Thursday, June 19, 2008

More students at IPTS vs IPTA

It won't be long before the number of students in private colleges and universities (IPTS) in Malaysia outnumbers those in the public universities. The ratio is approaching 1:1, according to a recent Star report. What are some of the implications? What are some of the challenges?

I reproduce the newspaper report below so that we can preserve the statistics on this blog.

GEORGE TOWN: The enrolment at private institutions of higher learning (IPTS) is increasing and almost at a 1:1 ratio with that of public institutions of higher learning (IPTA), said Deputy Higher Education Minister Dr Hou Kok Chung.

He said the 2007 intake saw 167,788 students enrolling for undergraduate courses at IPTS and 190,265 at IPTA.

This, he said, was in contrast to the total number of 365,800 students who are now pursuing undergraduate courses at IPTS and 507,438 at the IPTA.

"The IPTS is getting stronger and more important," he told a press conference Monday after a meeting with senior executives of IPTS at Trader's Hotel here.

Dr Hou said the meeting was a forum to interact with representatives from IPTS to brief them on the latest matters involving the ministry’s policies, and to hear their issues and proposals.

Among the matters addressed Monday were the ongoing establishment audit of 200 IPTS, increasing the intake of genuine foreign students, the issue of lack of teaching staff, and the restructuring of IPTS.

Dr Hou said 17 out of 33 active IPTS in Penang had approval to take in foreign students, adding that there were now 571 foreign students out of the 34,634 IPTA and IPTS undergraduates in the state.

He said the target was to have 80,000 foreign students enrolled in higher education institutions throughout the nation by 2010.

"There are now about 50,000 foreign undergraduates, with about 34,000 of them enrolled in IPTS," he said, adding that there was no quota for the IPTS while the IPTA was only allowed to take in 5% foreign undergraduates starting last year.

My impression of private colleges and universities can be summarized as such:

There will be a gradual differentiation in the quality and reputation of private colleges and universities. In fact some of this is already happening. There will emerge a handful of IPTS which will challenge the IPTA as research universities. Sunway Monash and Nottingham are obvious candidates. There will be other 'home grown' IPTS which will want to or be pushed to the direction of being research universities.
There will also be another layer of IPTS who don't have research aspirations but will be known for offering good facilities, courses and teaching. In addition, I suspect that there will also be some specialized IPTS which focus on certain types of courses - design (LimKokWing) or IT (Informatics). And then there will be a scattering of smaller IPTS which offer 'value for money' courses.

With as many students entering IPTS compared to the IPTAs, their importance will only grow and will have a big impact on the skill levels of the work force, the research activities in our universities, the job creating potential in the education sector and so on.

But there are also many concerns associated with the rapid expansion of the IPTS, including:

1) The quality and number of lecturers needed to teach the growing number of students in these institutions. While a PhD is not really necessary to teach or to teach well, one wonders what kind of quality control the IPTS have in regard to training and equipping lecturers to teach the courses they need to teach.

2) The type of courses being offered. Most IPTS offer commercially viable courses in a small number of areas - business, accounting, computing, economics, engineering, sciences. While the types of courses have expanded with competition and more IPTS, one wonders if these are the ONLY types of courses that should be offered at IPTS. Will there be a separation of markets such that the 'non-marketable' courses such as forestry, archeology, Islamic studies and so on are only offered at the IPTAs?

3) The growing number of foreign students. The problems associated with this are manifold. I generally feel very sorry for many of the foreign students who are given very skewed impressions of what it is like to study in a private college in Malaysia and then are very disappointed when they come here. Some blame has to be attributed to the aggressive agents in countries like China to are given financial incentives to 'recruit' students to come to Malaysia. There are also problems associated with 'students' coming to the country under a student visa as a cover to conduct illicit activities. Generally, I think its a good way for the country to earn foreign exchange and for private colleges to expand but there needs to be a greater level of self regulation on this front.

The expansion of the IPTS has more positives than negatives, in my opinion. It provides another avenue of job creation for the country, it gives different options to Malaysians who want to earn a degree, it earns foreign exchange for the country and it can contribute towards human capital development. But that doesn't mean that there are huge challenges associated with the rapid expansion of IPTS, some of which have been mentioned here.

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