All new courses introduced in private institutions will now have to be ‘screened’ by a special committee established for that purpose before they are submitted for approval. The Ministry of Higher Education announced the new procedures in a circular addressed to all private higher education institutions.
According to the circular (JPT/BPP(P)1000-753 Jld.3 (10) dated 3 Feb. 2016), the decision on the new procedures was taken at the policy review meeting on quality assurance KPT-MQA Bill. 3/2015.
Private Higher Educational Institutions (PHEIs) intending to offer new course must now submit their application to the Department of Higher Education (JPT) for consideration by the New Courses Screening Meeting (MSA-IPTS). This adds a new layer in the approval process for new courses which until recently allowed PHEIs to submit their new course applications directly to the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) for provisional accreditation and upon securing that, to the MOHE for formal approval under the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996 (Act 555). Generally, MOHE approval followed as a matter of course once provisional accreditation (PA) was secured.
Under the new procedures announced, MSA-IPTS will evaluate the application taking into account specified criteria such as, sustainability of the institution, the value the new programme adds to the institution, whether it meets current needs, whether it optimizes existing resources and is in line with the current direction (niche areas) of the institution concerned.
Only when approval is obtained from MSA-IPTS, may the institution concerned proceed to send the relevant MQA-01 documents to the MQA for provisional accreditation. Once that is obtained from the MQA, the institution concerned must inform JPT of the matter and secure the approval of the course of study in accordance with the provisions of Act 555.
Applications for preliminary screening of new courses of study should be submitted in a new form prescribed by the Ministry and sent to Bahagian Pendaftaran Dan Piawaian, JPT. The new form can be downloaded from the official portal of the Department of Higher Education (wwww.jpt.mohe.gov.my)
The implementation of this decision took effect on 1 March 2016.
As with most government circulars on private higher education, no reasons are given for the changes. But that aside, what is curious about these new rules is how they seem to modify, if not alter the statutory procedures for course approvals in Act 555. That Act requires a PHEI to obtain the prior approval of the RG before it is allowed to conduct a course of study or training programme. A contravention of that provision attracts severe penalties in the form of a fine up to two hundred thousand ringgit or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or both.
The Act is also precise on how the RG is to exercise his power on the approval of courses. The relevant section 39 of the Act is reproduced in full to show the nature and extent of the RG’s statutory power.
39. (1) The Registrar General shall grant his approval under section
38 if he is satisfied—
based upon the recommendation of an authority established under a written law for such purpose.
(2) Where the Registrar General refuses to grant his approval, he shall notify the applicant in writing of the grounds for his refusal.
(3) An applicant who is aggrieved by the decision of the Registrar General under subsection (1) may appeal in writing to the Minister within twenty-one days from being notified of the decision appealed against.
A number of important conclusions may be drawn from section 39(1). First, the RG is required to grant his approval if he is satisfied with the 3 matters listed in the section. The mandatory ‘shall’ means that once he is satisfied with the three matters he is duty bound to grant his approval. His discretion is limited to the three matters listed and to no other criteria.
Next, his satisfaction with the three matters in the section has to be based on the recommendation of what is described as an authority established under a written law for such purpose. Although, surprisingly, the authority is not named there is no doubt that the only authority that matches the description is the MQA. Current practice requires all new courses to be submitted to MQA for provisional accreditation and the issuance of the PA is seen as the recommendation to the minister to approve the course in question. There is no express provision in the powers or functions assigned to the MQA under the Malaysian Qualifications Agency Act 2007 (MQA Act) that clearly responds to the role ascribed in s.38 of Act 555. However, under s. 6(2)(h) of the MQA Act, one of the powers of the Agency is to ‘advise the Minister on any matters relating to quality assurance in higher education’.
If course approval under the Act is a power vested on the RG who is required to base his decision on the recommendations of MQA, what role is there for the new committee in this process. First PHEIs are required to apply to RG for approval of courses. The circular, albeit one that is issued by the RG, now instructs institutions to submit the application of new courses for screening by a new committee that is to apply criteria that exceed the criteria specified in s. 39 of Act 555. There are no provisions in the circular to deal with situations where the committee refuses its consent.
What we are seeing in effect is the abrogation of statutory provisions that confer rights on PHEIs by a committee that are not accountable for its action. The Act allows an applicant to appeal a refusal by the Minister, but an applicant who is refused approval by the committee is left without any right.
PHEIs work as businesses, regardless of ownership and purpose of the owners, that is whether they look at it as profit making institutions or otherwise. Whether they are or not for profit, they have to be sustainable in a business sense. That means the company that funds the educational business has to manage it so that it is solvent. Only if the company is solvent can it ensure continuity to meet the needs of its students to complete the courses they have registered for with the institution.
It is also important that businesses are regulated to protect the public interest, more so where the business concerns a service like education. But whilst it is only proper to regulate to ensure quality and standards and to ensure that students investing in higher education are not left in the lurch by failed enterprises, to tamper with the right to make business decisions will only serve to harm the sector and ultimately the country and its rich education system. The criteria upon which courses are to be screened are matters for the college to decide. Whether or not a new course optimizes resources or whether it is aligned to the directions of the institution are questions for the institution to decide. No external agency such as a committee within the ministry will be able to make right call on these matters. It requires business sensitivity and the intelligence of the market place to make these decisions.
In any case, if the private sector of higher education is to comply with the laws, these laws that affect them must have certainty. To change them without thought or dialogue with the sector will be a sure way to harm that sector and the nation ultimately.