Tertiary education in Malaysia: A blessing or a curse?

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Checking in at 'heartbreak hotel'

It would be utterly unfair for bright students to be deprived of access to education because of their financial status and lousy policies introduced by the university and the State, says Vince Tan.

It is that time of year when students get to know whether they will be getting a place in public universities of their choice.

I myself went through that phase a couple of years ago. I will be completing my studies in January, hopefully. While there are many things to celebrate about studying in the so-called best university in Malaysia, we cannot deny that there are shortcomings.

Once again the headline news shows that there are excellent students not getting a place in public universities while others, who may be considered slightly more fortunate, do get a place but not the courses they want.

Most of us come from middle- or low-income families and we can’t afford to go abroad to study. The only avenue we have is local tertiary education.

The least we expect is accessible minimum quality tertiary education provided by the State. This is provided under Article 13(2)(c) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) which states “higher education shall be made equally accessible to all”.

It would be utterly unfair for bright students to be deprived of access to education because of their financial status and lousy policies introduced by the university and the State when it comes to facilitating the intake of students. University of Malaya (UM) is ranked 151th in the latest QS World University Ranking and the best in Malaysia if we were to use that particular ranking, which is most often cited.

The university boasts established libraries with massive collections of books of every field you can name. Yet we struggle to provide basic necessities such as wi-fi, efficient bus transport and sufficient accommodation on campus for students.

We once boasted the most talented academics in Malaysia such as Wang Gungwu, Farish Noor and K.S Jomo; yet we struggled to retain them. We often aimed to become the best university in Asia but never seemed to get there. So what seems to be the problem ?

Academic freedom, which is the essence of quality education, is constantly trampled upon by both the university and the State for political reasons. The most recent was the UIA2 case at the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), where students were suspended for organising a GST talk featuring Pandan MP Rafizi Ramli and Umno representative Lokman Adam. Let us not forget the UM8 case featuring Fahmi Zainol and gang in an episode much closer to home.

In an ideal university, freedom of expression and freedom of thought should be the basis of cultivating ideas and should not be subject to the fear of expressing one’s ideas. Such fear will lead to self-censorship and will affect the quality of our academic writings, what more our thinking.

I read an online report about the Minister of Higher Education saying that a 4.0 CGPA would not guarantee a place in public universities because these universities such as University of Malaya conduct interviews to gauge the suitability of candidates.

While I agree that academic excellence is not everything, it is the lack of transparency – the failure to provide a reason to candidates applying for a place as to why they were not selected – that frustrates them.

With this, people start to doubt the selection process and blame everyone they can for reasons they don’t even know. I myself was put in the same position when I did not manage to get a place at the National University of Singapore (NUS). When I called in to know the reason my application was rejected, the registration department would not give me a reason.

I believe candidates applying to public universities should at least know the reason their applications failed. Those reasons can be rebutted in their appeal process should they be found to be unjustified.

I do not deny that the competition is indeed tough for limited places in the most highly sought after courses. But if applicants have gone through the trouble of filling in all their particulars in their applications, they should be entitled to know why they were rejected.

It is only fair that the university or the Student Admissions Management Division of the Ministry of Higher Education, better known as UPU, takes a little bit of effort to provide the reasons why a particular candidate failed to secure a place.

Not all hope is lost. I had a friend who had to apply under the UPU process several times (each year once) before he finally got the course he wanted. Before finally getting into UM, he had gone to several private universities/colleges to do law.

Tertiary education in Malaysia may have been more accessible in recent times due to the emergence of many private universities and colleges but the issue of quality still remains. The emergence of more institutions of higher learning has created demand for academics in the market.

The inability to meet such demand would result in those institutions being unable to fulfil their true potential as centres of learning. Not all lecturers in both public and private universities are a PhD holder or master’s degree holders. The brain drain of our local academics to other countries has made the situation much worse.

I sincerely hope that education does not become a class issue where only the rich are able to afford to go abroad to study and enjoy a better quality of higher education while those who from poorer families have to contend with what our local public institutions have to offer. If that was the case, it would amount to an issue of inequality where only the rich get the best and the poor get the least.

All these are the bigger problems of a complicated and problematic education system, which we all have a part to play to save it for our next generation. While many may be thankful that they got a place in our public universities, they may not actually get what they are expecting.

Nonetheless, education begins with you. The world is the biggest teacher and lessons are not to be confined only within the four walls of the lecture hall.

We must be brave and step outside our comfort zones because there are many lessons which cannot be taught inside the university; we must learn them by ourselves out there.

I hope this article does not disappoint or scare many of you who are about to enter university for the first time. If you must, take it with a pinch of salt but try not to totally disregard what is written here.

That said, I have never regretted walking this path.

Vince-Tan1Vince Tan is the secretary general of Progressive University of Malaya, a student rights movement advocating social democracy, social justice, moderation and progressivism.

Vince first got involved with Aliran after attending our Young Writers Workshop on Good Governance and Democracy and a second one on Federalism and Decentralisation, both supported by the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives. He feels he can contribute more to the sociopolitical arena in this country by writing about issues close to his heart.

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