Malaysia: Future hub of international education?

Malaysia will play host to an international education conference next month as part of its goal of becoming a regional hub for international higher education by 2010, with 100,000 students studying at its higher education institutions.

The concept of Malaysia becoming a regional education hub was first put forward at a Globalising Higher Education in Malaysia conference in 2006. The idea had its genesis in the 'Ninth Malaysia Plan', an economic blueprint designed to boost and help grow Malaysia's economic future.

The plan covers five main areas, one of which is "to raise the capacity for knowledge and innovation and to nurture a first class mentality".

Next month's conference is in line with the nation's regional hub goal and has been organised jointly by the Organisation for Borderless Higher education and the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.

The conference will cover areas such as globalisation for universities during challenging economic times, quality assurance and regulatory frameworks, financial and contractual models, and sustainability and scalability models. It will include presentations by academics from the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Europe.

Although Malaysia's regional hub goals are lofty, the reality may make achieving them extremely difficult. The country's higher education system has some formidable hurdles to jump before it can even consider making serious inroads into becoming a hub of any real note.

The biggest of these hurdles are the current state of the education system and Malaysia's geographical location. It is no secret the education system still is, and has been for some time, in a state of disarray.

Discrimination against certain groups of students has meant that universities were not necessarily recruiting the best and brightest who were often forced to travel overseas.

According to Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abd Razak, Vice-Chancellor of Universiti Sains Malaysia, the education system is fragmented and is increasingly becoming "polarised and parochial".

Along with the internal disarray are questions as to the quality assurance of courses currently offered at the higher education institutions. The Malaysian Qualifications Authority or MQA works within the boundaries of the Malaysian Qualifications Framework - a government body overseeing the quality of higher education.

An ASEAN Quality Assurance Network, launched in Malaysia in 2008, and co-organised by the MQA, is being used as a means of promoting and sharing information on quality assurance in the region. Critics, however, question how much of the frameworks are merely on paper and how much is really put in to practice.

Another significant issue is the fact that Malaysia is right next door to Singapore and therefore will be competing with Singapore's 'Global Schoolhouse' concept. That programme was launched in 2002 and includes institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, INSEAD, Chicago-Booth Graduate School of Business, and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

The aim of the Global Schoolhouse is to attract 150,000 foreign students by 2015. While the initiative has not been without its own problems, including the spectacular failure of the University of New South Wales which was expected to attract a significant number of students, it does have other advantages over Malaysia.

Whether or not the Malaysian government would agree, Singapore is currently a bigger draw card for foreign students than Malaysia, particularly among Indian, Chinese and Malaysian students.

Economically and technologically Singapore is significantly ahead of Malaysia. Advantages in resources and overall infrastructure mean that, at least for the near future, Singapore will remain much more attractive to foreign institutions and students.

There is, though, one significant area where Malaysia could become a hub of international education: Islamic education. In this "post-American world", a term coined by Dr Fareed Zakaria and meaning the rise of others, Islamic education and particularly in the area of finance is a US$1.2 trillion industry and is becoming much more important.

The Cardiff University Business School recently announced that it was poised to become the UK hub for Islamic finance education. This was after the school had agreed to a collaboration between it and the Islamic banking and Finance Institute in Malaysia (IBFIM) and the Islamic Banking and Finance Centre (IBFC UK).

Malaysia is in an ideal situation geographically and philosophically to become a hub for Islamic education. With its close proximity to Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim population, there is a ready-made market on its doorstep.

It is also an attractive study destination for students from the Middle East, as well as some African countries, not only because of its location but also the cost of studying which is much more manageable for many students than similar courses in western countries. Philosophically practising a moderate brand of Islam, Malaysia is a comfortable place to study. Whether this situation continues, given the rise, albeit a small one, of nationalism over the last few years remains to be seen.

On the positive side, in January 2008 the Kuala Lumpur Education City and the University of London's Royal Holloway College signed a Memorandum of Understanding to promote Malaysia as an international education hub, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.

The terms of the agreement mean the first campus of Royal Holloway, which will be situated within the grounds of the city and located near Kuala Lumpur International Airport, should be fully operational by 2011.

But if Malaysia is to become an international education hub it needs to work hard and with a clear focus. Getting its own education house in order will be the first step. Understanding why it wants to become a hub and having specific goals of how to achieve this is second.

Finally, establishing a good quality assurance framework which will truly bring it in line with the international higher education institutions it wishes to compete with is absolutely essential.