a degree… that is, cost. Non-local students have to pay 30% more at both public and self-financing institutions, with the former’s tuition fees at HK$70,000 per year and latter’s being at around HK$130,000. The good news is, most Hong Kong institutions of higher learning do offer some form of financial aids to Malaysian students with the required academic credentials. Thus students in diploma programmes in Malaysian colleges with good tie-up with Hong Kong institutions (for example the three institutions represented in our delegation) will stand a better chance of getting some financial aids with collaborating institutions.

The IVEs which charge around HK$70,000 per year may be a bit more attractive to Malaysian students as their diploma and higher diploma can be completed by student with SPM (GCE ‘O’ level equivalent) qualifications only in two years. This allows such students to take another year to earn a top-up degree. The total time spent to earn a degree via the IVE-system will be about three years.

Since 2012 Hong Kong had changed from a 3-years degree to a 4-years degree system, Malaysian students will need to budget for four years of tuition fees if they want to study in Hong Kong. In addition, unlike the IVE system, SPM holders will need to complete STPM / GCE ‘A’ levels or foundation programme to be eligible for entry into Hong Kong institutions offering undergraduate degree programmes. Hence the IVE system or the Malaysian private colleges’ diploma provide better (shorter and perhaps cheaper) routes to a degree in Hong Kong.

If I score 10 ‘A’s does any one owe me a scholarship?

A student from a remote village in Sabah who did not have the means to attend private tuition classes for key subjects may scores “only” 5 “A+”s compared to a student from Subang Jaya who attended private tuition classes for these subjects who scored 8 “A+”s. As an educationist, I will put my money on the Sabahan student being academically a better student compared to the student from Subang Jaya. Further, because the Sabahan student could thrive without the benefits of tuition classes, I will opine that the chances of this student faltering at university-level studies will be much lower than his/her Subang Jaya counterpart. However by evaluating students based initially on just the number of “A”s scored the odd is stacked heavily against the Sabahan student.

This article is rather long and in its original form was published in two parts in Han Chiang News. It was written in response to the recent news in Malaysia of government bursaries/scholarships students who were promised full funding for overseas universities being told that the coffer does not have enough money and so the power that be had to renege on its promise. I have decided to republish the unedited version here in its entirety. 

In recent weeks the press has highlighted the case of many public service department (JPA) scholars having their collective dreams of a fully paid for undergraduate studies overseas being dashed. The lack of fund was the main cause of the drastic decision by the JPA to reverse course for these students who did spectacularly well in their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM – Malaysian Certificate of Education) in recent years. However all were given full financial support for pursuing their studies in local public and private universities.

This case begs the question, “Does society owe a student who has scored straight “A”s in SPM an oversea scholarship?”

While it is disappointing to see talented students who obtain top scores fail to continue their tertiary studies overseas, one must view this situation in a holistic manner. SPM is not an easy public examination for one to score straight “A”s. However those who scored straight “A”s in SPM are not necessary the same people who eventually shine well at university studies. There are many cases of SPM holders with more than 10”A”s who struggled and even tumbled at their undergraduate years.

All of us who have been to college know that there is a big gap between SPM and STPM/”A” levels or equivalent pre-university qualifications. The gap from pre-university to tertiary level is even bigger. Although in general those who did well at SPM would be able to cope with pre-university studies, there are many examples of students with very good SPM and pre-university results faltering at university studies. Thus for a country to commit so much resources to send its citizen to study overseas at this early stage is somewhat of a gamble. The safer bet is in fact what the JPA has done: let these students with great SPM results and pre-university qualifications study for their undergraduate degrees in local public or private universities. If these students turn out not to be what the Chinese described as “Xiao Shi Liao Liao, Da Wei Bi Jia ” (小时了了, ,大未必佳 - being bright at an early age does not necessarily bring success upon growing up), the country can then commit great resouces to send them overseas perhaps on a 2 + 2 model, saving great resources at the same time allowing the selectors to fine tune their selection. Many established private institutions of higher learning have attained great expertise, reputation and network of good overseas institutions to take on this responsibility. For those students who have proven “track records” the country can then commit greater resources to send them for their Master’s or even PhD studies overseas.

Judging someone’s ability to learn well and flourish at university based solely on his/her SPM results is not a very fair method. A student from a remote village in Sabah who did not have the means to attend private tuition classes for key subjects (like Malay, English, Mathematics, Physics, Accounts or Additional Mathematics)  may scores “only” 5 “A+”s compared to a student from Subang Jaya who attended private tuition classes for these subjects who scored 8 “A+”s. As an educationist, I will put my money on the Sabahan student being academically a better student compared to the student from Subang Jaya. Further, because the Sabahan student could thrive without the benefits of tuition classes, I will opine that the chances of this student faltering at university-level studies will be much lower than his/her Subang Jaya counterpart. However by evaluating students based initially on just the number of “A”s scored the odd is stacked heavily against the Sabahan student.

I studied for my G.C.E “A” levels at a state-run technical college in England in early 1980s. The college’s “A” level students were mainly those who had taken the examination before but were repeating for one reason or another. Nearly all of them wanted just to pass. Because of clashing of timetable, in the first year of my “A” level studies I could only take the Applied Mathematics half of the “Pure and Applied  Mathematics” as a part-time-revision-class which had 50% of the hours of the full-time class, covering only 60% of the syllabus. Yet, I was able to score a Grade A for this subject after studying only for 1 academic year. In my case, my “struggle” was recognized by the university selectors and I received two offers to read dentistry in 1982. The lower offer was just any two subjects at grade E or better! Unfortunately, due to my family’s lack of fund, I had to decline both offers despite meeting the minimal requirement easily with one further Grade “A” and two Grad “B”s. Compared to a boarding school student with dedicated school masters and a greater teaching system who scored 4 Grade “A”s at A Levels, I think my achievement under a much less favourable condition would be more reflective of my ability to learn and survive at university level and beyond. Who should you think is deserving of a scholarship to study at university?

To those students who are expecting (or have scored) straight “A”s at SPM and are now at a crossroad as far as tertiary studies is concern, I urge you to take note of the following points:

  1. No one owes you a scholarship just because you scored well. There are a lot of other influencing factors that the selectors of scholarship fund need to consider. You have no right to demand for a scholarship no matter how well you think you have done in your SPM. As a holder of 2 postgraduate scholarships, I can tell you that getting a scholarship is a privilege indeed and not a right!
  2. Because of (1), you must show courtesy under all circumstances. The matured response reported of the recent JPA “Bursary” students’ case in appealing for help rather than “exerting their rights” is the correct approach. You will not get far if you adopt a confrontational approach and project the image of the world owing you something just because you have the talent to score “A+”s!
  3. Have a Plan B, C or even D.
    • Local private colleges provide lots of scholarship opportunities. Most will regularly contribute to the Nanyang Siang Pau’s and Sin Chew Daily’s respective scholarship scheme. However based on this author’s observation, in many years, most of these scholarship awards were not able to find rightful recipients due mainly to the lack of qualified applicants. This shows that there are lots and lots of scholarships out there! Go and grab these!
    • Be flexible in your aspiration. Have an open mind in choosing for at least one other alternative field of studies. Remember Sun Tze’s “Art of War”,  “Zhi Ji Zhi Bi, Bai Zhan Bu Dai” (知己知彼,百战不殆: know yourself and know your enemy, and you will never be defeated in a 100 battles). Often you are your worst enemy in this context! Be realistic. Know your own strengths, weaknesses and interests, match these as far as possible with the different tertiary fields of studies. This will help you to formulate your Plan B, C and even D.  Make use of the knowledge of your school counsellors, talk to your seniors who are already at universities/colleges, attend as many education fairs as possible. Whatever you do, be honest with yourself.
    • Do your research on what scholarships are available early, preferable BEFORE taking your SPM. This will allow you to evaluate which fields of studies or which institutions are your top choices. You can also test out your own ability, aptitude and interest in each of the shortlisted fields. Do not wait till after your SPM results are announced to do this “homework”.
  4. Have an open mind. Not getting a scholarship for overseas studies is not the “be all and end all” episode of your life journey. Remember the saying, “When a door shuts in your face, one will open up somewhere else for you.” In my case, not getting to study dentistry was a blessing in disguise. I found out why I did badly on 3 dimensional vector in Additional Mathematics and why I could not for the life of me figure out the technical drawing of my roommate only when I was already at university reading general agriculture. I have a form of learning disability in spatial recognition. I would have made a very lousy dentist, assuming I could pass in the first place! The “door” which opened for me was indeed my undergraduate studies in general agriculture, through it, I managed to secure two different scholarships for my Master’s and PhD studies! See a counsellor if you are really depressed but get this bout over as soon as possible. Remember the Chinese saying, “ Everybody has something that they were born to be good at (天生我才必有用 ).  Your job is to find that “thing” that you are good at and pursue your tertiary studies in that “thing”. Having good SPM grades definitely will put you head and shoulder above most candidates.

The most memorable line from the highly successful local movie, “Olabola” was uttered by an actress in Cantonese: “Even though I scored As in every subject in Form 5, I am still stuck here as a rubber tapper…..” That was in the 1970s. In today’s environment with close to 500 private institutions of higher learning chasing after students, the protagonist would have secured a scholarship somewhere and PTPTN loan would have covered most of her tuition fees. However, if you are one of those SPM holders with less than 9As and wonder if there is any chance of getting some financial assistance, you will be glad to know that there are still opportunities available to you.

Editor’s Note: Most private colleges have many academic-merits-based and need-based scholarships and bursaries specially designed to help students contemplating tertiary studies due to financial constraints. You don’t need to scored As in every subject in Form 5 to receive a bursary!

Scholarships to study in US ivy league for China’s poor: why this is great?

US $100 million education fund to send China’s poor high achievers to Ivy League schools in the USA.

A recent Wall Street Journal’s report about the US$100 million education fund set up by one of China’s growing band of billionaires to send China higher achievers from poor families to US ivy league universities generated a lot of unexpected reactions.

Billionaires Zhang Xin and her husband, Pan Shiyi of SOHO China who made their fortune in properties in China had donated US$100 million to set up this education fund. The fund’s main aim is to finance high achieving students from poor families in China to elite schools in the USA for their undergraduate education.

One would have expected positive reactions from across the country to this philanthropic deed. However a look at the comments left by readers of this article would indicate the responses were diverse. Though most commentaries stated that the philanthropic act of Zhang and Pan was good, many differed in their opinion on why the money has to be spent on institutions in the USA. The argument most cited was that China has world-class universities, why not spread the fund more widely by financing poor students to study in China? Similar sort of arguments have been given by Malaysians as to the value of the Malaysian Government spending millions of ringgit sending students to study overseas.

In fact the cost of higher education in China is relatively low compared to the USA and even Malaysia. Thus many from poor families in China, if they have good Gaokao (university entrance examination) scores it would not be difficult for them to get into high ranking Chinese universities and by the same account some sort of funding. But if one select from among this group of high achievers and fund their studies overseas, there are many benefits that the country will gain.

There are 3 most obvious reasons why the education fund from Zhang and Pan is aiming to send high achievers from poor families to ivy league schools in the USA:

1. Great exposure to Western ideas, innovation and approaches to solve problems:
Zhang Xin herself is a recipient of a scholarship that enable her to gain a Western education. But she had to work in a sweatshop in Hong Kong for five years before saving enough to go to London to enroll in a language school, working to pay her way before securing a scholarship for her undergraduate studies. Zhang must have appreciated the differences in approach to tackle problems in the West compared to what is practiced in China. I think without integrating and “cross fertilizing” of Western innovative approaches with the pragmatism of the Chinese “way”, Zhang might not have made it to the major league. Thinking out of the box is not something in the culture and traditions of the Chinese. By sending high achievers from China to top universities in the USA, Zhang and Pan will help to create an elite group of highly intelligent young people who will have the benefit of this “blended” approach to help solve many problems that China will face.

2. Great networking potential:
Only by learning and working with elite scholars from all over the world will a high achievers from China be able to learn to be expand his/her horizon. This sort of networking and friendships forged with fellow elite high achievers from all over the world can only be found at elite universities and US ivy league schools perhaps have the best mix of high achievers from all over the world. Although China’s elite universities have been admitting increasing number of foreign students, the number and “mix” of nationalities is still minute compared to their peers in the West, especially USA ivy league. This sort of network that is built when one is at undergraduate levels will bring tremendous payouts when these high achieving China students complete their studies and move on to industry or academia. This sort of networking will not only do the scholarship holders a great deal of good but will benefit  China immensely in many different dimensions in the long run.

3.  Character building:
The most crucial lesson that every student who is fortunate enough (including this author) to receive an opportunity to study in a Western country is indeed the need to “grow up” fast, to be independent and to be accountable for one’s own actions, i.e. character building. This sort of character building is most pronounced if one is living and learning in an environment and culture that are totally alien to what one is accustomed to. To survive, study and thrive in elite ivy league schools in the USA, Chinese students will have to be able to communicate well and be independent in their thinking, both may not be easily attainable if they were to study in their home country.

The same three reasons above are what drive many parents in Asia to send their children to study in the West even when faced with escalating cost every year.

Now, I only hope that we have our own version of Zhang Zin and Pan Shiyi in Malaysia!

Footnote: This article is contributed by Dr. YN Chow who spent about 12 years studying in the UK.