Premier Private Colleges?

So here I was sitting at lunch, reading Bill Gates’ “My Advice To Students: Education Counts,” when I came across this line:

“If you don’t get reasonably good [high school] grades, it’s hard to get into a college that has the highly motivated, capable students who can really help you learn about the world.”

Basically, what Mr. Gates is driving at is this: Good high school grades get you into a good college.

It got me thinking about the state of tertiary education here in Malaysia. Specifically: Private tertiary education institutions (Institut Pengajian Tinggi Swasta – IPTS). Even more specifically: What makes a “good” IPTS?

A typical Malaysian student finishing high school makes his first choice for tertiary education by choosing between enrolling in a public university or seeking private tertiary education.

Now, there are many challenges to enrolling in public universities – namely lack of places, infrastructure, financial aid and various other social factors (such as the Bumiputra affirmative action, etc.). The lack of places in public institutions is exacerbated with the increasing number of students who realize the importance of having “academic qualifications.” All this has basically caused many Malaysian students to turn to IPTS’s. There are also perception issues involved, namely: First, the negative perception of local graduates (that they are quite unemployable) reducing the prestige of our local public institutions. Second, Malaysian students – if they can afford it – prefer to pursue an education overseas (typically to the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand or even Canada). Some go for the opportunity to expand their worldviews (exposure) while others attach a vague sense of “being better” as an overseas graduate with international experience. Perhaps this is a holdover from our colonial heritage – intelligent and privileged Malaysian children were (and still are!) sent overseas for boarding school and university, whether privately or publicly funded. This has lead students to turn to private institutions that offer “twinning programmes” – which allow students to begin his or her education locally before transferring to a college/university overseas to finish up and graduate.

ll of this has resulted in a booming private education industry. At last count, according to the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education, there were 322 private education institutions – not counting their various branches all over the country. It is a very aggressive market with more and more institutions mushrooming all over the country.

Now, I don’t know about other countries, but in Malaysia many of these institutions are not blooming for humanitarian or societal reasons. Most of these are started up by businesses and organizations who are capitalizing on the current market trend: Education is great business! They are here for the money (but if they get to positively affect the country along the way and educate a few students too – great)!

As a result, you can pretty much enroll in most private institutions with lousy high school grades. Students skim through high school and now, with money, students think they can buy themselves a college degree (Which they can, I believe. Of course, they didn’t check out the fine print which said, “Education – the ability to think and learn independently – not included”). All this is because (more and more) private institutions are scrambling for (less and less) market share.

My friend – a lecturer with one of the leading private colleges here in Malaysia – believes that “providing education” and “making money” are two highly divergent and incompatible goals. So, with a mass market model in mind (i.e. get as many customers as we can), is it any wonder that there aren’t too many “good” private colleges around?

What if (let’s say) Inti College Malaysia decided to “brand up” and go “premium,” to admit only students with top-tier grades?

Would Malaysians end up with our very own “Harvard University?”

Would our students then, as Bill Gates says, “Get the best education you can… Learn how to learn”?

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