A Co-Partnership Model for Malaysian Higher Education

The Ministry of Higher Education, Malaysia. Credit: Focus Malaysia


Malaysia’s new unity government under the leadership of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim of Pakatan Harapan (PH) sparked calls for reform in the country’s education system. With the appointment of Mohamed Khaled Nordin as Minister of Higher Education (his second stint in the job), it is expected strides will be made particularly through a revisiting of reform proposals of former Education Minister Maszlee Malik.

Malaysia’s education roadmap, entitled “The Way Forward for Private Higher Education: Education as an Industry (2020-2025)”, outlines changes to the private higher educational institutions (PHEIs) landscape, among others. These changes are based on the government’s acknowledgement that there is a public-private divide between higher educational institutions. Notably, the public higher educational institutions (HEIs) and PHEIs are regulated by different authorities, hence distinct functions are given to the operation of the respective sectors (public or private). For context, HEIs are considered as statutory bodies whereas PHEIs are considered as an emanation of a registered company. This is despite both providing the same services (i.e., tertiary education).

Innovation of the Co-Partnership Model

Historically, the role of PHEIs as an education provider began in the 1970s in which private colleges are offering diploma courses. In the 1990s, there was a boom in private universities and colleges due to the enactment of the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act (Act 555), aimed at facilitating educational reform and competitiveness of graduates. At the time, the goal was to achieve a 40% participation rate in tertiary education and 25% for postgraduate education by 2010. HEIs alone could not account for this projected increase and the number of PHEIs have soared since then thus making the private sector a focal point for tertiary education.

The presence of private education sector in Malaysia is validated by the logic of the 1980s, which sees PHEIs as a solution to ease HEI’s burdens of student surplus and lack of resources. However, this should no longer be the case. Instead, PHEIs’ role should be elevated a credible, viable option for tertiary education (i.e., not as a last resort).  

Demonstrating this is the roughly similar student population in both PHEI and HEI. Currently, there are approximately 20 public universities in Malaysia. Conversely, there are 53 private universities, 38 private university colleges and 10 branch campuses of foreign universities. Furthermore, there are 349 college-level PHEIs. Despite the vast differences, a total of 666,167 students (51%) are studying in more than 400 PHEIs while the remaining 659,082 students are scattered in 20 HEIs and their own branches.

The large student population in PHEIs, thus, signify a need to foster a co-partnership model between the public and the private education sectors. This is reinforced by an increasing student market and prospective students’ attraction towards the prospects of studying abroad. Fostering a co-partnership model begins with refining Malaysia’s education policies.

An important reform can be undertaken by harmonizing the University and University Colleges Act (UUCA) which regulates HEIs and Act 555. The latter caters for the administration of private universities, university colleges and colleges.

When PH first came to power in 2018, the harmonization of the higher education regime was reviewed closely by the government with the intention to reform. Back then, a co-partnership model was the goal: the Education Ministry acknowledged that HEIs can be complemented by PHEIs to make Malaysia a regional education hub. To achieve this, the previous PH government proposed the abolishment of the UUCA as well as other higher education legislations. In their places instead, there would have been a more comprehensive framework granting autonomy to higher education institutes, academic freedom as well as freedom of speech and association.

This reform brought some successes despite PH government’s short tenure. For example, there was the establishment of a law faculty in the University of Reading Malaysia, Johor Bahru. Furthermore, there was also an agreement between the Malaysian and Japanese governments to establish a Japanese university branch in Malaysia.  The formation of foreign university branches empowers Malaysia to obtain research and development (R&D) opportunities, which are not readily available in Malaysia, and an international education system.

Reform came to an abrupt end upon the inception of the Perikatan Nasional (PN) government. Consequently, PHEIs’ status was relegated to that prior to PH government.

A Consistent Regime for Higher Education in Malaysia

There is now an opening to restart educational reform in Malaysia, considering the new unity government is led by reform-minded Anwar. While working towards a co-partnership model, the current government must also ensure the independence of Malaysia’s education institutions, free from any external meddling. A reform of the governance system in higher education, guided by the principles of autonomy and accountability, is necessary to achieve this.

Towards this, as proposed by the previous PH administration, a National Higher Education Act would redefine the paradigm underlying the HEIs and PHEIs. Although HEIs are considered to be given autonomous status in 2018, one can argue that there is no true autonomy given that top positions in these universities, such as rectors or vice-chancellors, are usually political appointments, which means there would still be indirect interference from the government. In contrast, vice-chancellors in PHEIs are usually a member of the Board of Directors (BOD) of the parent company.

Similarly, despite what Act 555 provides for the constitution of a PHEI, it is not a body capable of acting on its own, with powers on its own. In PHEIs, there is a lack of separation of power between academic governance and corporate governance as the Board of Governance (BOG), under the constitution, is essentially managed by the BOD of the company. Since the institution exists under the aegis of the company, one must look to the locus of control in the company to carry out the activities of the PHEIs. This means the BOD.

The regulation of HEIs and PHEIs under the proposed National Higher Education Act would ensure that these institutions can operate autonomously under the governance of another independent body, the National Council on Higher Education (NCHE).

Independent Governance Through the National Council on Higher Education

The NCHE should be drawn from a spectrum of members from the government and local academic community and external experts – vice-chancellor or its equivalent shall not be members of the governing body. The NCHE will be the main policy-coordinating and regulating body in the higher education sector. Thus, functions such as national policies and strategic directions for the development of higher education, as well as allocation of funds to higher education institutions, will be under the revamped NCHE’s purview.

The endgame is to create a body which is independent of government agenda and serves as an institution to ensure that academic quality is preserved and growth is maintained to future-proof students for the more competitive working world.

The independence of the NCHE will come from its statutory status mandated by an Act of Parliament. While it derives its funding from the government, there must be political will to ensure that checks and balances are in place to elevate the NCHE as a single policymaking body for higher education in Malaysia. These counterbalancing measures are the inclusion of academics and policymakers as members, which would provide more representation to ensure that the government agenda is more in touch with reality. However, the inclusion of government members is still important as it also allows a two-way channel between the NCHE and the Ministry of Higher Education.

As the new administration begins its work, there are calls from academicians and civil society groups to restore the NCHE. However, the NCHE does seem like a distant goal as there is no plan currently to reintroduce it back to the higher education system. It is highly unlikely that we will see the NCHE as part of the Ministry of Higher Education’s direction which will be unveiled soon.

Notably, these reforms – of which the NCHE is one of them – which were highlighted by former Education Minister Maszlee Malik might not be picked up by the incumbent Minister of Higher Education. There is considerable animosity between them during recent exchanges and from recent press conferences it seems that the latter is looking more at bread-and-butter issues such as student financing, cost of tuition fees and graduate employability rather than a reformist agenda.

Picking up Where We Left Off

The literature on the proposal to form a co-partnership model – which includes harmonization of regimes as well as the formation of the NCHE – to address the issue of governance of the tertiary education sector is not new. Malaysia’s political crisis in the past few years, and the multiple governments that came and went, meant that reforms were put on the backburner as governments of the day were too preoccupied with maintaining power. Nevertheless, it is with great hope that today’s PH-led administration, along with the centrist Barisan Nasional (BN) and Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), components of the unity government, to wisely use its newfound strength in numbers to level up Malaysia’s credibility as an excellent provider of academic services.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.