They must be more brand savvy to at­tract the young or risk be­ing eclipsed by lower-rank­ing pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions

New Straits Times - - Opinion - The writer, a for­mer NSTP group man­ag­ing editor, is now a so­cial me­dia ob­server

OF late, in the course of my in­ter­ac­tions with folks in the pri­vate sec­tor, I noted a dis­tinct bias against public uni­ver­si­ties, with some sug­gest­ing their grad­u­ates to be not as de­sir­able or of the same cal­i­bre as those from pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions.

I am al­ways per­plexed by this as­sump­tion, as apart from the in­her­ent risks of gen­er­al­i­sa­tion, it is a gen­er­ally ac­cepted fact that the en­try re­quire­ments for public uni­ver­si­ties are more strin­gent.

Public uni­ver­si­ties are also bet­ter equipped and staffed. For in­stance, Univer­siti Malaya has nearly 3,000 aca­demic staff, al­low­ing it to of­fer foun­da­tion, un­der­grad­u­ate, post­grad­u­ate, diploma, con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion, and ex­ec­u­tive learn­ing pro­grammes. For decades, it has been pro­duc­ing grad­u­ates in arts and sciences, in­clud­ing pro­duc­ing pro­fes­sion­als such as doc­tors, lawyers and en­gi­neers.

It is per­haps the most equipped univer­sity in the coun­try, with a full ser­vice teach­ing hospi­tal, as well as scores of sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing labs and re­search fa­cil­i­ties. At last count, it has about RM350 mil­lion in re­search fund, and the univer­sity has hun­dreds of patents granted and pend­ing, as well as copy­rights, trade­marks and tech­nol­ogy com­mer­cialised.

In terms of value for money, it can­not be beat, espe­cially with an­nual aca­demic fees of just over RM2,000, as op­posed to some pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties at 20 times that.

Yet, in some cir­cles, it does not com­pare favourably to a 10-yearold pri­vate univer­sity that sits more than 1,000 lev­els be­low it in global rank­ings. In fact, for them, all of the public uni­ver­si­ties do not com­pare favourably, too.

(For the sake of trans­parency, I am a prod­uct of Univer­siti Malaya, hav­ing grad­u­ated more than 30 years ago. Of course, things were dif­fer­ent then. There were just a hand­ful of uni­ver­si­ties, and pri­vate ones were un­heard of. Gen­er­ally, you only go abroad if you can­not get a place at home.)

Why is this so? Why are prospec­tive stu­dents th­ese days less in­clined to en­rol in public uni­ver­si­ties?

Per­haps, it is the twin­ning pro­grammes that al­lowed them for­eign de­grees or for­eign pro­fes­sional qual­i­fi­ca­tions with­out the need to spend as much. Per­haps, it is the new and in­ter­est­ing cour­ses of­fered.

Per­haps, it is even the life­style. Uni­ver­si­ties are pro­mot­ing life­styles more than aca­demic pur­suit. It does not mat­ter how good you are, or how many doc­tors or lawyers of great re­pute you pro­duce, but is your cam­pus scene cool enough for 18-year-olds?

For most prospec­tive stu­dents, it would be the first time they would be on their own, and a vigourous, ac­tive cam­pus life would re­ally be most ap­peal­ing.

In this sense, many public uni­ver­si­ties, by de­sign or de­fault, have made life rather dull by some stan­dards. There is also the per­cep­tion that they are Malay­dom­i­nated and, hence, many non-Malays do not find it to be an at­trac­tive des­ti­na­tion.

Or, per­haps, th­ese are just the ex­cuses to ex­plain why many could not meet the aca­demic qual­i­fi­ca­tions needed. The cen­tury-old Univer­siti Malaya, for in­stance, has been ad­mit­ting stu­dents with an av­er­age cu­mu­la­tive grade point av­er­age of 3.57, as op­posed to some pay-and-learn pri­vate in­sti­tu­tions that do not even list out their min­i­mum en­try re­quire­ments.

Nev­er­the­less, I have con­cluded that our public in­sti­tu­tions have not been do­ing enough to pro­mote them­selves as at­trac­tive brands that would ap­peal to the young. Per­haps, in the stiff up­per lip tra­di­tion of academia, blow­ing your own horns is dis­dained. Maybe, th­ese uni­ver­si­ties would rather be judged by their qual­i­ties and not the noise they make.

Our public uni­ver­si­ties have not made them­selves cooler — they are for stud­ies, and not for play. Rightly or not, they value the opin­ion of their peers, and not that of their prospec­tive stu­dents. They pride them­selves on the num­ber of aca­demic pa­pers pub­lished, but less so on the ac­tiv­i­ties at the stu­dent unions.

Now, some may dis­pute the use­ful­ness of brand­ing, but clearly, the lack of it is mak­ing public uni­ver­si­ties less at­trac­tive to some.

There is a per­cep­tion that public univer­sity grad­u­ates are more aca­dem­i­cally-in­clined, but have less soft skills. But, again, th­ese are gen­er­al­i­sa­tions that on closer scru­tiny, may prove to be false. Nev­er­the­less, the brand­ing of public uni­ver­si­ties are as such that even when I was in the po­si­tion to hire then, the per­cep­tion did en­ter my mind.

I feel that the fact that the cur­rent sys­tem, where ap­pli­ca­tions to public uni­ver­si­ties go through a central mech­a­nism, is work­ing against them. Stu­dents are as­signed to cour­ses and uni­ver­si­ties by some ma­tri­ces, hence the abil­ity of uni­ver­si­ties to in­flu­ence aspi­rants’ choices are limited.

This is un­like pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties fight­ing for the ed­u­ca­tion ring­git, where they need to be more savvy to ap­peal. Their web­sites are mar­ket­ing tools. They have open days. They of­fer schol­ar­ships. They present a pic­ture of care­free aban­don of youth, with ed­u­ca­tion be­ing a by-theway kind of thing.

I be­lieve public uni­ver­si­ties should be more brand and mar­ket­ing savvy, lest they be eclipsed by up­starts that are a frac­tion of what they are. They need to make them­selves, for the lack of a bet­ter word, a cooler des­ti­na­tion for the young.

While it will not have an im­pact on en­rol­ments, for they would al­ways be oversubscribed for the value they of­fered, neg­a­tive brand­ing would have an ef­fect on the in­sti­tu­tions, as well as the grad­u­ates they pro­duce.


The cen­tury-old Univer­siti Malaya has 3,000 aca­demic staff and RM350 mil­lion in re­search fund, yet in some cir­cles, it does not com­pare favourably to a 10-year-old pri­vate univer­sity that sits more than 1,000 lev­els be­low it in global rank­ings.

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