Doctoral and international student numbers soar

‘Vision 2020’ set by the government targets Malaysia to be a high-income nation by 2020. As highlighted in the 10th Malaysia Plan 2011-15, one of the means of achieving this goal is through the development of quality human capital.

In recent years Malaysia has been focusing heavily on developing the research quality and quantity of its major universities, and the country spends 1% of GDP on research and development, as stipulated in the 10th Malaysia Plan.

Five of the country’s 65 universities and university colleges have thus been granted ‘research university’ status and receive additional government funding. In turn, these universities have pledged to raise their output of research papers in journals indexed by the Institute for Scientific Information, or ISI.

This increase is achieved in part by pushing a change in PhD programmes, from the conventional dissertation to a requirement for ISI paper publications, and by increasing the number of PhD students.

According to statistics from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, or UTM, which is one of the five research universities, the number of PhD students in Malaysia has increased from about 4,000 in 2002 to almost 40,000 in 2012. About half of these students are attached to the research universities.

UTM itself has seen an increase from 300 to 4,500 PhD students in the same period and now has more postgraduate students than undergraduates – a trend that is expected to continue to 70% postgraduates by 2020, of which a third will be PhD students.

Not only has the number of PhD students increased, but UTM statistics also show that the proportion of international PhD students increased from 25% in 2002 to almost 50% in 2012. That same year international students as a proportion of the total number of students was 20%.

The statistics show that PhD students from 40 foreign countries are currently enrolled at UTM, with Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria and Iraq being the largest contributors.

Background to international growth

In an interview with the Danish newspaper Information, published in a special edition titled “Videnskapløb” last month, UTM Vice-chancellor Zaini Ujang explained the background to the rapid increase in the number of international students – and of foreign PhD candidates – in Malaysia.

Before the financial crisis in South East Asia in 1997-98, more than 100,000 Malaysian students were studying abroad, mainly in the United Kingdom and the United States and widely funded by the Malaysian government.

Malaysia had only 11 universities and a negligible number of postgraduate students.

When the value of South East Asian currencies plummeted during the crisis, it became too expensive to send students abroad and the Malaysian government chose to compensate by funding the development of the domestic higher education system, which today comprises 21 public and 44 private universities and university colleges, including a number of international university branches.

Zaini Ujang explained that the large number of foreign students from fellow Muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa was due to less significant cultural differences and lower fees compared to universities in Europe and the US.

Their presence in Malaysia during studies, and the resulting local contacts they make, give Malaysia a competitive export advantage once the students go back to their home country and enter decision-making jobs.

Today, according to the Institute of International Education in America, about 80,000 Malaysians study abroad, mainly in Australia and the UK. In comparison, almost 100,000 international students are currently enrolled at Malaysian universities according to UTM statistics, with a government aim of increasing this number to 200,000 by 2020.

The Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education mentioned in a 2012 report International Student Recruitment: Policies and developments in selected countries that the Malaysian and Chinese governments had “signed an agreement on mutual degree recognition” and that credit transfer for Australian students was in the pipeline, while the Royal Commonwealth Society Malaysia had launched a scholarship programme for students from Commonwealth countries.

A boost in the number of students from these countries can thus be expected at Malaysian universities.


UTM is very active in establishing collaborations with foreign universities for the purpose of research and student exchange programmes.

Close student exchange collaborations have been established with universities mainly in the UK, but also with Scandinavian universities such as the Technical University of Denmark and Lund University in Sweden.

It is not only foreign-student numbers that are increasing at UTM. Nearly 10% of the academic staff are foreigners. Many were enrolled either full-time with the university or as part of an exchange programme during their postgraduate studies, and stayed on as academic staff.

I am one example of UTM securing foreign staff through international collaborations. After having worked in a private company in Malaysia for six years, I did my PhD with the Technical University of Denmark while spending half of the project as a non-graduating student with UTM to conduct fieldwork on sustainable production of palm oil in Malaysia.

Upon my completion of the PhD, UTM and I decided to continue the collaboration through establishing a research centre focusing on furthering sustainability research on palm oil production. The aim of the UTM Palm Oil Research Center is, in line with university targets, to achieve wide international collaboration and produce ISI publications through involvement of local and international masters and PhD students.

Research quality

In his interview with Information, Zaini Ujang acknowledged that whereas UTM was among the top universities in the world in quantitative terms of the number and ratio of PhD students, the quality of research at UTM – and Malaysian universities in general – is still not on a par with the top universities in many other parts of the world.

But progress is clearly visible. According to UTM statistics, the university’s ISI publications, accumulated impact factors and total citations have increased by several hundred percent in the past five years.

I agree with Zaini Ujang that there is still some way to go. The education system in Malaysia is very exam oriented and based largely on one-way communication in primary and secondary school.

Even at university level, problem-based learning and analytical skill development only started in recent years. This often limits students’ ability to approach unfamiliar problems, resulting in narrow angles and very theoretical approaches to the research.

However, I see significant changes for the better since coming to Malaysia for the first time in 2002 for a semester as a masters student. The initiatives taken and the way forward in higher education in Malaysia, and particularly in UTM, are described in details in Zaini Ujang’s recent book New Academia, published in 2013.

Overall, the masters and PhD students whom I have encountered, since becoming director of the UTM Palm Oil Research Center, are showing more independence, angles and depth in their research. And with the current initiatives taken by higher education institutions in Malaysia, the only way is up.

* Sune Balle Hansen is director of the UTM Palm Oil Research Center at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.