[This is the second of the essays I wrote years ago on higher education. The issues I raised then are still relevant today. MBM]
We Too Can Have Fine A Private University
[From The New Straits Times, February 17, 1996]
Every year, thousands of our students flock to Western countries for their higher education. Locally, we have an array of private colleges of varying quality offering “twinning programs,” external degrees of foreign universities, foreign professional qualifications, etc. Their popularity reflects a need for them.
Given time, the government’s prohibition against private degree-granting institutions would be circumvented. There would be stopping local junior colleges or “twinning programs” from expanding to the point where their students take all their courses locally and go abroad merely to collect their degree.
Our government must therefore rationalize its policy on private sector involvement in higher education. Failure to do so would result in further haphazard growth of private colleges. We may end up with a virtual branch campus pf a mediocre foreign university, or worse, a local subsidiary of an offshore “degree mill.” With careful planning, Malaysia could have high caliber private universities.
Emulating the American Model
For models of successful private universities, we should look to America. It is unique in that the majority of its elite universities and colleges are private. In the rest of the world, private universities are rarely among the best.
Private American universities and colleges, like their public counterparts, receive significant governmental funding and support. California Institute of Technology, a private institution, receives more than half of its revenue from the federal government. In contrast, the public University of California in Los Angeles gets only about a third of its finance from public sources. Besides direct grants, these private universities, like the public ones, also benefit from a variety of significant indirect governmental support like student loans, scholarships, and tax subsidies.
In return these private institutions must agree to certain public policies. They must, for example, subscribe to the federal policies of non-discrimination and affirmative action in their hiring and admissions.
The prestigious private American universities like Harvard are not “private” in the mold of IBM and General Motors. Instead they are non-profit entities. Unlike private companies, they do not have shareholders or are concerned with profit making in the traditional commercial sense.
The government, recognizing their nonprofit status and the socially beneficial value of their activities, exempts these institutions from taxes and regulatory burdens that apply to proprietary corporations.
There are private or truly “for profit” colleges and universities in America. Few are good, and none among the top tier.
Planning for the Malaysian Model
In planning for Malaysia’s own private universities we should emulate the highly successful American non-profit models, with modifications to suit Malaysia’s special circumstances.
Like America, our government should actively support private universities both directly and indirectly. Directly by giving out grants. As precedent, the government gave grants to foreign institutions for taking in large contingents of Malaysian students.
Some of the public funds currently used to send our students abroad could be diverted with far greater effect to a local private university. The government could also provide or guarantee loans to the university at favorable rates. With proper financial oversight, such loans secured as they are by the facilities, should be low risk.
Indirectly the government could exempt the university from corporate and other taxes. It could declare gifts, contributions and endowments to universities as tax exempt. Further the government could lease land to the university for a nominal fee. Additionally it could provide adequate number of scholarships and study loans for the students. In this way these universities could afford a “need blind” – that is, not dependent on ability to pay – admission policy, just like American institutions.
The government provides tax relief and other subsidies (developed infrastructures and industrial sites, discount utility rates) to industries, why not to private universities? A university is also an “industry.” It is a major employer and has “products” that benefit society. It also contributes to the trade balance, directly by attracting fee-paying foreign students, and indirectly by keeping our students at home.
Like any major industry, a university would spawn many economic spin-offs. It is not accidental that Silicon Valley is near Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley. Similarly the Research Triangle of North Carolina is surrounded by Duke sand the University of North Carolina. A quality private university in Malaysia would also spawn similar research and industrial estates.
In return for governmental support, the university could agree to some mutually beneficial guidelines. One would be for the university’s domestic student population to reflect the ethnic, cultural and social classes of Malaysian society. This obviously sensible policy would not only ensure greater diversity of student body but also prevent the university from becoming the exclusive enclave of a particular ethnic group or social class.
[Apart from enriching the learning environment, student diversity would also have other benefits.] What better way to prepare graduates for the global marketplace than to expose them to cultural and social differences during their college years? Besides, in a plural society like Malaysia, it would be extremely unhealthy were local institutions to be segregated racially.
The world holds Harvard and Stanford in high esteem in part because children of the rich and poor, whites and blacks, local and foreign can aspire for admission. Harvard could easily fill its slots with bright white kids from the private northeastern prep schools as it did in the1950’s, yet it aggressively recruits worldwide. Harvard today is much more highly regarded than in the past when it was the exclusive preserve of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) crowd.
A student body that reflects the greater society would also create a sense of cohesion and pride between the university and the community. In one Third World country recently, because of socioeconomic crisis, its private universities were the first to be attacked by the citizens because they viewed such institutions as haven for the rich and privileged.
A few Volkswagens (or Proton Sagas) parked amidst the BMWs and Mercedes Benzes would lend an egalitarian flavor to the campus.
There are other sensible rules that both the university and the government could agree to that would enhance the quality of the institution. They could for example, make a course in Malay compulsory. It would be absurd were one to earn a degree from a Japanese university and yet not learn anything about the culture or language. Elite American universities have compulsory “core” courses on American history and Western civilization. The American University in Paris, an English-medium institution, requires its students to have two years of French.
Our government should rightly insist on certain safeguards. Thus foreign governments or their agencies should not be allowed to set up a university in Malaysia. And because of our particular social and political sensitivity, the same prohibition should also apply to religious organizations.
We should encourage our universities to attract foreign students. Besides being a source of valuable foreign exchange, these students would serve as a barometer for the quality of the institution.
Malaysians should not fear that having an English-medium private university would undermine our culture, language or social values. We have survived, indeed prospered, despite sending thousands of our students to the West. And after nearly four decades of independence, we are recognizing English for what it is – not as the language of a colonizer but the lingua franca of science and international commerce.
The American University in Beirut is no threat to Arab sovereignty or culture. On the contrary, the university, despite its chaotic circumstances, continues to be a valuable source of intellectual and professional talent to the Arab world.
With proper planning and appropriate governmental support, Malaysia too can have a fine private university that is worthy of our pride.