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