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Churning out hordes of unqualified professionals

In March, The Star highlighted how unqualified students armed with dubious certificates were turning to foreign universities for their degrees. Insiders now tell Sunday Star they can guarantee spots in some of the most difficult courses like medicine – for a fee. Here’s how it works.

NOT qualified? No problem. Thanks to a group of education agents here, anyone can study to be a doctor, dentist, pharmacist, pilot or geoscientist.

These agents specialise in helping underperforming SPM graduates find placements in universities abroad for difficult courses like medicine, pharmacy and veterinary studies, dentistry and aviation.

One of them, who only wanted to be known as Siva, specialises in sending students to Indonesian universities that are recognised by the Malaysian Government. Based in Kuala Lumpur, his job is to guarantee places for the students at specific foreign universities – regardless of their SPM results.

“It boils down to connections. Who you know over there is important,” he tells Sunday Star.

But before they can get into the degree programme of their choice, candidates must take a pre-university examination by an institution based in northern Sumatra. It’s a “definite pass”, he assures. They’ll also receive a ‘Test of English as a Foreign Language’ certificate issued by a private local college without having to sit for the test. All this for RM3,750. The cost of enrolling for the degree, however, is a separate matter.

Parents must fork out an additional RM60,000 for that. The sum covers the first-year study fee and other ‘admission fees’. The ‘admission fees’ is paid to the faculty to secure a place as the universities all have a foreign student quota.

Since he started the business in 2000, Siva have had more than 400 students enrolled in universities across Asia. Describing it as a way of helping students, he sees nothing wrong with what he’s doing and he doesn’t think it is unethical either.

“Many think it’s the agents’ fault, which is wrong. Blame the local universities. Many students can’t even get an offer to study medicine despite getting four flat (CGPA 4.0) for their STPM. Who’s going to help them if not us?” he asks. Denied entry into public universities, his clients have no choice but to seek out agents like him because they cannot afford to study in premium foreign universities.

A senior bank executive who only wanted to be known as Robert, 23, was Siva’s client. He bought a pre-university certificate and a ‘Test of English as a Foreign Language’ certificate for his younger brother. The ‘package’ includes a guaranteed spot in one of the top universities in Bandung to do a geoscience degree.

Robert denies that he was trying to cheat the system, insisting that the original plan was for his brother to sit for a legit pre-university examination after he failed his STPM science subjects.

A quick Google search on ‘studying geology in Indonesia’ led him to Siva. At their first meeting in a sandwich shop, he was convinced to take up the dubious package.

“My brother didn’t sit for the English certificate exam. He only had to turn up for the pre-university exam and was told that he didn’t have to study as a pass was guaranteed. The family decided that this was a better option than for my brother to sit for a legit pre-university exam which if he failed, would lead us back to square one.”

At the time, Robert didn’t feel that there was anything wrong with what he was doing. But looking back now, he regrets it because his brother couldn’t cope with the courses which were taught in Bahasa Indonesia – dropping out after just six months there. Describing it as a huge waste of money, he says the short stint abroad had cost a whopping RM70,000.

“My father wanted him to take over the family business, which is related to geoscience. I was told to help my brother... so I did. The result? Money down the drain and my brother is no better off than when he left,” he says, recalling the experience.

Now, the brother works with his father, learning the tricks of the trade the oldfashioned way – the hands-on approach.

“He is learning how to weld. That’s a good start,” Robert says.

On March 20, Sunday Star front-paged an exclusive on unqualified Malaysian students going abroad to get their medical degrees after getting complaints that unscrupulous agents here could be falsifying SPM result certificates and Non-Objection Certificate (NOC).

Students wanting to pursue medical courses overseas must get NOCs from the ministry. The issuance of the certificates is based on the students having the same minimal entry qualifications as stipulated for entry to local universities.

A retired teacher, who declined to be named, had a shock when she discovered that her employer – an education consultancy headed by a Datuk, was arranging for unqualified students to do courses like medicine, dentistry, veterinary, pharmacy and aviation in Indonesia, the Philippines and Russia.

The 63-year-old mother of a doctor and a dentist quit after receiving her first paycheck.

“As far as I know, you study hard, do well and go through the proper channels. Honestly, I never knew there were student placement centres that could get unqualified students into such demanding degree programmes!”

Initially confused, she put two and two together after hearing colleagues do their “sales pitch” at education fairs and road shows.

Students with SPM results – no matter how poor and regardless of which stream they’re from – were guaranteed entry into foreign universities to study in fields that they won’t otherwise get to do here. The universities allocate a fixed number of seats for the agent so results are irrelevant. The realisation hit like a tonne of bricks.

They target lower income families and uneducated parents – usually from the Indian community where medicine is held in very high regard, she shares. They have connections to small villages in places like Cameron Highlands and Sungai Petani so they know who to call. Appalled, she shares some outrageous sales pitches she’s heard: “God wants your child to study medicine” and :It’s recognised by the World Health Organization so you can work anywhere”.

“The counsellors aren’t even trained. They were given a set of university booklets to go through, that’s it. It’s all about selling the package. They even tell you where to get a loan – EPF, mortgage your house, etcetera. It’s like direct selling, the way they pressure parents.”

Explaining the modus operandi, she says parents are told to pay a mere RM1,500 of the RM20,000 fee, as downpayment. The amount covers the foundation course and first year degree fees.

They don’t tell parents how much it’s going to cost in the subsequent years. The entire degree programme will set the family back about RM100,000. Because they’re dealing with families that aren’t well educated and are desperate for their children to have a better future, the important questions don’t get asked. Having seen many poor families falling prey to the agency, she believes most don’t know the implications of using a dubious certificate to get into university.

“Upon paying the downpayment, the students go off to some dingy shophouse for five or six months to supposedly prepare them for university. I’m not even sure if attendance is compulsory. I wouldn’t be surprised if degrees are also being bought with the amount of palm-greasing that’s going on. Dubious foundation certificates could just be the tip of the iceberg.”

Urging parents and students to do their research before signing up for anything, she says a degree in medicine is not the only way to move up in life.

Tags: certification, degree, exam, health, medical
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