Ambitious education targets, including dramatic increases in Malaysia’s higher education participation rate and the number of foreign students, could be hard to reach without improving the quality of local universities to attract more students.
Private higher education institutions and foreign branch campuses in the country will play a crucial role in achieving this, Malaysian officials have said.
Malaysia’s Deputy Higher Education Minister Mary Yap said the plan was to increase the current higher education participation rate from 48% at present to 75% by 2025.
“If everything goes as planned, this will bring Malaysia on par with the highest enrolment levels in ASEAN today,” she said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations which comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
“The increase will open up an additional 1.1 million [higher education] places a year to 2020,” said Yap, speaking at a conference in Kuala Lumpur organised by the Global Access to Post-Secondary Education, or GAPS, initiative on 8 October.
At the same time the number of foreign students will be increased. Currently Malaysia has some 106,350 international students, according to the education ministry’s latest figures for June 2015. The aim is to have around 200,000 by 2020.
“We rank number nine or ten in the world for having the ability to attract international students into the country,” said Asma Binti Ismail, director general in the Ministry of Education.
The targets have been set in Malaysia’s ambitious higher education Blueprint 2015-2025. Malaysia’s dynamic Higher Education Minister Idris Jusoh has embarked on a nationwide roadshow to promote the blueprint, which the government believes will transform the sector, including propelling at least two public universities to world-class status by 2025.
The 200,000 figure represents a doubling in the number of foreign students since 2007, with foreign students bringing in considerable income at a time when Malaysia is seeing an economic slowdown and a large budget deficit.
“This is where we hope the private universities and foreign [branch campuses] are going to play a role. We hope private universities can increase their quality so that international students will want to come to them,” said Saleh Jaafar, advisor on the Higher Education Blueprint in the Ministry of Education.
Foreign students in Malaysia are mainly enrolled in undergraduate programmes in private universities and foreign branch campuses, because foreign enrolment in public universities is capped at 5% of students at undergraduate level.
Foreign postgraduates are mainly enrolled in the country’s five public universities.
However, Lee Chew Ging, professor of economics at Nottingham University Business School Malaysia, said the proposed 200,000 international students was a large number to be absorbed by public and private universities in Malaysia. And it was also an ambitious project to increase the overall gross enrolment ratio to 70% or higher.
There are “conflicting signals” from government, Lee told University World News. Policy-makers are looking to increase undergraduate enrolment, but the prime minister wants to reduce undergraduates in favour of increased postgraduate enrolment to aim for world-class status for some of its public research universities.
“They are pulling in two directions against each other. On the one hand they want to increase the number of students but one way to rise in [global university] rankings is to reduce undergraduate and increase postgraduate and research,” Lee said.
Ismail acknowledged that there were some questions being asked on how 70% gross enrolment would be achieved while the country is facing an economic crisis – last week the government unveiled a significant cut in the higher education budget for 2016, down 15% on the 2015 budget.
But she revealed that this would come via an increase in places in technical and vocational education, as well as in online learning courses, also known as massive open online courses, or MOOCs.
Nonetheless, private institutions and branch campus universities look set to overtake public universities in overall student enrolment in the near future. “I do believe the private [institutions] will have more students in the near future,” said Ismail.
Of 1.2 million students enrolled in universities in Malaysia, some 618,000 are in public universities while 510,000 are in private universities, including the nine foreign branch campuses set up in the country.
Even the international student targets have been questioned. Christine Ennew, Provost of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, said international student numbers had been affected by bottlenecks at the private agency set up to process student visas.
“A massive number of cases were stuck in immigration,” she said, adding this had affected the enrolment of several hundred prospective students at her own institution alone in the past two years.
New announcements likely
Saleh told University World News that the visa system was being streamlined to link up with Interpol and other international agencies for a more reliable system to ensure students are bona fide.
Meanwhile a number of important policies were on the cards to attract foreign students, such as post-study work visas, “so that international students can apply for work immediately after they finish their studies. Under current circumstances they are not even allowed to stay,” Saleh said.
An announcement on this, which Saleh said was imminent, was being prepared in collaboration with other ministries.
Internships for foreign vocational students was another proposal being seriously considered by government.
“Malaysia is moving towards service industries. And we have officially identified certain areas that we are going to need more vocational and technical people in, which may not be able to be filled by Malaysians now,” Saleh said. He also referred to Malaysia International Scholarships for outstanding international students as a way of attracting more students from overseas.
Improving the country’s research capability is also behind the aim to increase the number of foreign students, which would include, for example, Malaysian talent returning from prestigious universities abroad, providing a better research environment at home.
“There is a change in the scenario and we are beginning to see a large number of Malaysians coming back,” Ismail said.
Improving the country’s research base will also mean combining the research capacities of both public and private universities, including benefiting from the high quality research traditions of several international branch campuses, and attracting back talent from overseas.
Combining public and private higher education to reach the ambitious goals will be crucial, said Saleh. The blueprint “is not just for public higher education but for all higher education”, he said. “We are aiming to narrow the gap between the way public and private universities are regarded by the government. We are not going to differentiate between public and private in terms of the types of outcomes of graduates we would like them to produce.
“Currently we treat all private universities the same. Some of them are just a business whether [or not] they are making sure of the quality of education, but many private institutions can also be better than the public universities,” Saleh said, adding that there will be a stricter rating system for both public and private universities with public universities also subject to sanctions if they do not measure up.
Meanwhile private universities will have similar opportunities for research funding to public universities. It did not necessarily mean a completely level playing field for foreign branch campuses, but if their researchers include Malaysians and the research shows clear benefit for Malaysia, they would be eligible for research grants.
Harmonise public and private
“Before, there was a separation between private and public, now there is a need for us to harmonise between the public and private institutions in the country,” Ismail said. “Now you can move from the public to the private as a lecturer – not a problem. From the private, to go to the public, we will facilitate [it]. Lecturers already at public universities will be allowed to leave for a maximum of five years before having to decide whether to stay in a public university or switch to a private university or to industry,” said Ismail.
While acknowledging the more flexible treatment by the Malaysian government, the situation of private providers including branch campuses was still somewhat "ambiguous", said Nottingham’s Ennew.
She said the worry was that private universities “would be getting the worst of the public sector without any of the money”.
Elizabeth Lee of Sunway University, a private university in Kuala Lumpur set up by a philanthropic foundation, said the problem was that, while the government wanted more convergence between public and private institutions, “how can we work with a government that is both regulator and competitor?”
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