The Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996 reached its 25-year milestone this year. Senior officials from the Ministry of Higher Education and leaders from the private sector of higher education marked the event with a small ceremony held at the Ministry of Higher Education.
Act 555 as the Act is widely known, was passed as part of a general plan to reform higher education in Malaysia. The specific object the Act in the reform was to legitimize and regulate a large number of private colleges that were in operation at that time. But it did more. It provided for the establishment of private universities and branch campuses of foreign universities. Without much fanfare, Act 555 removed many of the sacred cows of education in this country that had impeded the development of higher education. Government monopoly over universities was removed and so also the issue of English as a medium of instruction in higher education.
The private sector higher education now hosts 100 private universities and over 300 private colleges. About one half of the country's higher education student population of 1.4 million is in private institutions established under the Act. This number includes about 100,000 students from overseas.
Merely reciting the numbers, which no doubt, are impressive, will not establish the real achievements of the Act's 25 years. The private sector of higher education in this country is probably the most diverse in the systems it represents. Ten universities have branch campuses in this country. They not only add to the type of educational courses and methods of delivery and assessment but introduce a variety of governance systems that have influenced local development in the management of universities and colleges. Local institutions, both universities, and colleges have made innovations in higher education which have brought to Malaysians a world-standard education at very affordable fees.
All of the above pales into insignificance against that one unsung contribution of the private sector - in maintaining social harmony and peace against a background of unfair and exclusive policies in education. The private sector diffused serious tensions growing in our society from unmet demands for higher education at a time when that demand was burgeoning. The private sector rose to meet that need. Act 555 provided the legal framework.