Seeking Nash Equilibrium in the Tertiary Education Sector

By Wong Teik Aun

June 2022 FEATURE
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WHEN I WAS a student in China in the 1990s, it was the norm to crowd and shove people on entering public buses and trains. If one were to queue (as my sensibilities originally dictated), one would never get onto these public vehicles. This pushy behaviour was so entrenched that at train station ticket counters, burly guards were stationed on podiums equipped with heavy cudgels to prod the crowd into a semblance of a queue. This was a case of what is called Nash Equilibrium, manifested where the majority subscribes to the “no queuing equilibrium”. If a Chinese person in the 1990s were to be placed in a social environment where queueing is encouraged and non-queueing castigated, they would invariably subscribe to the “queuing equilibrium”.

In business, it is the norm for companies to advertise and market their products and services with heightened frenzy. We see this most obviously with major property developers through “sales launches”, show houses, property fairs, internet marketing; purchasing advertisement spaces on billboards and printing banners, press releases and brochures. Collectively, expenditures for these make up 2-3% of a project’s total sales value. No serious contender can afford to opt out of the marketing mayhem. Therefore, property developers lean heavily on the advertising equilibrium.

But what about Malaysia’s tertiary education sector?  This sector is generally divided into public non-profit and private profit-oriented colleges and universities. The former is predominantly involved in the “rankings equilibrium”; in other words, prestige and reputation of the institutions are largely determined by their spot in international ranking systems such as the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. These rankings are derived from measurable factors, including faculty quality, research impact, publication citations, grants received, student outcomes, international linkages and campus facilities. Thus, tertiary institutions involved in the “rankings equilibrium” focus their efforts and resources on maintaining or advancing their international rankings.

The private profit-oriented latter, however, operates much like a commercial business in that it is heavily involved in the advertising equilibrium.  Major private universities and colleges in Malaysia promote their study programmes via road shows, press advertisements, radio commercials, banners, flyers, internet marketing and the ubiquitous “open days”.  No doubt both categories of the tertiary education sector have given rise to legitimate concerns that students’ interests are being sidelined by their separate key concerns.

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For example, public universities, ensnared as they are in the “publish or perish” conundrum, may choose to close an eye to the overall teaching quality and to student welfare. Meanwhile, the private ones may concentrate overwhelming focus on financial gains at the expense of academic quality, reasoning that it is more profitable for them if more students progress easily through each semester. After all, high passing rates and stellar academic results make for excellent advertising taglines.

A Student-oriented Nash Equilibrium

To rectify this issue, the solution is neither easy nor simple. But perhaps the liberal arts colleges in the U.S. are able to serve as case study examples. The typical liberal arts college is small, private and non-profit. These operate on a broad-based curriculum for holistic student development and strive for a “student satisfaction equilibrium”. Certainly, relevant lessons can be gleaned from it for local application.

A way forward is to explore ways to synergise our public and private education sectors to enhance student learning and satisfaction.  Both the Malaysian public and private education sectors are now approximately equal in student numbers. By collaborating as peers, there are opportunities to balance the emphasis on international rankings with holistic student development, and reduce wastage of funds from excessive advertising and promotions. 

Perhaps we should take heed of our often-overlooked national education philosophy (falsafah pendidikan kebangsaan) that is essentially student-focused and holistic: “Education in Malaysia is a continuous endeavour towards developing individual potential holistically and comprehensively to realise citizens who are balanced, harmonious in the aspects of intellect, spirit, emotion and physical based on the belief in and devotion to God.  This endeavour is to actualise Malaysians who are knowledgeable, competent, ethical, responsible and capable of achieving individual wellbeing, as well as contributing towards the harmony and prosperity of the family, community and nation (author’s translation from Malay)”.   

Ideally, we should aspire for a “Malaysian education equilibrium” that is student-oriented, faculty-friendly, operationally efficient, environmentally sound, socially smart and economically sustainable.  Is this an overly ambitious and ultimately unattainable pipe dream?  Perhaps. But then again, my favourite anthropologist, the late Margaret Mead was sage in proclaiming, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has."

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Wong Teik Aun

is a senior faculty member at a private institution of higher learning. Issues on environment, economy and education are close to his heart.