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Malaysia pushes forward with ambitious education reforms

The state of Malaysia’s education system is no small issue for those interested in the flows of international students around the world.

With estimates that 42% of global enrolments (or 212.9 million enrolments) will be from the East Asia and Pacific region by 2035, Malaysia’s educational capacity and the quality of its educational system is an important aspect of the regional and global markets.

Malaysians know this, and it is one of the reasons the controversial Barisan Nasional (BN) government (just re-elected in a hotly contested election) has made educational reform such a focus in the last year.

The stakes are high: Malaysia was ranked 55 out of 77 countries in the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report. Not one Malaysian public university placed in the top 400 of the 2012–2013 Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings. And yet, the country is busily solidifying its image as an education hub, thanks in large part to its successful efforts to attract international universities: the Iskander Education Hub is one example of such an effort.

An aggressive initiative to lure foreign universities and students does not jibe well with a poorly performing public education system. Nor does a weak public education system elevate an economy to the level it needs to be to compete with the growing number of countries prioritising the “knowledge” basis of their economies. So in autumn of last year, Malaysia announced an ambitious new “Blueprint” designed, among other things, to elevate Malaysian students “from the bottom one-third to the top one-third of the [PISA] ranking within the next 13 years.”

A blueprint for action

The Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013–2025 has been called…

“the biggest shake-up ever of our education system … a 13-year roadmap [which] will reshape how our policymakers, education officials, teachers and parents deal with educating and teaching millions of our schoolchildren and preparing them and the nation for the future.”

The stated targets of the Blueprint are:

  • Universal enrolment from pre-school to upper secondary education in 10 years;
  • Halving the achievement gaps between the rich and the poor, urban and rural, and between the states that form Malaysia in eight years;
  • Rising from the bottom-third to the top-third of countries in international assessments like PISA and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in 15 years;
  • Building an education system that gives children an appreciation of their unique identity as Malaysians.

Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said the plan prioritises:

  • Upholding the teaching profession;
  • Enhancing the leadership of schools;
  • Enhancing the quality of schools;
  • Strengthening the curriculum and assessment standards;
  • Enhancing proficiency in various languages;
  • Getting the involvement of parents;
  • Partnering with the private and social sectors;
  • Making students better prepared for higher education and the job market;
  • Improving the competency and effectiveness of our resources;
  • Building up the potential and ability of the delivery system.

In addition, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is calling on students to pick up three languages (it has been said that too many students are focusing on Bahasa Malaysia to the detriment of their English language skills). The prime minister said at the Blueprint’s launch in Kuala Lumpur:

“We need that competitive edge. We can leverage on our multiracial component. Why lose that advantage? We should be pragmatic.”

Education Minister Yassin explained that there are three “waves” to the Blueprint’s action plan:

  • Wave 1: Blueprint implementation – more support for teachers and a focus on core student skills.
  • Wave 2: Building upon progress.
  • Wave 3: To occur between 2020 and 2025, schools will take over their own administration.

Officials say they are on track already

A ceremony was recently held to celebrate the First 100 Days of the 2013-2025 Blueprint, and at the event, government officials declared that six of the plan’s initiatives have been carried out.

Chief among them were the development of a parents’ toolkit to foster education at home as well as at school – 10,000 have been given to schools nationwide – and measures and testing to improve the English language proficiency of teachers.

So far 61,000 English educators have taken a Cambridge placement test in preparation for a must-pass test to be introduced in 2016.

Meanwhile, the drive for international students and universities continues

As we reported last summer, Malaysia wants to become the world’s sixth-biggest education exporting country by 2020 with a target of 200,000 international students.

The country is supporting the development – mostly privately funded – of two education “cities”:

  • Kuala Lumpur Education City (KLEC), launched in 2007, is still in development and aims to house both international and local universities, as well as primary and secondary schools in a 500-acre KLEC Academic Park. The hub will offer education from University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School, Epsom College, and Universiti Sains Malaysia (and potentially other schools) to those in the region with an expected student population of nearly 30,000.
  • EduCity at Iskandar is a similar idea: a 350-acre campus on which several universities will be housed as well as elaborate sports and leisure facilities including a 14,000-seater stadium and an Olympic-length swimming pool. The idea is to create a “student village” of about 16,000 students on the campus, where students from each university share access to the amazing recreational and sports facilities. Mohd Hisham Kamaruzaman, acting chief operating officer of Education@Iskandar Sdn Bhd (owned by Iskandar Investment Berhad, which is developing EduCity), told University World News that “the student village and sports complex will be ready by August, in time for the next academic year.” Several universities are already open in EduCity, with more about to start.

Cohesion between public and private educational investments

As Malaysia continues to develop its education hubs, it is reassuring to note that it seems newly dedicated to improving the public infrastructure of its domestic education system.

If Malaysia is able to carry through meaningfully on its new Education Blueprint 2013–2025, this – at least as much as its two education hubs – will set it on the right path to becoming a notable knowledge economy in the region.

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