As a parent with a college-going child, it pains me to read about stories of college students being short-chained and worse, have their collective dreams of pursuing professional careers shattered.

As an educator in the tertiary sector , it pains me to discover the lack of moral and ethics is still so prevalent in these days and age in my industry. It hurts even more when one discovers that one is somehow dragged into this moral quagmire just because one was once associated with an institution which by the look of things is in danger of a total failure of humility.

The start of a firestorm

The story started to unfold when a Diploma in Biomedical Science graduate of the former Technology Park Malaysia College made a complaint to Aduan Rakyat in February 2017. The graduates were caught in a catch 22 situation as the Diploma in Biomedical Science was not accredited by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) which means that although there is nothing technically wrong with their qualifications, the lack of MQA accreditation means that this award is not registered in the Malaysian Qualifications Register and hence the holders are not acceptable for public sector employment. Most degree-granting local institutions, especially those in the public sector would also demand that applicants who apply to continue their diploma studies to bachelor degree levels to hold MQA accredited diploma. Nothing seemed to have happened until this student and her friends decided to stage a protest at Technology Park Malaysia.

The “designer” of the affected diploma programme

I took up the position as the General Manager (Academic) & Deputy Principal of Technology Park Malaysia College in October 2008. In early 2009, my superior, the Chief Operating Officer instructed me to create the Diploma in Biomedical Science and to seek a 3+0 (franchise degree) partnership (as well as getting at least one other institution’s recognition of the said diploma). My team (of two) worked hard and fast to complete the work, submitted the documentation to MQA and subsequently got it approved around June 2009. The diploma was provisionally accredited by October 2009. At the same time we had concluded a deal with the University of Ballarat (now Federation University) in Australia for a fully franchise (or 3+0 )  Bachelor of Science degree in biomedical science which according to MQR was accredited from June 2014 to July 2015. I also successfully obtained the University of Central Lancashire’s articulation of the Diploma in Biomedical Science to an equivalent degree programme on campus in England. Thus there were two degree pathways created for this diploma programme. However my association with the College ended officially on October 10, 2010 when my contract expired (my last day of work was a month earlier, on September 9, 2010). I did not have the chance really to see to a full cycle of the new programmes producing graduates.

Getting provisional accreditation was hard

It was not easy for my staff and I to get the accreditation work done as a lot of the College’s laboratory resources were already physically transferred to another sister company, TPM Biotech Sdn. Bhd. and we had to be very clever in working out their usage and recognizing these as part of our facilities. When I wrote the plan for the Diploma in Biomedical Science, I used the fully accredited Diploma in Biotechnology as the base which had two big advantages, (i) it would allow some flexibility for students to transfer across the two programmes, (ii) it would make teaching of both programmes, especially the newer one, more cost effective as there would be many shared subjects.

Staffing was another issue, it took me awhile to recruit a well qualified Master’s degree holder in biomedical science whom I would need to teach the professional subjects. With my superior being very reluctant to allocate additional resources to purchase laboratory equipment and textbooks (both critical areas for accreditation purposes), we just managed to scrape through MQA’s requirements. I had the impression that my superior might had a misguided notion that just because the College was owned by the Minister of Finance Inc. there would be more “flexibility” in the relevant authorities’ implementation of compliance audits, which in my experience was further from the truth! I had to be very innovative and tap on the ingenuity of my learned colleagues both at the College and at University of Ballarat to provide solutions.

Accreditation was optional

In the early days of the MQR being implemented, although accreditation was encouraged, it was never pushed to be a mandatory procedure on any private institution of higher learning (IPTS) applying for a diploma programme. However, for franchise (3+0) degree programmes, accreditation was mandatory at the on set. But since the financing bodies such as the Perbadanan Tabung Pendidikan Tinggi Nasional (PTPTN) and Employee Provident Fund (EPF) and later some local banks all would only provide funding based on accredited or at least provisional accredited programmes, accreditation evolved to be the norm. Employers soon started to emulate the public sector, where they would only accept qualifications recorded in the MQR. Before we know it, accreditation becomes mandatory “by default” for all academic programmes!

What’s the difference between Provisional and Full Accreditation?

When an academic programme first got approved by the authorities, the applicant will be able to immediately apply to MQA for provisional accreditation status. In most cases, provisional accreditation would be granted within a short period of the said programme’s approval. In some cases this may be subjected to the applying college fulfilling some additional requirements (and to demonstrate that these are accomplished). A college can only apply for full accreditation when there are students nearing the final year of studies and in sufficient number. For all intent and purposes, including funding, employment and furthering a student’s studies, a diploma programme with a provisional accreditation status is sufficient.

Transition from provisional to full accreditation usually is not difficult

In my twenty one years of serving the private higher education industry, and recently as a CEO / Vice-Chancellor designate of a university college, the transition from provisional to full accreditation for a programme is usually a “matter of course” if all the paperwork and evidence of resources, appropriateness in student recruitment practices etc. are presented. All it requires essentially is a cohort of student reaching their penultimate or final semester. And if there are some technical errors such as gaps in the documentation, the college will always be given sufficient time to rectify and upon evidence of rectification, a favourable decision is usually expected. I think the authorities are more concern with the students’ interest which is paramount and would do their best to guide a college to fulfil all accreditation requirements. Thus even if there are issues with a college’s full accreditation application, so long as those issues are surmountable, the authorities will be willing to grant an extension to the provisional accreditation status. This was likely what happened to the TPM College’s Diploma in Biomedical Science which had its provisional accreditation extended (rather lengthily by all accounts) from March 31, 2012 to Aug 26, 2015. Presumably full accreditation which was denied after that was due to some issues that could well be insurmountable.

What are insurmountable issues for denial of accreditation

There are certain issues that the authorities will not be so willing to be forgiving. I could think of two most obvious scenarios but in actual fact there are many issues, if unresolved would soon become insurmountable.

(1) The malpractice of admitting unqualified students into a programme
During my career in the higher education industry, I had to clean up the mess made where under-qualified students were admitted to boost up student numbers. In one case, three diploma in engineering students who did not score a credit in SPM Mathematics (as it was the entrance requirement of MQA) were going to be stopped from their studies by the authorities. Because these three students showed that they were able to score well in a mathematics subject at diploma level, a much higher academic level than SPM, I successfully argued and appealed to the authority to let them continue with their studies.

Sirs, Madam, punish the college if you must, but please, please do not punish my students who are innocent”, that was my plea at the end of the enquiry. Perhaps what I said touched on the enquiry team’s humility. In this case that college got off with a slap on wrists when I assured them no more such incidence would happen under my watch. We could have had our accreditation withdrawn!

However in another case, the affected institution was not so lucky. We had no choice but to admit fault and to pay a compound fine of RM10,000 per student for 18 students who were found to be under-qualified. I, as the CEO / Principal at that time was essentially “paying for the sins of the owner” who had, prior to my arrival, insisted on my predecessor’s admission of under-qualified students! Luckily for this institution, the authority accepted my assurance of compliance and let the matter rest but the fine were paid nevertheless!

I am not privy to how the affected students of the Diploma in Biomedical Science were recruited. But way back in 2013, there was a revision to the entrance requirement with the implementation of the first edition of the programme standard for medical and health sciences. The programme standard mandated 5 SPM credits as the minimum entry requirement (with at least a credit in Bahasa Malaysia, English, a science subject and any other two subjects). The tightening of the entrance requirement made it even harder to recruit students. It is a well known fact that many IPTS had taken the risk to go around this and recruit under-qualified students to the detriment of both eventually, when caught!

(2) The inability of a college to show evidence of crucial resources in laboratory equipment, library resources or the lack of qualified staff to teach the programme:
The authorities have a collective obligation to all stakeholders to ensure that a college is “serious” about running a programme. If, after a lengthy extension of provisional accreditation, the affected college still fails to demonstrate its owner’s willingness to invest in these crucial resources (both physical and human resources), naturally they will have to protect future students and not only refuse to grant accreditation but to withdraw the previously granted provisional accreditation as well.

A promise is to be kept

Even if an owner sells a college to another party, this owner is still morally and ethically liable to uphold the promises made to students during the time of their recruitment. This is even though the new owner is now “owning” the problem. In addition, regardless of who is the owner at present, the Private Higher Education Institutions Act (ACT 555) holds the Chief Executive at the time of an event / issue primarily accountable, and not the current or previous owner. Thus any commitment made to students at the time of their recruitment would need to be fulfilled.

A “standard” practice used by a large education group with multiple private colleges that I used to work for was the delegation of the “Ketua Esekutif” (Chief Executive as defined by ACT 555) role by the group’s CEO to his senior management staff. This has the double advantages of sharing the group CEO’s burden of managing the operation of individual centres and the ownership of this role could be conferred to the appointed senior management staff as she or he would be legally accountable for that college. If one is legally accountable, one will be more cautious on actions one will take, especially when it touches on legal, compliance and student’s welfare matters. The most important result of this is the fact that whoever that has taken on the role of Ketua Esekutif must show humility in managing the affairs of the college under his/her management.

Besides protesting what options do these affected students have?
In my humble opinion, the affected students who have legitimate claims could contemplate the followings:

  1. Seek a full redress of all tuition expenses incurred. This will hopefully take care of most if not all of the PTPTN loans etc. taken out.
  2. Seek to have the College either arrange for a transfer of credits of their diploma progamme to another institution with accredited equivalent diploma programme where the College will be paying for the additional tuition cost.
  3. Seek the College to reapply for accreditation for the diploma programme.
    In my experience, I had to terminate a 3+0 degree programme with 16 students on teaching out. I still had to apply for full accreditation even though there would be no further need / income from this programme. This was because of the need for accreditation was mandatory.
  4. Seek the College to ask Federation University to accept graduates of this diploma into their degree programmes. If Federation University is still running a 3+0 in Biomedical Science in Malaysia, the College should arrange for these students to be admitted to that institution or to Federation University directly.
  5. Seek the College to transfer all possible credits of their diploma to the College’s Diploma in Biotechnology and give tuition free classes for any additional credit hours needed. This is because of the fact that the Diploma in Biotechnology’s accreditation is still valid. This qualification will at least allow both continuation of degree level studies and recognition for job purposes.

(1) to (5) or a combination of elements of these could form an amicable solution. However, I would advise students to push for (1) and (5) vigorously.

I once said, “Higher education is the marketing of hope and the fulfillment of dreams”

In this case the marketing of “hope” was very effectively carried out but the fulfilment of dreams left much to be desired.

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