Malaysia as an Education Hub

The UNSW debacle in Singapore and the exit of Johns Hopkins last year, have dealt a serious blow to the Global Schoolhouse strategy of the Singapore government. Singapore’s neighbor Malaysia announced a similar strategy last year. With this strategy, Malaysia becomes one of the most interesting examples of the way that higher education is globalizing nowadays. A major exporter as well as importer of higher education, with foreign universities within its borders and Malay universities establishing branches outside Malaysia.

First of all, Malaysia has long been sending many of their students and university staff abroad, especially for postgraduate studies, because their own system could not absorb the increase of students in the last decades. In addition, the racial quota for public universities to enroll Malay forced a lot of students from Chinese and Indian backgrounds to pursue their higher education abroad. The last decade has seen a sharp rise in private universities and colleges that have been able to absorb many of these students and the Malay that were not accepted in the public sector. Despite this, the flow of Malaysian students abroad – especially to the English speaking countries – has remained substantial (see table).

Malaysian students abroad 1999-2004

In addition to sending students abroad to pursue their education, the Malaysian government has also admitted higher education institutions into Malaysia in order to meet the increasing demand of higher education in the country. The establishment of such branch campuses has to fulfill a wide range of legal requirement (on ownership issues, but also on the content of education), but this has not kept universities from establishing these branches. The best known examples are Monash University, Curtin and Swinburne from Australia and Nottingham University from the UK. Although these partnerships were usually based on so-called sandwich programmes (where part was done in the home country of the university), they now also offer full degrees in Malaysia.

But in recent years, both the flows of students as well as the flows of institutions are no longer one way but now go both ways. Although public universities in Malaysia do not undertake activities abroad – and probably they are not allowed to – the private ones seem to become more and more active. You can now actually obtain a Malaysian degree in London, offered by the Lim Kok Wing University, well known in Malaysia for its IT and Design programmes. And this university is not just a little office somewhere in London but is established in a beautiful old English building. But Lim Kok Wing did not stop in London. It’s also the first Asian university to establish a branch campus in Africa, in Botswana to be precise. Recently, other education institutions are following and are also expanding abroad.

And now the Malaysian government wants to make Malaysia a true education hub for the region, more or less like its southern neighbor. The Ministry of Higher Education has set a target of 100,000 students for 2010. Growth will probably mainly be sought in the region and in the Middle East. Together with Singapore, Malaysia probably offers the best quality higher education in Southeast Asia, although Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia are catching up. Due to language (and cultural/religious) issues, Malaysia is popular for Indonesian students, especially for those that cannot get into the local public universities in Indonesia and cannot afford the top private ones or higher education abroad. For Chinese students Malaysia might be popular because of the widespread Chinese influences in Malay society, more apparent though in the private institutions than in the public ones. More recently, especially after 9-11, Malaysia has also become a popular destination for Middle Eastern students. Yesterday, the Star reported on an agreement between Higher Education Minister Datuk Mustapa Mohamed and his Saudi counterpart Dr Khaled Mohamed Al-Anqari on sending the Saudi students to Malaysian universities(*). In addition to the Middle East, students coming from Africa (especially Libya, Sudan and Kenya) are also on the rise (see table; click to enlarge).

Foreign Students in Malaysia 1999-2003

To reach the goal of 100,000 international students, the government will need to double the intake of foreign students. There are obviously pros and cons to a strategy like this. For many, a first reaction would be to ask why a government wants to increase the number of international students if it barely has the capacity to meet the demand of its own people? On the other hand, it can generate extra financial resources (if the fees for foreign students are profitable) by which the education of the Malaysian population can be supported. Obviously creating more multicultural campus will also have more intangible positive effects. And the quality of education can increase if these foreign students will be of such quality that they will positively influence the academic atmosphere and quality in the universities. And of course there are the economic effects through spending and consumption from the students and through the new jobs that are created for such an expanding higher education sector.

So…should the Singapore case make the Malaysian government nervous? Maybe not yet, but they better keep an eye on the developments in their neighboring city state. Malaysia’s plans are not as ambitious as Singapore’s ‘grand’ strategies and they are less dependent on foreign providers than is the case in Singapore. But I hope they will not become obsessed with the projected number of 100,000, and instead just focus on the overall quality of their higher education. Then the foreign students will follow automatically…

(*) A small footnote…not directly related but important enough to mention.

Saudi government officials have been traveling the world for the past months in order to find ‘a conducive environment’ for their students to study. Especially because it was getting harder for them to get visas in the UK and the US. I remember that one of their officials visited Australian campuses as well, in order to ‘ínspect’ the universities here. I have not heard anything about this issue since…maybe the Australian culture was not considered very conducive by these government leaders, that always know best what is good for ‘their’ citizens…

But even Malaysia was not perfect. Saudi female students had specific requirements: “They have to travel with their chaperone who are either their male family members or husbands, so visas can be a problem. Another issue is dressing – some female students want to keep their faces covered.” The Minister said he would look into these issues… Covering the faces is not allowed in Malaysian public universities. And I think universities shouldn’t change their values just to benefit more from the international higher education market. Believe me, I work in Australia, so I should know!

Questions on the UNSW ASIA debacle

After three months in operation, the Singapore adventure of the University of New South Wales has come to an end. Another 22 million Singapore dollars down the drain. The decision to establish a branch campus in Singapore was taken in 2005 and already led to some commotion at that time (see this post). In 2005, UNSW from Australia and the University of Warwick from the UK were the only two foreign universities granted special status by the Singaporean Government (through its Economic Development Board, EDB) to set up a fully fledged independent teaching and research institution offering undergraduate degrees (the UNSW ASIA website has been taken down but click here for some info from the old website and here for some facts).

At that time, the senate of Warwick declined the offer of the Singapore government. The official reason for the Warwick senate to vote against the venture was the big financial risk. An additional reason however was the concern about the lack of academic freedom. UNSW had a different opinion, after all there was “no such thing as absolute freedom of speech in any country”.UNSW opened the doors of its Asia Campus at the beginning of the 2007 academic year, planning to reach a population of up to 15,000 students on the long term. But the campus will be closed down after only one semester:

Before making this decision, the University has explored an extensive range of options. However the enrollment numbers for 2007 did not meet our expectations, and this has caused us to revise our projections. The decision to close down is a difficult one but it is the prudent course of action to take.

UNSW Vice Chancellor, Professor Fred Hilmer inherited the situation when he became VC in 2006. In a press conference in the Straits Times video news he explains the UNSW decision to pull out (see the whole video here):

The economics of the campus, without significant support made it impossible to continue. While we had support for the initial concept from the EDB, as the enrollment played out and as the concept had to be changed, the risk of the venture increased.

The Economic Development Board stated that it regrets the decision of UNSW. Mr Ko Kheng Hwa, Managing Director, EDB said:

We regret that UNSW has decided to close the Singapore campus. EDB has been fully committed and has worked closely with UNSW from day one towards the establishment of its Singapore campus. EDB will push ahead with our efforts to realise Singapore’s Global Schoolhouse vision. We are fully committed to developing Singapore into a premier education hub comprising a rich diversity of high quality education institutions and programmes from all over the world.

UNSW Asia had only 140 students enrolled in its first semester, 100 of them being Singapore residents. The University had a target of 300 students for the first year. This all leaves me with two big questions:

1. What is the real reason? If the target was 300 and the enrollment was 140, would you stop an operation – that has been planned for two years and in which 17.5 million Australian dollars is invested – just after a few months? Of course not! This is just too abrupt. After investing this amount, you would at least try for a few years. Somehow I have the idea that there is more going on, but I can’t figure out what it is.

2. Public universities and their private ventures. I am sure that UNSW and UNSW Asia keep separate books. But somehow UNSW, an Australian public university, will be affected by the costs of the Singaporese adventure. This discussion has come up in relation to the South African branch campus of Monash university as well. It clearly shows the risk of letting public organizations operate privately overseas. Of course, UNSW will argue that their Australian activities will not suffer from the UNSW Asia debacle. But the money has to come from somewhere. The costs are even likely to rise because UNSW has been so decent to offer their UNSW Asia students a place at UNSW in Sydney and will make scholarships available.

Two pressing questions. Whether we will ever know the answer to the first one? I don’t know. But I hope the second one will be discussed because it addresses a fundamental issue.

UPDATE: look at this recent post for some explanations

Bologna in London

The Fifth Ministerial Conference on the Bologna Process – a bi-annual event where the progress of the Bologna Process is monitored and new actions are decided upon – took place in London last week. This basically means a bombardment of papers, reports and speeches about what’s been going on and what needs to be done, coming from everyone that is somehow related to higher education. All this has culminated in the London Communique (pdf).

I haven’t had the time to go through all the documents yet, but the Communique does’nt seem to hold many surprises (which is not surprising of course for an inter-governmental document set up by over 40 countries). I did however read about an interesting option by Franck Vandenbroucke (in Dutch), Flemish minister of education and host for the Sixth Conference in 2009. He argues that the difference between the late and early adopters of the Bologna principles is too wide and that it is better for the early staters to explore the next frontiers for European cooperation, instead of waiting for the rest to catch up.

Euractiv has an article about the different perspectives on the outcome of the 5th Ministerial Conference. Here’s my interpretation:

The European Union:

We want universities to be liberated from the shackles of state domination (you’ll be better of with us)!

European Students:

It’s all about us so you better take us seriously! Or else…

European Universities:

If you give us more freedom and more money we will give you whatever you want (and pay for)

European Business:

Actually, we have no clue what we want so we’ll just repeat that we want your graduates to be interdisciplinary, process oriented and adaptable problem solvers that can work in teams. You figure it out…

The Brits:

We should all adopt similar standards… preferably the British ones

The Next (World) Bank President

While Wolfowitz has barely resigned as president of the World Bank, the Financial Times is already speculating about his successor. A quick look at the possible nominations makes clear that World Bank is first and foremost a Bank.

The first name the FT mentions is Robert M. Kimmitt, the US deputy Treasury secretary. Kimmitts bio reveals that his experience in the developing world is limited to his military service in Vietnam in 1970-1971. He served in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, earning three Bronze Star Medals, the Purple Heart, the Air Medal, and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry. More recently, he has served as the US Ambassador to Germany in the early 1990s, the country where he also attended high school in the 1960s.
Other possible candidates mentioned by the FT are (1) Paul Volcker, former US Federal Reserve Chairman; (2) Robert Zoellick, former US Deputy Secretary of State and current Vice President International for Goldman Sachs and involved in the neocon Project for the New American Century and (3) Hank Paulson, current US Secretary of the Treasury, former CEO of Goldman Sachs and a 2004 Bush Pioneer.

We’ll probably hear more about this before Wolfowitz steps down on June 30th… And then they can finally get back to work.

The HEEF: Economist’s interpretation

The Economist has an article on the Australian budget which was presented a few days ago. In my previous post I highlighted one item in that budget: the Higher Education Endowment Fund. In this fund, the government will deposit 5 billion Australian dollars, securing future funding of around 300 million a year (and more if the fund will grow in the future). The board of the fund will select ‘strategic investment proposals which provide quality infrastructure and support Australian Government policy with respect to diversity, specialisation and responsiveness to labour market needs’.

I though it was quite an innovative approach to government funding of higher education but this is all what the Economist makes of it:

“the budget offered A$5 billion for new research centres in Australia’s public universities”

Seems to me that there is quite a difference between the establishment of a fund (of which only the revenues can be spent) and ‘offering 5 billion dollars‘ and a difference between research centres and investments which provide ‘quality infrastructure and support Australian Government policy’.

The Higher Education Endowment Fund

Earlier this year, Kevin Rudd – leader of the Australian Labor Party – promised the country an education revolution if they would be voted into power (elections are later this year). Today, Peter Costello – treasurer of the current government – has tried to outdo Rudd in the new budget that was presented today. It’s already been dubbed the education budget.

One of the most innovative items is the creation of a Higher Education Endowment Fund. The government shall set up the fund and put in an amount of 5 billion Australian dollars (4 billion US; 3 billion Euros (!)). The money is meant to build world class universities for Australia, according to Education Minister Julie Bishop:

“The fund is expected to provide a dividend of around $900 million over three years from 2008/09. The dividend will be distributed to universities by the Minister for Education, Science and Training taking into account the advice of an independent HEEF board. This investment will promote excellence, quality and specialisation in Australian universities for years to come, helping our institutions to become truly world class.”

In addition to the HEEF, the Federal Government has also unveiled a $3.5 billion package to be spent over four years in higher education, vocational training and schools. The Australian Vice Chancellors’ Committee (AVCC) by word of Professor Sutton – its president – has already welcomed the budget:

“The Australian Government through this Budget has shown its commitment to investing in Australia’s universities today, to ensure we continue to produce high quality, work ready graduates and researchers into the future. This Budget delivers on the key areas that the AVCC has been lobbying for.”

Yes, I think it is good news for higher education in Australia. Maybe not so good for Labor. It will be interesting to follow this new instrument and see how it develops. Will the fund grow further by further donations from private parties and governments? After all, 5 billion for all of Australia’s 41 universities becomes rather bleak when compared to US Universities. In the US, 12 endowment funds of individual (private) universities already exceed this amount, with Harvard topping the list with almost 29 billion. It will be especially interesting to see whether the availability of the fund will be an excuse for future budget cuts.

The treasurer has at least tried to assure the Australians that only the dividend will be used and that the fund itself will not be touched, not even by Labor. Mr Costello – referring to Labor’s plan to use Australia’s ‘Future Fund‘ to fund a national high-speed broadband network – explained it like this:

“Let me make this clear – once the paw goes into the honey pot, it can pull all of the honey out. I put the honey in there – and I’m locking the honey against the paw.”

Later this year, Australian voters will decide whether to leave Mr Costello with the key to the pot, or whether to let the bears in.

Thou Shalt Compete

The Economist gives a short review of the Bologna process and explains how it will inevitably increase competition in Europe. But for ‘Old Europe’ (as the Economist likes to call it) this requires more than just some structural changes:

“The more hidebound European universities must be wondering what on earth they have started. Self-interest has prodded them to think about students as customers: both wealthy foreign ones, and bright locals tempted to finish their studies overseas. Governments have realised they could save money if their universities made students study a bit more briskly, gaining degrees and entering the workforce earlier. Universities are beginning to compete for the brightest and best European exchange students too. But that’s the problem with trying to become competitive. Before you know it, you may find yourself having to compete.”

Read the full article here

EIT and Policy Research

A few weeks ago, I discussed a study of Luc Soete and Peter Tindemans on the feasibility of the European Institute of Technology. On the basis of a comprehensive analysis, they concluded that the decentralized EIT that has been proposed by the Commission was not feasible. It is too dispersed; it would not increase significantly the research output in a field; it cannot match a top tier university in providing an environment for training graduates; and a dispersed institute cannot adequately organize technology transfer. As an alternative, they suggested a clustered model for an EIT. Food for thought, you would think…

In the last weekend of April, EU competitiveness ministers backed a German EU presidency initiative on gradual progress towards a European Institute of Technology. In a public hearingCommissioner Figel said that it was time for the initial EIT plans to reach a conclusion. He claimed that there is a positive momentum now: “either we get it now or it’s lost”.

Obviously I was surprised to read nothing about the Soete/Tindemans study in the report of the hearing. As far as I could see, the design and organisation of the EIT presented in the hearing was exactly the same as the one suggested by the Commission before the study was published. This is all the more surprising considering that the research was conducted for a committee of the European Parliament. Of course government bodies are not obliged to follow the recommendations of reports that they have commissioned. But you would expect that it would at least be taken into consideration, especially since the authors are well known and respected researchers in this field.

This seems to be a typical example of the political (ab)use of policy research and policy analysis. If the results and recommendations are politically opportune and correspond with the politicians objectives they are praised and heralded as ground breaking landmark studies. If not, let’s just neglect them and get on with what we planned.

You would at least hope that decision makers on research policies in Europe would take research seriously…

Meritocracy, Tolerance & Paternalism

The practice of ‘affirmative action’ for ethnic Malays remains a sensitive issue in Malaysia. The practice was established in order to raise the living standards of bumiputra Malay (vis-a-vis the Chinese and the Indian minorities) by giving them preferential treatment in a wide range of areas such as economic ownership and education. This New Economic Policy was implemented in order to avoid repetition of the 1969 riots between the prosperous Chinese minority and the ethnic Malays.

I witnessed the sensitivity of the issue when I was in Kuala Lumpur last October. A KL based think tank published a report (pdf) in which it claimed that – for the case of equity ownership – the targets set by the Malaysian government were already achieved in the 1990s and that therefore the policy was no longer needed. Within no time, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi claimed that their methodology was flawed and that the authors had acted irresponsibly by publishing the report.

I won’t go into the technical discussion about equity ownership here, or on whether the think tank or Badawi was right. However, what did strike me was the lack of real debate on the issue (in the ‘PM-friendly’ official media), or better, the way that such debates were suppressed by the Prime Minister and other high officials. After some time, the author of the report resigned and the whole thing blew over.

It does bring up the question of how Malaysia balances this paternalism with it’s strong emphasis on knowledge and creativity as the new driver of the Malaysian economy. Meritocracy is very much the new word in government, but can there be real meritocracy in a paternalistic state and in a state where a majority receives preferential treatment over minorities? Well, it has done a very good job so far. Mahathir and Badawi have succeeded in building a peaceful society and one that is far more prosperous than most other countries in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, I believe that ‘social engineering’ is not the way forward for Malaysia and that they should take meritocracy seriously. Because of the paternalistic and ethnic policies of the government, Malaysia is running the risk of losing more and more of its bright and talented.

The issue is also raised by Sadanand Dhume, a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society in Washington. He writes a provocative article on YaleGlobal Online (in which he also discusses it in the context of Islamic orthodoxy). Here are some interesting paragraphs, but read the whole article here.

After riots in Kuala Lumpur in 1969 between the prosperous Chinese minority and ethnic Malays, Malaysia instituted a program to raise the Malay share of national income. The government aggressively favored Malay businessmen with government contracts, and Malays gained a virtual monopoly on generous government scholarships for overseas study. At the same time – in order to grow the pie rather than to merely carve out a larger slice for Malays – Malaysia followed outward-looking economic policies that encouraged foreign investment and export-led growth.

The rise of China, India and Vietnam, and the demands of a shift from low-cost manufacturing to more knowledge-intensive work, raise serious doubts about the viability of the Malaysian model. The country needs freedom of inquiry to unleash the creativity of its people. It needs to foster an atmosphere of tolerance to staunch the outflow of the country’s brightest non-Malays and to attract overseas talent and investment. Neither is likely without rethinking the twinned and contentious issues of ethnic preferences and religious supremacism.

These troubles could not come at a worse time. Malaysia’s traditional strength in low-cost electronics manufacturing is being challenged by the rise of China and Vietnam. The government has invested heavily in technology infrastructure in the form of the Multimedia Supercorridor, ambitiously hailed as the Silicon Valley of the East. But amid white-hot competition for scientific talent and despite relaxing some of the usual race laws, Malaysia finds it hard to attract and retain Indian and Chinese engineers. Meanwhile, many of the country’s brightest students – especially non-Malays – migrate to Australia, the US and Singapore, where everyone enjoys freedom of conscience and equality before the law.

World Class Universities

Robert Birnbaum, professor of higher education at the University of Maryland and author of some very interesting books on higher education (How Colleges Work; Management Fads in Higher Education) has written an interesting (and amusing) article in International Higher Education (the Quarterly of the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) in Boston College).

Birnbaum is worried about the World Class University ranking crisis. Universities around the world are either proclaiming that they have attained or try to achieve this mythical status. But actually, we have no clue what it means. Philip Altbach, leader of CIHE, has written before on the cost and benefits of the race towards world class:

Everyone wants a world-class university. No country feels it can do without one. The problem is that no one knows what a world-class university is, and no one has figured out how to get one. Everyone, however, refers to the concept. We are in an age of academic hype in which universities of different kinds in diverse countries claim this exalted status-often with little justification.

Birnbaum gives some suggestion on some alternative ways to identify world class universities:

  1. The Bentham System – this scheme, based on the 19th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s principle of Utilitarianism, proposes that the best universities are those that bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number.
  2. Olympic System – In the Olympic System, teams of university faculty would compete every four years in head to head competitions combining athletic and intellectual prowess to determine their world rankings
  3. Borges System – our scholarly task is merely to identify the book of true ratings from among the infinite number of books that contain very similar, but false, ratings which also exist
  4. Sausage System – Throw U.S. News, the Gourman Report, the Times Hiigher Education Supplement, and other rankings created by systems of all kinds into the same bowl, add and average out the results and voila! Just as we do not know how a sausage is made (or, more to the point, we don’t want to know) the Sausage System makes it difficult to understand just what has gone into any particular set of ratings.
  5. Lake Wobegon System – in Lake Wobegon, you will remember, all the children are above average. This suggests the possibility of significantly expanding the number of institutions that can be ranked as world class merely by increasing the number of institutions in each category.

But he continues on a more serious note. Building on a metaphor by Daniel Dennett, he argues that such World Class Universities can only be built if they are firmly grounded in strong and indigenous educational and social foundations Trying to develop them by using imported rhetoric, imported models and large sums of money is destined to fail:

“Attempting to build World-Class Universities without attending first to the educational and social ground on which such institutions might stand is, as Ivan Illich once said, is “like trying to do urban renewal in New York City from the twelfth story up.” Rather than more World Class Universities, what we really need in countries everywhere are more world-class technical institutes, world-class community colleges, world class colleges of agriculture, world class teachers colleges, and world class regional state universities.”

A similar conclusion was drawn by Altbach. He concluded that as universities around the world seem to be orienting themselves to this single academic ideal, institutions and nations need to assess carefully their needs, resources, and long-term interests before launching into a campaign to build world-class institutions:

“Universities operate in both national and global contexts. The world-class idea falls into the global sphere. It assumes that the university is competing with the best academic institutions in the world and is aspiring to the pinnacle of excellence and recognition. National and even regional realities may differ. They relate to the need of the immediate society and economy and imply responsiveness to local communities. In these contexts, the nature of academic performance and roles may differ from what is expected at institutions competing in the global realm. To label one sphere world class while relegating the others to the nether regions of the academic hierarchy is perhaps inevitable, but nonetheless unfortunate.”

I wholeheartedly agree with both conclusions. Universities are one of the oldest institutions and are clearly embedded in a nations’ cultural, political and social context. This is not just the case for the Oxbridge-like universities, but also for the more recently established universities. However, this should not be a reason to avoid learning from each others experiences or models. Even copying models from other parts of the world does not necessarily lead to failure. It’s just a matter of adaptation. And it is this process of local adaptation that is made difficult by the pressures on universities to adhere to so-called global world class standards.