By Dr Chow Yong Neng
In 2005, I was privileged to have been invited by the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) to be a part of a team from the private higher education industry to help MoHE’s officials in drafting proposals to amend the Private Higher Education Act (ACT 555). The key objective then was for the industry players to propose changes to ACT 555 to tighten the law so that all stakeholders; the students, staff and the public are better protected from degree mills. Well today, 11 years or so later, finally some of the proposed amendments are going to see the light of day.
Han Chiang College, along with many private institutions of higher learning (IPTS) were invited by senior officials of the MoHE on a briefing and sharing session recently in Penang. Vice-principal Dr Beh Kok Hooi and Head of Compliance and Regulatory Affairs Ms Lee Saw Sim represented our college to this session which was well attended and many views were exchanged. The MoHE has been doing a nationwide tour to interact with IPTSs so that the officials are able to canvass and obtain feedback from as many players in the industry as possible.
In a nutshell, the proposed amendments by the MoHE are good for all the stakeholders including students, parents, and especially the IPTSs. A lot of the wordings used in the present version are being clarified and tightened up. Some notable changes proposed are:
- For instance “branch” now is specifically referred to a branch of an IPTS with university or university college status only and it has excluded branch campuses of foreign universities such as Monash University and Nottingham University.
- Clear definition of different categories of IPTSs will also be added to clarify matters further.
- Since a college or a university is not exactly a legal entity by itself the amendments included the referral of all legal entities accountable and responsible for an IPTS to the company with the ownership of the said institutions.
I have heard from the grapevine in the industry that the MoHE might also be relaxing its interpretation of the term “company” to allow non-government bodies with ownership of IPTSs to do so directly without incorporating a company or a “Sendirian Berhad”.
Sweeping power of the Registrar General
However we have voiced our concerns on the sweeping power granted to the Registrar General in rejecting applications by IPTSs to the MoHE for some clauses of the proposed amendment without the need to specifying the reasons. This implies that there is no recourse for the affected IPTS if faced with such as situation. A decision based on an ACT that cannot be challenged in court where no reasons for the said decision would be required from the official concerned is not fair to the affected party. We have indicated this concern in our feedback form to the MoHE.
Flexibility on Compulsory Subjects
An interesting amendment is in the “Compulsory Subjects” section where it is proposed that the Registrar General will be empowered to exempt any students from having to take these subjects. Presumably this provides some form of flexibility especially for Malaysian students under certain circumstances which might not permit them to take such subjects. This is indeed a good addition in which deserves our full support.
Death Knell for bogus institutions & degree mills?
There is a proposed addition to the section dealing with establishment of an IPTS which reads, “No person shall ….(d) carry on or promote any activity leading to the award of certificate, diploma or degree; or (e) award a certificate, diploma or degree without successful completion of a course of study”. This addition hopefully will deal the death knell to all the degree mills who are set up as bogus (but physically real) institutions. But it omits to cover those that are trading fully online!
The penalties for violation of ACT 555 have been revised upward. Persons convicted of violation of some of the clauses of ACT 555 covered by the “General Penalties” are now liable to be fined up to RM50,000 (from the previous RM10,000). The penalty for continuing offence is proposed to be raised from RM500 per day currently to RM1,000. Hopefully these will serve as a deterrent for all to toll the line.
Although there has been a drastic drop in cases of degree mills in the news lately, but with the advent of e-commerce and ease of electronic fund transfer mean that many of the “brick and mortar” degree mills have indeed moved online. In most cases there would be “willing buyers” – those intend to use fake qualifications to cheat and “willing sellers” – those who profit from their degree mills businesses. The proposed amendments (tabled by the MoHE), unfortunately did not cover this “willing buyers” aka the cheaters. Perhaps there are other laws (laws relating to cheating for instance) and employment contract’s clauses (employment law) on false declaration that might cover the “willing buyers” part. However, I feel that ACT 555 could also make it an offence for anyone who knowingly present false credentials (or credentials not approved under any part of ACT 555). This will take care of many, including some senior politicians who have been caught being the “willing buyers”. As it is, there is no specific law to tackle this sort of “willing buyers” with many, including those in high offices getting away with their acts of cheating. I think that since degree mills are not the only sources of fake degrees as some vendors do provide very authentic looking fake testamurs from public institutions of higher learning, it may take more than amendments to ACT 555 to cover all aspects. However, I feel that the inclusion of a clause in the amendment of ACT 555 to punish the “willing buyers” of degree mills’ “products” may also serve as a good deterrent. When there is no demand, there shall be no supply!
All in all, the MoHE’s effort in making changes to ACT 555 to protect all stakeholders is a commendable move that deserves the support of everyone.