"Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself."- John Dewey.
From the job market to tertiary education, from UPSR to A-Levels, Education in Malaysia focuses on bringing you the latest news and analysis on our nation's best bet on the future.
SPECIAL FOCUS KUALA LUMPUR: Higher education is a passport to a better life, but unfortunately many Malaysian students do not enjoy easy access to it. More often than not, it is a goal they seek but cannot attain. It has seemingly become a privilege and not a right.
If given a chance, many would want to enter and graduate from top-notch universities in the US and UK. But the reality is that the route to these prestigious institutions is out of reach and many are left stranded at home.
What future do they have in Malaysia? Access to higher education to local public institutions of higher education is limited. A quota system introduced under the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1970 and spiralling fees in private institutions have not helped matters.
There are currently 20 public universities and 627 higher education institutions (IPT), with Universiti Malaya being the oldest university in the country.
According to PJ Utara MP, Tony Pua, this was more than double in proportion to the population when compared to Singapore.
Under the 10th Malaysia Plan (10MP), the government does not intend to establish any more new public universities, while the private sector will not be prevented from setting up private institutions of higher learning.
FMT takes an indepth look at the trend emerging in Malaysia’s higher education system.
Only 29% obtain higher education qualifications
According to a report published by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (Unesco) in 2005, only 29.9% of Malaysians obtained higher education qualifications.
In contrast, both Singapore and Thailand have a higher percentage of population with tertiary education qualifications at 46% and 41% respectively, while in South Korea a whopping 89% of its population boasts higher education qualifications -- three times the percentage of Malaysia.
Said Professor James Chin, head of Arts of Monash University Malaysia: “Malaysia can never be a developed country if the rate remains this low. On the one hand, we have the problem of quality; on the other, the problem of percentage.”
“Quality is obviously harder to improve, and we are nowhere near becoming a knowledge-based economy,” he added.
FMT did a study of the many publications of the Higher Education Ministry and came up with a startling fact: only one in 60 secondary school students in the 1960s had access to higher education, and this trend is still rising today.
Malaysia, however, has set a target: it wants to see 40% of the population in the 19-24 age group enjoy access to higher education by 2020.
Fahmi Reza, a Student Power activist, has over the years been vehemently advocating that higher education be made a right and not a privilege.
“Everyone in this country deserves to get access to higher education... we must realise that obtaining a degree gives an individual an edge over another person who probably had no access to higher education... this is blatantly unfair,” he said.
Under the 10MP, it appears that the government is moving towards corporatising public universities in Malaysia.
According to a report by the Higher Education Ministry, some 50% of public funds for higher education will be disbursed based on the needs of the government by 2015 and 25% of all public university places will be fee-paying seats.
Currently, the government subsidises all seats in public institutions of higher learning at the rate of 90%. Students only have to fork out a meagre fee for critical courses. The government sets aside as much as RM8.5 billion a year subsidising fees of these institutions.
A medical student, for example, only has to pay RM19,000 to complete the course, with the government subsidising RM181,000. An engineering student only has to pay RM10,760, with the government subsidising RM94,644.
When asked about the trend to make seats fee-paying ones, Chin said the government has no choice but to move towards this direction.
“This is a worldwide trend, especially in countries like the UK where the numbers of seats have been dropping and the US where higher education is viewed as a privilege and where one benefits substantially from having a degree.”
“The only problem is that if we take this route, there will be repercussions -- if one has to pay for a service, the quality has to be there and quality has always been a problem faced by IPTs in Malaysia,” Chin said.
According to a report released by the Ministry of Higher Education, between 2001 and 2010, 15% of the students who had access to higher education were enrolled in public institutions, while another 15% were studying in private ones.
It is predicted that by 2020 as many as 90% of higher education students will have to go through a private institution to obtain their degree.
But if the education system is moving towards a corporate, fee-paying culture, how many Malaysian families can afford to send their children to institutions of higher learning?
When FMT did a random survey of fees charged by universities, it was found that for an individual to pursue medicine at the International Medical University (IMU), he would need RM351,000 or RM5,850 a month to finance his studies, excluding the cost of living.
Considering that more than half of Malaysian households earn a monthly income of less than RM3,000 (according to the Department of Statistics), few students can afford to pay their way to a tertiary education without getting a scholarship or a bank loan.
Mushrooming of private institutions
Private universities did not come into existence in Malaysia until 1996. Prior to that, many Malaysians who could not obtain a place in local public institutions but who had the money, would pursue their tertiary studies overseas.
In the 1990s, only 7.2% of Malaysians at university age were enrolled in local tertiary institutions, compared with 35.8% in Argentina and 54.8% in South Korea.
Private institutions emerged because of the lack of places in public institutions. Moreover, Malaysians who pursued overseas studies had also caused a large outflow of currency.
According to a 1995 Unesco report, some 20% or 50,000 Malaysians were studying abroad and this cost the country about US$800 million a year in currency outflow, constituting nearly 12% of the country’s current deficit.
Given this scenario, the government enacted the Private Higher Educations Institutions Act in 1996, which gave birth to private institutions.
Since 1996, the number of private institutions had been mushrooming, starting with six universities in 1990 and growing to 69 in 2010.
Many government-linked companies and political parties saw the rapid growth of private educational bodies as an opportunity to make money.
Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (Unitar) owned by Umno was formed in 1998; Tunku Abdul Rahman College (KTAR), owned by MCA, was set up in 1969; Asian Institute of Medicine, Science and Technology University (AIMST), owned by MIC, was launched in 2001, and Gerakan-owned Wawasan Open University was established in 2005.
Chin sees the growth of these institutions in a positive light. “Malaysia made the right decision. A lot of people back then could not get places, the majority of whom were non-Bumiputeras,” he said.
Pua also concurred, saying that the move (to set up private institutions) has benefited the non-Bumiputeras because it is cheaper now to pursue a degree locally.
“The problem, however, is quality. There is nothing wrong with setting up private institutions but there has to be quality. Don't just think of making money.
“If you read the advertisements published by these institutions, all of them boast they are quality institutions.”
Pua suggested that an independent organisation be formed to rank these universities so that the public will be well informed of their competency.
It is worth noting that private institutions have a significantly lower percentage of academic staff with PhD qualifications than those in public institutions and this could affect the quality of education delivered.
An unintended racial divide?
When FMT did a survey of the vast distinctions between public and private institutions, it was discovered that a significant racial divide existed in these institutions.
Currently, private institutions consist of 95% non-Bumiputera students while 70% of students in the public institutions are Bumiputeras.
Said Fahmi: “Surely, the government did not intend it to be that way but this is clearly the outcome of the NEP, which made it compulsory for 70% of seats in public universities to be allocated to Bumiputeras.”
He added that this is completely against Article 12 of the Federal Constitution which states, “Without prejudice, there shall be no discrimination against any citizen on the grounds only of religion, race, descent or place of birth in administration of any educational institution maintained by public authority, in particular admission of pupils.”
Chin, however, was of the view that the blatant implementation of such a ratio in public universities left non-Bumiputeras with no other choice but to head to private institutions to pursue tertiary education.
The biggest loser
The group worst affected in the race to tertiary education is the poorer sections of the ethnic minorities.
They are left behind by private institutions because they lack funds to finance themselves. They are left behind by public institutions due to the quota system. Their only hope is to obtain brilliant results so that they can secure a scholarship, lead a better life and get out of the poverty trap.