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Reflecting on 2019: Higher education at a glance

Higher education
The year 2019 was a rollercoaster ride for the higher education sector, with various events shaping the discussion around inequality, among other issues. Source: Shutterstock

The year 2019 is coming to a close, and a new decade is approaching. 

But before closing the chapter, some reflections are in order before we look ahead and march into 2020.

So, what were some of the memorable events that had occurred in the higher education sector in 2019 that shaped discussions surrounding the industry? We take a walk down memory lane.

The US college admissions scandal

Higher education

The college admissions scandal shed some light on the unequal playing field in the higher education sector. Source: Shutterstock

One of the biggest scandals to rock the higher education sector in 2019 was the exposé of college admissions fraud exposed in the US, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues” by the FBI.

The scandal unveiled how wealthy parents – from ex-CEOs of global companies to celebrities like actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin – allegedly paid a total of US$25 million to fraud mastermind Rick Singer to ensure their children were admitted into elite US universities.

Singer reportedly bribed admissions testing officials, athletics staff as well as coaches at universities. As a result, some of the children of the parents involved in the college admissions scandal have lost their places in these selective schools. 

The scandal shed light on how the privileged in society lie and cheat their way into “making the cut,” exposing the long-known flaws of the country’s admission system.

However, dubious university admissions are not restricted to the US; the problem is widespread and occurs in universities across the world

Crippling student debt


Student debt has been a central focus among US presidential election candidates and it’s hardly surprising why. Reports note that US families are carrying a crisis-level US$1.6 trillion in federal and private student loan debt.

Reports also suggest student loan debt is rising worldwide. 

In Malaysia, a report by The Edge notes that PTPTN is sitting on RM40 billion (US$9.7 billion) of government-guaranteed debt, which is expected to almost double to RM76 billion (US$18.5 billion) in 20 years. PTPTN is an agency under the country’s Education Ministry that provides students with funding for their undergraduate degrees at private and public higher education institutions.

Despite its low-interest rate (one percent per annum), many have reportedly defaulted on their payments, threatening to harm the sustainability of the higher education fund.

As university fees continue to climb and wages stagnate, more attention is needed to address the elephant in the room, ie. ensuring equal access for all in higher education. 

Rich schools continue to receive large donations

Do elite universities promote upward mobility? Critics argue that they don’t as selective universities are typically less accessible to low-income students and often lack diversity.

Despite that, earlier this year, the University of Cambridge received a whopping £100 million (U$131.5 million) donation from the David and Claudia Harding Foundation to support students – its largest single donation from a British donor in recent history.

Reports note that Cambridge is among the UK’s wealthiest universities.

Meanwhile, a Forbes report notes that top institutions in the US are still raising billions of dollars in donations every year. Quoting data from the Voluntary Support for Education survey, the report said donations to US colleges and universities in the academic year ending in June totaled US$46.73 billion. 

It added that the 20 colleges that received the most money accounted for 28 percent of that total, and serve a mere 1.6 percent of the US student population. Harvard received US$1.4 billion last year.

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