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!

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