Should You Go to a Private or Public University - Feature
9 Mar 2017

Should You Go to a Private or Public University?

It has been a great source of dilemma for students everywhere for all time. Public or private universities: Which is better?

There are over 400 private institutions (including colleges, university colleges and universities) and 20 public universities within Malaysia – all trying to meet the growing needs of younger Malaysians seeking quality tertiary education.

Blessed with so many quality options (see: QS World University and MyQUEST), it is understandable that you may have a hard time deciding which is best for you.

With that in mind, we’ve set out to compare both private and public universities in Malaysia and here’s what we found.

#1. Tuition fees


Total fees can go up to hundreds of thousands of ringgit for a course.


Total fees for a course rarely exceeds RM30k.

What should you consider?

The most notable difference between studying in a public institution versus studying in a private institution is the fees.

The total fees for a course in private universities can easily cost anywhere from 3 to 9 times the amount at a public university.

For example, pursuing an Engineering Degree at a private university can cost between RM47k to RM170k for tuition fees alone. On the other hand, studying the same course in Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), one of the more established engineering institutions in Malaysia, will only cost you roughly RM10k.

See the difference?

While there are financial aids available to ease the burden (think scholarships and PTPTN loans), studying in a private university may be costly for some, especially if you do not have financial backing from your parents.

#2. Entry into your desired courses


Admission into your desired course is usually subjected to seat availability.


Admission into your desired course (or university) can be very competitive and is based on merit.

What should you consider?

Entry into private universities is pretty straightforward. Subjected to seat availability, as long as you meet the necessary requirements for your desired course (and can afford to pay the fees, of course), your place is almost certainly secured.

Don’t get us wrong, however.

It’s not that admission to a public university is complex. Rather, it can be very competitive. With significantly lower tuition fees, many bright students from Matrikulasi, STPM, Asasi and even public university Diplomas will be competing for the ever-limited places for popular courses like Engineering and Medicine.

Important Note: In general, public universities in Malaysia have not yet opened their doors to students from Pre-University courses typically offered in private institutions such as A-Level, AUSMAT, CPU, etc. So far, only UM and USM are known to accept students from A-Level and AUSMAT.

Don’t be surprised if you cannot even secure a place in a top university like Universiti Malaya (UM) or Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) even though you chose a less popular course. The competition to get into a top university or a top course can be insanely strong among public universities in Malaysia.

That’s why it is important to work extra hard in your studies (and don’t neglect your co-curricular activities) if you are planning to pursue your desired course in a renowned public university.

#3. Choice of course


Generally offers popular courses such as Psychology, Engineering, Business, Law, Design, Dentistry and Medicine, among others.


Offers a very broad range of courses.

What should you consider?

If you didn’t already know this, public universities in Malaysia offer a rather extensive range of courses.

Some examples include Cognitive Science, Social Work, Sports Science, Sociology and Anthropology, Horticulture, Heritage Studies, Forestry Science and much more. This is to provide broader opportunities and to create a more knowledgeable community that will help meet the different needs of the country.

If you have a passion for pursuing a niche course, the choice is pretty clear: Attend a relevant public university. But bear in mind that niche courses like these may not be in demand by employers. You may find yourself painfully waiting for an opportunity for work.

However, if you are determined to pursue your desired course that happens to very popular and competitive, and you are unwilling to take your chances, then it’s probably better for you to study in a private university.

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#4. Sources of funding


Most are privately funded.


Receives a majority of their funding from the government.

What should you consider?

Every year, a substantial sum from our national budget will be allocated to the education sector. Huge sums of money (typically amounting to millions of ringgit) will then be assigned to each public university.

On top of that, students in public universities also have easier access to research grants and endowments to work on intellectual journals and research.

Having said that, public universities have been undergoing consecutive budget cuts for the past two years as the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) initiates financial reforms to make public universities more financially sustainable through the Malaysian Education Blueprint 2015 – 2025.

It is still unclear how public universities in Malaysia are going to cope with such a transition.

Private universities, on the other hand, typically rely on corporate investments, alumni contributions and student funding to cover their expenses. This explains why tuition fees in private institutions are much higher.

However, this also allows private institutions more autonomy in governance and to be more innovative in designing industry-relevant programmes and courses for their students.

#5. Facilities


Student facilities may be limited.


An extensive list of facilities is offered to students at a minimal cost.

What should you consider?

With the amount of funding they receive every year, it is not surprising to say that facilities and research equipment in public universities are better compared to private universities.

For example, UTM provides a broad list of library facilities ranging from popular reference materials, academic magazines, journal collections, online databases and other various electronic resources.

The same can be said about sports facilities in public universities too. Some public universities also have the resources to provide sports facilities like swimming pools, gymnasiums, equestrian facilities and archery ranges.

Very few private universities are able to match these extra facilities that are provided in public universities.

That being said, the question that you need to ask yourself is this: What kind of facilities do you really need to enhance your university experience?

#6. Student diversity and demographics


A more diversified undergraduate student population.


The majority of undergraduate student communities still comprise mostly of Malaysians.

What should you consider?

To be fair, both private and public institutions in Malaysia have an approximately equal amount of international students per campus.

For example, international students in the top 2 public universities in Malaysia – Universiti Malaya (UM) and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) – make up roughly 27% and 18% of the total student population. Similarly, international students also make up between 15% to 30% of the total student population in some of the top local private institutions.

The distinction lies in international students being more widespread at the postgraduate level in public universities while in private universities, it’s the undergraduate students who are exposed to a greater diversity instead.

Private Universities
(International Students)
Public Universities
(International Students)

Based on the 2015 statistics compiled by the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE), there is a much higher presence of international students at the undergraduate level at private institutions, hence, creating a more diversified undergraduate student community.

Learning in a more diversified environment has its benefits, as it allows you to interact with others from different walks of life and view things from multiple perspectives. So if you’re looking to make friends from other parts of the world, studying in private institutions may be more appealing to you.

#7. Qualifications of the teaching force


Lack of qualified research-based academic staff.


The majority of teaching force holds a postgraduate qualification.

What should you consider?

Based on the 2015 statistics from MOE, the number of academic staff and the highest qualifications from both private and public institutions are as below:

Private Universities
Public Universities
Bachelor’s Degree

In line with the government’s push to have more academic staff with Ph.D qualifications in public universities back in 2010, public universities command a much larger pool of Ph.D holders compared to private universities.

But does holding a higher qualification such as a Ph.D make one a better tutor? It depends, actually.

If you’re applying for a knowledge-intensive course (e.g. Medicine or Biomedical Science) or planning to pursue a research-based career, then it would make a lot of sense to look for a university with higher-qualified lecturers.

Otherwise, it may not make much of a difference.

For example, courses like Graphic Design, Hospitality & Tourism and Culinary Arts are more practical-based, so it may be better to go with a hands-on learning approach. Similarly, courses like Business, Finance and Marketing would require a more industry-focused approach which will typically require constant adaptation to latest trends and developments.

Bonus Point:

What about employers’ perceptions? Do employers tend to pick graduates from private or public universities?

Fret not as based on a JobStreet survey in 2013, the majority (64%) of employers do not have any particular preference in hiring graduates from public, private or foreign universities.

It is more crucial for you to develop the necessary skills and pursue worthwhile experiences while you’re in university. Being adaptable to changes will surely set you up well for the constantly changing work environments later on.

The point is, it matters very little which institution – private or public – you decide to attend. Both private and public universities have their own strengths. As long as the institution can propel you closer to your ambitions and meet your needs and preferences, it is certainly one worth your consideration.

Still feeling lost looking for the right institution? Here’s how you can lock down on one that’s best suited for you.

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