The entire private higher education sector, especially those working on student recruitment was thrown into major chaos when the Ministry of Education announced suddenly in mid February 2017 that there was a delay by two weeks on the release of Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM – Malaysian Certificate of Education) for 2016 cohort. Education fairs had to be rescheduled, marketing plans and newspaper advertising insertion plans etc. all had to be re-worked. Although most major players interviewed by The Star put on a brave face and said that their intakes would not be affected, signs as received from the ground (i.e. education fairs) are indicating otherwise. However the reason may not be the delay in the release of SPM 2016 results as will be explained later.
In my humble opinion those who told us not to read too deep into this delay did not take into considerations on the huge costs incurred for this sudden change of date for the release of SPM 2016 results. People who work in the student recruitment area would have had their personal plans messed up, hotel & transport bookings re-booked and at the company level, extra cost would have to be borned. One such “casualty” of this affair is the Star Education Fair in Penang which had to be postponed from March 4 – 5 by three weeks. One can only sympathize with the people who handled the logistics, installation and setting up for this event as well as the people who have to pay the exhibition venue owner for the sudden change of dates.
On the fateful day, March 16, 2017 many from the SPM 2016 cohort went to their respective schools with anxious anticipation. This author’s daughter (including her father and mother!) waited with great anticipation for the release of her SPM result, one which would have the effect of defining her next education path and perhaps her entire career path. When my daughter called back and sobbing heavily and semi-comprehensibly, my first thought was, “gee, she must have done badly” and I consoled myself with the fact that as a contingency plan, I had sussed out a vocational training programme equivalent to the learning pathway chosen by my daughter if she “tanked” her SPM. But as it turned out, my worried was unfounded. My daughter did not shame her grandfathers (both her paternal and maternal grandfather, as well as her mother were hailed from the teaching profession). She scored straight A’s (i.e. ten grade A’s). She was simply too happy and could not believe her own attainment. [For anyone who is unfamiliar with the SPM grading system, here is a quick explanation: SPM grades are split into nine grades with “grade A” having three sub-grades starting at the top with A+, A and A-, then “grade B” and “grade C” both having just two sub-grades of B+ or C+ and B or C followed by “single” grades in descending order of “grade D”, “grade E” and “grade G” which is a “failed” grade.]
Armed with my daughter’s official result slip, I went with my family for a visit to an education fair at Mid Valley Exhibition Hall on Mar 19, 2017. The plan was to visit the shortlisted colleges and find out with 10 grade A’s which are not all in the highest “A+” category how much in terms of scholarship would this young student manage to secure (this is because my daughter, did not score A+ in all ten subjects). All three institutions approached offered the same level of scholarship: 100% tuition fees waiver. Of course some would be more generous with the other fees such as laboratory fees, facilities fees etc. but the base line was the same.
As I have been serving in the private higher education sector for over two decades, it was natural for me to meet some of my old friends and acquaintances at this education fair. One of my old friends mentioned the severe competition he observed and that the “body snatching” was the reason why almost all players were very generous in giving out scholarships this year.
In 2013 when this author’s son was at the same stage of college hunting as his younger sister, computation for grade A’s for the purpose of scholarships was done by recognising only subjects where the students scored the magic grade A+ and sometimes grade A. Almost all institutions did not recognize grade A- as “grade A” for the purpose of deciding on scholarship awards. The fact that four years later in 2017, there is a “downward revision” in the definition for “grade A” to include grade A- means only one thing: there is intense competition in 2017 which is more severe than 2013. Each institution which offers this more generous definition of “grade A” for scholarship awards is hoping to grab as many students as possible.
Higher education business is essentially a number’s game. Each class / programme in a cohort will have a magic “break-even” number. Once you have breached this magic figure with full fees equivalent number of students, any further students that you add to the cohort (subject to the regulatory upper limit of student to lecturer ratio; 25 : 1 for non-technical programmes; 15 : 1 for technical programmes down to 7 : 1 for medical related programmes) you are going toward the surplus territory even if this extra student pays virtually no tuition fees. This is because of the fact that most scholarship awards do not cover miscellaneous fees, laboratory fees and facilities fees and thus providing a source of revenue to the institution even from those students having 100% tuition fees waiver. A lot of people do not know that in higher education, there is no marginal cost, it is just fixed cost and variable cost. For classroom-based classes, once the fixed cost has been covered by the break-even number of students, the variable cost for any additional students is virtually zero. For laboratory / workshop-based classes, this variable cost will be easily covered by the lab fees and other fees that each student, regardless of their scholarship status, must pay.
In actual fact, scholarships and bursaries as provided by the private higher education institutions in Malaysia are just product discount. A broad analogy can be made with the budget airline industry, once a plane (in this case a class / cohort) has filled up to the break-even number, revenue from any further passengers (students) will be the surplus, even if these people pay a very reduced fare (fees) disguised in one form or another. The higher education business model does sound very much like that of the budget airline industry does it not?
Similar to their seniors of the past few years, SPM 2016 cohort is also in the “buyer’s market” but with one distinct advantage. The SPM 2016 cohort is enjoying greater scholarship awards at more generous terms in 2017. A player informed this author that even those applicants offering just a single grade A (again it doesn’t matter if it is a A+, A or A-) would be qualified to receive some scholarship starting from RM500!
With private institutions of higher learning in 2017 facing more severe competition among themselves (having to compete with many “branded” institutions such as Xiamen University, Newcastle University, Reading University and Heriot-Watt University among many which have entered the market recently), the common strategy seems to be to offer scholarships to attract the best students.
The economic uncertainties faced by many in Malaysia together with the new and better structured Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM – Malaysian Higher School Certificate) will have the effect of attracting more SPM 2016 cohort to take up STPM. This author expects more than the usual forty five thousand or so of the SPM cohort to take up STPM. He further predicts that there may be fifty thousands or more students from SPM 2016 cohort opting for the STPM this year, draining at least a further 5,000 students from the private institutions’ market.
The increasingly attractive offers from Taiwanese universities (with increasing number offering programmes that are delivered in English) which have tuition fees level that are lower than many Malaysian private institutions of higher learning is another pull factor on the SPM 2016 cohort. This is especially so among the forty four thousand of the SPM 2016 cohort who took and passed SPM Chinese.
It is therefore a better buyer’s market for SPM 2016 cohort than ever. Students from SPM 2016 cohort who are college hunting perhaps are well advised to follow the following six tips:
- Check what level (and thus the absolute value in terms of tuition fees waiver) of scholarships the various colleges shortlisted by you can offer. Weigh this against No. 2 to No. 6 below.
- Check the conditions for the scholarship awards. Institution A may insist on you maintaining a CGPA of 3.7 throughout your studies compared to Institution B that demands only a CGPA of 3.0. This means that in order to continue to receive your scholarship, you will need to score a lot of grade A’s if you opt for Institution A, while for Institution B, you just need an average B+. Unless you are very confident of doing well, it will be risky to take up the offer from Institution A!
- Check what are the miscellaneous fees, facilities fees, laboratory fees, computer fees etc. that you have to pay. Often these could add up to a substantial sum. If any institution is unable or unwilling to provide data on these fees, your alarm bell should start ringing!
- Check what sort of college services or “community services” that a scholarship holder of an institution needs to contribute. While most institutions are only interested in using their scholarship holders to help with marketing and recruitment activities, some do have high demand of the said students to serve during term time. Some even demand their scholarship holders to work during term breaks. In general, the workload should not affect one’s studies. The good point for this is, you will have some working experience while studying, even if you do not get paid!
- Check what are the penalties if you decide to withdraw from the programme after you have commenced studies. To protect themselves and to ensure that the recipients are serious about accepting their scholarship offers (and serious about studying) almost all scholarship providers impose a penalty for scholarship holders who withdraw from their studies. The penalty could be substantial as you, by withdrawing is taking away the opportunity for another student and would mess up the financial projection for the institution too. This situation may arise should you, after commencing studies, receive a “better” offer somewhere else, a similar offer closer to home or there is a change of your family’s circumstances.
- Check that the programme that you are interested in is accredited or provisionally accredited (PA) by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA). A programme generally will receive a PA from the MQA after it is approved to be offered and the said programme will be eligible to be accredited only when the first cohort of students are nearing completion of their studies. Thus an institution holding a PA for a diploma programme should have this programme accredited by the MQA at the third year of its being offered. You should check MQA’s lists of accredited programme and provisionally accredited programmes for the institution that you are interested in. However, MQA has not been fast in updating the data of these lists. So do ask to have sight of the letter of accreditation or PA if the programme you are interested is not on either of MQA’s lists.
For those from SPM 2016 cohort who did not obtain the required grades to enter academic studies at tertiary level, there are plenty of options for you in the vocational education sector where there are still many private colleges and public training institutions which provide good alternatives. The Perbadanan Tabung Pembangunan Kemahiran (PTPK – Skills Development Fund Corporation) provides loan which covers training fees and living expenses to trainees taking approved courses. It is worth noting that not all SKM courses are eligible for PTPK funding. However all SKM programmes will need to be approved by the Department of Skills Development whose database of accredited centres and training programmes are worth checking prior to signing up.
In general, those who take the Sijil Kemahiran Malaysia (SKM – Malaysian Skills Certificate) route up to SKM Level III, if possess one credit and a “pass” certificate in SPM will still be eligible to enter academic diploma upon completion of the relevant SKM training. However individual academic diploma programme will have slightly different specific requirements for holders of SKM Level III and there is a need to double check with MQA. Indeed many vocational institutions are offering SKM up to Level IV (Vocational Diploma) and above with a few premier public polytechnics given the right to offer vocational-based degree programmes, the prospect for students from the vocational sector to earn academic degrees is getting better each day.
Good luck to all in the SPM 2016 cohort in their hunt for higher education. Be a smart higher education consumer, ask lots of questions and do your “homework” before committing, and whatever you do, don’t rush into a decision until you (and your parents) have analyzed all the facts and figures!