Private education or education provided through non-government institutions has played an important role in building capacity and expanding access to education at all levels, but notably in higher education.
We mentioned earlier that the regulatory approach of the EA1996 is to bring all educational institutions into its regulatory structure or that of other written law. This approach of the Act embraces both public and private educational institutions. In fact, s.73 of the EA1996 expressly states that nothing in its provisions is to be construed as prohibiting the establishment and maintenance of a private educational institutions. However in conceding to the creation of private institutions, the Act also makes it clear that private institutions (other than private higher education institutions) too have to comply with the Act and all regulations made under it unless exempted.
Private education and the role played by private education providers in expanding access and diversifying educational options have seldom received the appreciation of the public or policy makers. Historically, because of the way in which the country emerged and was created in the course of colonial occupation, private education preceded official, government supported education. Private providers in the form of Chinese guilds and associations, philanthropists from all communities, ethnic associations and Christian churches played an important role in the provision and development of education in the territories that today make up the Federation. Not surprisingly, private education in the early stages of development of this country responded mainly to the needs of the different communities that made up the population in the last 200 years. This resulted in separate systems of educations with different media of instruction and different curricula being established that bore strong connection to the communities they were meant to serve. The resulting hodgepodge system of education became the main challenge to policy makers at the end of WW2 and the last years of colonialism who were seeking to create a single education system to lay the foundation upon which a new nation would be created. We narrate elsewhere on this site how a common system of education was forged and the compromises that had to be made to the different claimants.
With the increase (in the early Fifties and after Independence) in government funded educational institutions and the creation of a common system of education, public perception of private education declined to that of an alternative education system that was seen to cater only for the over-aged and underperforming student. The importance of the private sector in education was realized only in recent times, mainly because of the way in which they met the burgeoning and unfulfilled demand for higher education against limited places in public institutions. This was followed by the increase in the number of private educational institutions at the primary and secondary levels, not because of any limited capacity in the public sector but for a better quality of education and a more varied school experience than that found in public schools.
The growth of the private sector and its position now as an important provider of education at all levels is also the result of the serious commercialization of education that was stimulated by the entry into the education sector in the mid 1980’s of business corporations that hitherto had shown no interest in making investments into education. By that time, private colleges providing post-secondary education had already evolved unique arrangements with foreign professional institutions and universities that enabled a Malaysian to complete part of a tertiary level education in the local college before travelling to the foreign institution to complete his course of study. With fresh investment from the new players into better colleges and facilities, enrolments in private colleges grew to a point that by the early 1990s, the role played by private colleges was formidable enough to have created two systems of higher education in the country - a formal public system and an informal private system. At the same time government’s enthusiasm is divesting public services to private owners speeded the development of policies on the privatization of education. A package of legislation passed through parliament in 1996 saw the corporatization of public universities and a new regime of laws that allowed the creation and regulation of private higher educational institutions, including private universities and branch campuses of foreign universities.
At the heart of the new laws was the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996 (PHEA1996). The Act not only legitimizes the private sector and includes it as a participant in the national agenda for the development of higher education, but also expands the scope of private higher education right to the level of private universities. The face of higher education was changed dramatically by the Act; but it did more than expand access to higher education, it facilitated the creation of an entirely new environment of higher education in which all the world’s major systems of education converged. Options to higher education abounded with a range of combinations that made access more flexible, both in terms of fees and possible pathways to a university degree.
Primary and secondary education was also commercialized with many new private schools being set up, offering local and international curricula.
The dramatic progress that the nation has witnessed in enlarging access to education at all levels, is to an important part, the result of the efforts and growth of the private sector.