Malaysia continues to build its position as a regional education hub

Against a backdrop of increasing education cooperation and mobility among ASEAN countries, Malaysia’s efforts to position itself as a key regional education hub have received a boost with indicators of international enrolment growth in recent years along with increased government investment in the sector.

The Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) reports that there were more than 103,000 international students enrolled in Malaysia in 2013, up from 27,872 in 2002 and 80,750 in 2009.

The country has an ambitious goal – a part of its Vision 2020 programme – to reach an international enrolment of 200,000 by 2020, and is now targeting further growth within Southeast Asia, as well as from China, India, and the Gulf Region.

To accelerate its progress towards these goals, Malaysia has set up Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) – a private agency under the authority of the Ministry – in order to brand and market the country as an international education destination.

EMGS CEO Mohamed Yazid Adbul Hamid, notes in an interview with University World News that the Malaysian government felt the time was ripe to create a specialist agency promoting the education sector as a whole, similar to existing national agencies promoting tourism and biotechnology.

“Private education in Malaysia has been developing on its own, but development has reached a maturity where now education can become a significant contributor to economic development by exporting education services abroad and also by providing education and training programmes within Malaysia,” said Mr Yazid.

Rise of the glocal student

Attracting and retaining international students is part of a broader regional trend reflecting increased student mobility in Southeast Asia. ICEF Monitor has previously reported on how many Southeast Asian students are choosing to stay closer to home, drawn in part by sophisticated education hubs, affordability factors, and the desire to stay closer to local networks.

In the case of Malaysia, the presence of a large number of international branch campuses has further stimulated growth in the so-called “glocal” movement which sees increasing numbers of domestic students choosing to stay at home in order to study at a Malaysian branch campus of an international university, reaping the benefits of both a “global” and “local” education.

In Malaysia, where internationalisation is a key thrust of the government’s development strategy, two highly-touted education developments are expected to help the country enhance its profile as a top-tier education destination.

EduCity Iskandar brings together eight international universities on a 350-acre campus. The campus is open now and will graduate its first cohort of students this year. Another high-profile project, Kuala Lumpur Education City (KLEC), is currently under construction and will be developed over the next 15-20 years.

Enrolment growth merely one plank in an integrated strategy

International enrolment growth is only one part of Malaysia’s strategy to position itself within the region. Malaysia has long been an important source of international students, and more than 100,000 Malaysian students were enrolled abroad before the financial crisis of the late 1990s.

In the years since, the government has expanded its investment in education in order to serve greater numbers of students at home – the number of outbound students had dropped to an estimated 80,000 by 2013 – but also to develop the research and development capacity of Malaysia’s universities, and, by extension, the country’s competitiveness and profile abroad.

Malaysia currently spends 1% of its GDP on research and development. It has designated five institutions as top-tier research universities eligible for additional funding and has seen a ten-fold increase in PhD students, from 4,000 in 2002 to 40,000 by 2012. Anecdotal reports suggest that growing numbers of international doctoral students are helping to fuel growth in this area.

Government eyes rise in global rankings

The Malaysian government also has ambitious plans to place at least one Malaysian university among the world’s top 50 and a minimum of three in the top 200 by 2020. Currently, the highest-ranked Malaysian university in the QS World University Rankings, the benchmark preferred by the Malaysian government, is Universiti Malaya (UM), currently ranked 167th. Three additional institutions are rated in the top 400.

More promising are the results posted by Malaysian universities in the QS World University Rankings by Subject. Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) ranked 28th for environmental sciences, while also joining the top 100 for computer science and information systems, chemical engineering, civil engineering, and mechanical engineering. Universiti Malaya reached the top 100 in six categories, including computer science and information systems, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.

According to Ben Sowter, QS head of research, this year’s results show that Malaysian universities are operating at an increasingly high level within a range of academic disciplines.

“Overall, the performance of Malaysian institutions has improved compared to last year. Through taking a more targeted approach to ranking universities, we have been able to pick up on the particular strengths of Malaysian institutions much more effectively than is possible in overall institutional rankings.”

Education as a catalyst for development

In order to boost its performance in the rankings, and to assist Malaysia with its plans to “expand up”, the government has set key performance indicators for universities in a number of areas. According to a recent University World News article, the government expects university faculty to increase their record of publications in prominent academic and research journals. As well, among certain select universities, PhD students must publish their research in journals in order to graduate.

This pace of activity underlines Malaysia’s commitment to leveraging investments in education in order to achieve “developed nation” status by 2020. The government understands that rapid economic growth throughout the region means the country and its institutions must stay ahead of the curve in order to expand its prominence and desirability. With increasing pressure from other regional hubs (notably Singapore), Malaysia’s strategic investments must pay dividends.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak understands education is a powerful tool and believes it will help the country overcome income inequality and achieve its goal of being a high-income nation by 2020. Speaking to a ceremony at Unitar International University in Kelana earlier this year, the Prime Minister said:

“The odds of people succeeding in their socioeconomic upward mobility are significantly improved by raising access to education. Only with equity can we narrow the gap of income inequality and achieve a resilient national unity.”

Challenges and rewards

A recent report by the World Bank flags a few potential challenges for countries in East Asia grappling with education reform. Among these are the perceived disconnect between education programmes and the skills demanded by employers, the historic gulf between teaching and research universities, and the gap between higher education institutions in the region themselves. Unsurprisingly, these are some of the key issues addressed by Malaysia’s reform plan.

The potential rewards, however, are undeniable. ASEAN’s plans for intra-regional student mobility and harmonisation mean more students will be willing to move within the region in order to complete their studies. Thanks to early reforms and strategic investment, Malaysia is ever more well positioned to expand its role as an important education destination for students from Southeast Asia and beyond.



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