Chow Kum Hor, who was taking stock of the progress of the University after some 4 years after enrolling is first set of students.
Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (Utar), the MCA-run university, is now coming to terms with trying to realise an ambitious project in the cutthroat sector of private education. It is now operating from campuses in Petaling Jaya, Setapak and Bandar Sungai Long pending the completion of its main campus in Kampar, Perak.It appears that UTAR is facing quite a few difficult challenges – some of which are related to earlier criticisms which I've made.
From its modest beginnings with only eight Bachelor’s programmes and an initial intake of just over 400 students, it now boasts an enrolment of over 12,000 with more than 30 courses.
But just how sustainable is Utar in the face of increasingly stiff competition?
1. The Politics of Raising Funds
Apparently, many donors who were probably more interested in hobnobbing with the MCA politicians, after handing over "giant mock cheques in front of flashing Press camera bulbs, are taking their time to come up with the cash". Since the University is privately funded with the exception of an initial RM50 million grant from the Government, income from fees and donations are critical in ensuring continued viability of the university.
2. The Politics of Attracting Academics
It appears that being a “political university” creates discomfort among some academics, and correspondingly attracts academics of a certain profile.
Kampar-born historian Prof Datuk Dr Khoo Kay Kim says "some good scholars may also be put off by the idea of working for an institution linked to a political party."
The first two principals of TAR College, he says, were distinguished physics professors from Universiti Malaya. But their stints did not last long after falling out with their political masters.3. Competition
With the New Era College and the Tunku Abdul Rahman College (TARC) competing for almost the same pool of students and public funds, plus the fact that the latter is 50% subsidised by the Government, UTAR faces the challenge of keeping its fees low and yet pay the bills.
At the same time, students today are almost spoilt for choice in pursuing private tertiary education in Malaysia. With the liberalisation of private tertiary education in the late 1980s and 1990s in the country, many students who were previously unable to pursue expensive tertiary education overseas after being denied places at the local public universities have countless options today.
My Humble Thoughts
Without the benefit of hindsight, the future of UTAR is obviously going to be difficult to predict. When I spoke to some lecturers of UTAR some time back, I detected a sense of pride and achievement from them, particularly in their believe that UTAR is setting new standards and that they are ensuring real quality in the recruitment of both academics and students.
However, with the exponential growth which UTAR has experienced from 400 to 12,000 students (and more in the near future) all within a short period of 4 years, my fear is that something has to give, and that's the qualitative aspects of the university. This is not surprising given the experiences of other private educational institutions in the country.
For comparative purposes, there was a time whereby, UTAR's sister college, TARC produced graduates who were in high demand and were highly regarded by employers. However, with the liberalisation and commercialisation of the tertiary education sector as well as possible politicisation of the college, student enrollment was increased exponentially with the opening of quite a few branch campuses around the country in the late 1990s. Today, given all things equal, I'll hire a computer science graduate from Universiti Malaya over TARC with the same CGPA of say, 3.3 any time. As mentioned in some of my earlier posts, barring exceptions (and there are exceptions), I'll rarely shortlist TARC candidates for interviews.
I've not received sufficient quantity of resumes from UTAR graduates to be able to give a more informed judgement on their quality and standards, especially since their pioneering batch of students have only graduated last year. However, from the few (less than 10) which I have received, I have not been particularly impressed, especially in terms of the entry criteria into the university.
All top universities anywhere in the world is defined by strict and high entry criteria for students based on their secondary education or pre-university academic achievements. The levels at which some of the students were accepted into UTAR indicates to me that standards have been set a tad too low, possibly due to commercial and political pressures to accept a greater number of students.
I think it might have been a better strategy for UTAR to have focus on being first and foremost, a top quality institution and a strict recruitment criteria for both academics and students, instead of attempting to meet MCA's political needs in growing into a sizeable institution within such a short period of time. Let TARC, its sister college bear the brunt of providing degree education for the masses (since it's subsidized by the Government) and UTAR focus on the top quality students - why should they compete in the same space? UTAR seems to have fallen into the perpetual trap faced by Malaysian institutions and politicians who have no patience plucking fruits only after they have properly ripen.