Helping Kim Jong-Un is HELP’s bad mistake

(This post was originally published at The Malay Mail Online)

Friends and some other people in my social circle know of my deep interest in education. For those who do not know me, let me say that education has helped me to be who I am and where I am. Recognising the value of education, I have tried to fulfil my social responsibility and repay my debt to society by making educational work the main focus of my charitable contribution to those less fortunate.

Since I began my educational philanthropic mission, I have received and read close to a thousand applications for financial assistance. At the beginning, I found that most of the applicants had fairly good SPM results and were able to express themselves reasonably well in English. But besides lacking the funds, they had difficulty in gaining admittance to universities which had stringent entry standards.

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However, as time has gone by, I have been shocked by the low educational standard of the applicants and especially their poor command of the English language. I have been also shocked by the ease with which these students have been accepted by the various universities they have applied to.  During my time and as recently as ten years ago, they would not even have been considered for fifth or sixth form entry with such low standards as theirs.

For example, I have received this application about two weeks ago:

Hi…let me introduce myself first…my name is X Y Z…hmm…i live in kampar…im 18 year old…chinese guy…boy…now i meeting finance problem to my further study….i hope Mr yew…can lead a hand to me…i will very thanks to you…hope i can solve the finance problem quickly caught my study…THANK A LOT…

Putting money where one’s mouth is has always been my credo and helping poor young students enter universities even if they are not particularly well qualified is personally satisfying especially when the recipient makes good and continues my mission as promised.

However soothing for my ego, I know that the charity I provide is only a small drop in the ocean of need. Ultimately it is what is happening at the level of the larger system which is the main driver of change and brings about progress or regression.

Hence I have been very concerned about developments in our national educational system and about the need to influence policy change for the better through questioning or criticising what is wrong – whether in the public or private sector.

In the last few days, the big buzz in education in the online media has been the award of an honorary doctorate by HELP University, one of the major private universities in the country. The news of this award has raised a firestorm of criticism from many readers in the Internet – and quite rightly so. But it is necessary to look beyond the obvious concerns and to use it to understand what is happening in our educational system and why developments such as these are taking place.

The major flaw in private higher education in Malaysia

My main concern with private higher education in Malaysia is that it seems to place profit-making above all other considerations. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make profits. Obviously, people who invest in private education are not in it for charity. But there must be honour and integrity in making money.  From what I have seen from the quality of students taken in by the private sector universities as well as from the graduates churned out, most of our private universities do not care about the low standard of the students they take in and the final product that they churn out.  All they are concerned with is to maximise their student intake, rake in fat profits by charging the highest fees possible, and push the graduates out quickly so that another fee paying intake replaces the ones who are leaving.

A key part of the strategy on profit maximisation is to generate public interest in the university which can then boost student enrolment.   This is also done by lowering the standards of entry and accepting less qualified and poorer quality students as I have found out in the last few years.

Trumpeting the achievements of the university and drawing attention on how it is able to provide value to the prospective student is another method. Unfortunately, the great majority –if not all – of our universities suffer from low academic quality and have few if any academic achievements to boast about.  In the chase for students and profits but confronted by the low standard of their students and staff, private universities in Malaysia then have to look to other ways to publicise themselves and catch the public eye.

Who is Kim Jong Un?

This to me is the reason why HELP has bestowed what is for most universities their most prestigious academic award to a dictator and tyrant who presides over one of the most totalitarian and repressive regimes in our region.  It is doubly scandalous that the honorary degree is in economics, an area in which the North Korean government has failed its people so miserably that many of its children are victims of hunger and malnutrition. HELP’s award does not appear to be one that “build a bridge to help people.”  It is simply to help itself.

Of course, HELP is not alone when it comes to the poor choice of recipients for honorary degrees to confer. If you look at similar awards made by other private and public universities in Malaysia, one can see that they are all scrapping the bottom of the barrel in their selection of leaders and so-called luminaries.

HELP’s choice is so breathtakingly bad and wrong that I hope it begins a debate on how we can wean our private universities away from their fixation with short term gain and profit maximisation leading to goofy decisions such as this.

My advice:

I note that HELP is listed on the main board of the KLSE. My advice to HELP’s management is to grow your university through the slow but sure method of academic excellence and nothing else.  Invest in enhancing the quality of your staff and students and the market will take care of itself.  The best long term business strategy is to maintain a high standard of academic achievement so that your graduates can easily find work and their performance will be the best advertisement.

Rely on what has been denounced as stunts such as this and your credibility – and that of your staff and students – will be badly compromised.

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