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WARREN Buffett famously said: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin it.” Are our universities, especially private universities, taking the world’s second richest man’s advice seriously?

Of late, there have been a spate of bad news about a few of our higher institutions of learning. It was just over a month ago we read about bogus private colleges being used to traffick thousands of young Bangladeshis. This was not the first time. Bogus colleges were in the news again in 2013 and 2015.

The latest blot on our higher education is Oman’s ban on four Malaysian universities by the country’s Higher Education Ministry. The Times of Oman reported on Monday that the Middle Eastern country had issued a “stop dealing” decision affecting one public and three private Malaysian universities. This was confirmed by Oman’s cultural attache to Malaysia, Yahya Salam Al Mandhari, who said the decision was due to alleged “academic and administrative abuses”. Three of the universities claimed to be unaware of the Middle Eastern country’s decision, while one actually rubbished the allegation. The ban will affect 378 Omani students.

This incident will reverberate around the world, putting a big dent not only on the four universities’ reputation but also on the good name of the country.

One should not be surprised if social media is abuzz with the news of the blacklisting of the four universities. Given how quickly news spread in cyberspace, the five minutes’ damage of reputation that Warren Buffett talked about could be worth 20 years of hard work.

Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh is quite rightly viewing the complaint very seriously. Perhaps, the time is right for higher education qualifications and monitoring bodies like MQA, MyRa, Setara and MyQUEST to double their efforts, given the recent spate of abuse by higher institutions of learning.

The Government, through its ministry, has spent time and money “selling” to the world Malaysia’s institutions of higher learning as centres of excellence. Last year, the United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organisation’s International Students Mobility Survey placed Malaysia as one of the top 10 preferred destinations for tertiary education among international schools. The Higher Education Ministry (MOHE) attributed this global confidence to quality of education, affordable cost of living, and diverse socio-cultural landscape as among the main factors. This achievement should not be allowed to slip away.

Will this incident stand in the way of the government’s aims to turn Malaysia into a global education hub of 200,000 international students by 2020? Today, there is an estimated 120,000 international students studying in the country. Of these, an estimated 30,000 are pursuing postgraduate degrees. According to MOHE statistics, international students contribute about RM7.9 billion to the nation's economy and this is expected to increase to about RM15.6 billion per annum by 2020.

Let’s not allow a few rotten apples to spoil the barrel. If there are grounds to act, we must do so right now. Otherwise, our education hub may just be a pipe dream.

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