THE Malaysian higher education sector has been thriving over the past few decades.
There are currently 20 public universities and 467 private higher learning institutions (HLIs) operating in the multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multilingual society with a population of 32.5 million.
The provision of public and private higher education has enabled a greater number of Malaysians to have access to tertiary education. Over the last 40 years, the system has significantly increased tertiary enrolment rates to approximately 44 per cent of Malaysians between the ages of 17 and 23, compared with only 14 per cent in the 1970s and 1980s.
Figures speak volumes especially when it involves the young. Almost 1.3 million Malaysian youths are pursuing tertiary education; 500,000 are enrolled in the 20 public universities and more than 600,000 are registered in private HLIs. The tertiary enrolment growth scenario demonstrates that the Education Ministry is deeply committed in bringing the country on a par with the highest tertiary enrolment levels in Asean today.
Malaysia’s higher education ecosystem started in the 1970’s when most of the public universities were established. Private HLIs only began to be instituted in the early 1980s. They were originally private colleges offering three-year tertiary diploma courses in a limited range of subjects.
During the economic downturn in the late 1990s, private HLIs were allowed to offer franchise programmes from 2+2 to 4+0. By 2010, many private HLIs were upgraded to university colleges and universities. This signifies the ministry’s aims at unleashing and empowering the private HLIs to strive for institutional excellence in all forms.
The growth of the private tertiary colleges and universities would not have been possible without the financial involvement of private corporations. The enactment of the Private Higher Education Institutions Act (PHEIA) 1996 and the amendments made to the Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU) 1971, the Education Act 1961 and Act 555 on Private Higher Education have also contributed to the increased demands of the private higher education providers.
On the implementation side, private HLIs are no longer an alternative route in providing access to higher education. Their contributions are getting larger by day namely in regards to student enrolment, research, innovative teaching and learning, agile governance and talent planning.
Now is the time to work on the harmonisation of the regulation of the public and private HLIs. At present, there are two separate Acts which govern the higher education ecosystem in the country. Public universities are regulated by Act 30 of the Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU), whereas private HLIs are governed by Act 555 on Private Higher Education. Some of the dichotomous characteristics between the two providers were previously related to quality assurance matters.
The National Accreditation Board (LAN) Act was passed on Sept 26, 1996 to ensure that high academic standards, quality and control were maintained in public and private higher education. Issues were raised when only private colleges and universities needed to undergo the accreditation exercise despite the focus on both providers.
The existing practice demonstrates that public HLIs are subjected to similar quality assurance exercise by the Malaysian Qualification Agency (MQA), previously known as LAN. Gaps between the two providers have been reduced and harmonisation of the two Acts governing the providers is happening.
In the past, only public university researchers were allowed to apply and were awarded grants offered by the ministry. Now, researchers from private HLIs have equal opportunities as long as the institutions have attained a satisfactory achievement in the Malaysian Research Assessment Instrument (MyRA) rating. For the record, a number of researchers from private HLIs have managed to bid for national grants. Malaysian universities and college universities are also subjected to a national rating known as SETARA.
Nonetheless, there remains a considerable gap between public and private higher education providers in regards to regulations and governance. Private HLIs are considered to be under less direct government control. They report to the Private Sectorial of the Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Education which is responsible for the establishment, registration, management, enforcement, and quality of private education.
Despite the application of Act 555 to enforce compliance, private HLIs largely manage their own governance, comparative to the public ones. The entry requirements of the undergraduate, postgraduate students and academics, international student recruitment and many others highlight the dichotomy between the two providers.
Ideally, public and private HLIs should be governed by only one system and regulator as there is only one Malaysian higher education. With or without the abolishment of AUKU, both the public and private HLIs must be harmonised from the current highly-centralised governance system to a model based on earned autonomy within the regulatory framework.
The writer is director-general of the Department of Higher Education, Education Ministry