Expanding graduate education in Malaysia and Thailand

Across Asia, higher education enrolment has experienced explosive growth over the last few decades, from 20 million students in 1980 to 84 million in 2011. To serve this growing enrolment, graduate programmes needed to expand, both to supply more instructors and to upgrade existing instructors’ qualifications in cases where unqualified lecturers were hired to teach in response to increasing numbers of undergraduates.

The expansion of graduate education has translated into positive outcomes. In the Philippines in 2002, for instance, only about 8% of faculty members in higher education institutions had doctoral degrees, with another 26% holding a masters degree. In 2012, the proportions had increased to 13% and 41% respectively.

From the government perspective, expanding graduate education has an attractive secondary benefit. Many governments see universities as centres of research that will yield positive economic returns to the country.

University research is typically done at the graduate level. Therefore, expanding graduate education is viewed as a means of increasing the economic competitiveness of the country.

The report Higher Education in Asia: Expanding out, expanding up, recently published by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, examines the dynamics associated with the expansion of graduate education, with a particular focus on middle-income countries in Southeast Asia.

Included in the report is a case study of Malaysia and Thailand, conducted to elaborate on the reasons why governments and universities have been expanding graduate programmes and the impacts of that expansion.

The case study is based on interviews with senior administrators and faculty members in selected public research universities, officers in the Ministry of Education, and international organisations in the region.

Expected outcomes

In Malaysia and Thailand, the governments believe that investing in graduate education contributes to national economic development.

The views of Malaysian interviewees are that a substantial investment in education will build an educated workforce. The evidence of an educated workforce will attract international investment, which will boost national economic development.

For this investment in graduate education to yield the expected outcomes, top universities not only need to be good but must be recognised as being effective internationally. Many interviewees viewed global university rankings as a way to earn international attention and respect.

Designated research universities

Recent policies designating top-tier universities as research universities and increasing funding for university research activities exemplify the value governments are placing on expanding graduate education.

In Malaysia, graduate enrolment has increased by 400% over the last decade, and this increase reflects the government’s high priority in offering graduate education. The government aims to enhance indigenous research capability and reduce reliance on industrial research conducted by foreign companies.

To support this priority, the government has been generous in providing inputs into graduate education. In 2008 and 2009, the government selected five research universities to receive a 70% increase in public funding, compared with the amount in the previous year.

Similarly, graduate enrolment in Thailand has grown by 300% since a decade ago. One reason is the government’s belief that Thailand’s competitiveness in research is a significant indicator of the production and quality of human resources of the country.

To this end, in 2009 the Ministry of Education initiated the National Research Universities Project with an additional 12 billion baht (US$370 million). Currently there are nine universities selected to participate in the project. These research universities are expected to achieve higher world university rankings.

University rankings

Both government officers and university personnel are concerned about the placement of their universities in international rankings.

This thinking can be summed up with an analogy expressed by a Malaysian interviewee: the performance of a nation’s football team in an international competition tends to be the basis on which observers judge the football prowess of the entire country.

If the national team does well, the presumption is that there is wider football strength in the country. Fair or not, the image of the whole country is usually based on the perception of a few.

It is the same in higher education. International observers judge a higher education system on the basis of its leading institutions.

In Thailand, university personnel took a somewhat more benign view. They also sought high international rankings for their universities. However, the cost of raising their rankings could get in the way of other objectives that they valued. Rankings are important, but the relevance of universities to Thai society is also important.

Publication, graduate students

Since the publication rate is a key ingredient across most international university ranking systems, pushing faculty members to publish in top-tier international journals was viewed as an important strategy for high rankings.

In Malaysia’s research universities, the pressure to publish in top-tier international journals is intense. Universities have sought to raise publication rates by modifying accountability and incentive systems.

The government, working through the universities, has introduced a system of key performance indicators, aimed at specifying the level of productivity – number of publications, amount of teaching, grants and public services – expected of each faculty member.

Research universities in Thailand also emphasise publications in top-tier international journals, but with more nuance. Some faculty members are concerned that if they publish in top-tier journals in the English language, the results will be largely inaccessible to wider Thai society, most of whom do not understand English.

There was a strong view that it was important for universities to give back to Thai society. Moreover, a frequent observation was that some faculty members may be less comfortable writing in the English language at the level required for top-tier international journals.

Graduate students are viewed as important contributors to publications, both because they assist in conducting faculty members’ research and because they publish as part of their graduate programme requirements.

In Malaysia and Thailand, PhD students in selective universities are required to publish their research in journals as a condition of graduation. Perceiving graduate students as valuable in helping move their institutions up university rankings, research universities involved in this study are in the process of reducing undergraduate enrolment while increasing graduate enrolment, with a target ratio of 1:1 for undergraduates to graduates.

Performance pressure

In summary, in both Malaysia and Thailand, the initial rationale for expanding graduate education was to provide qualified instructional staff to serve expanding undergraduate enrolment.

In both countries, this rationale was eclipsed, to a large extent, by the view that graduate education would help fuel national economic development.

The focus on economic development triggered an intensified emphasis on universities being placed high in international rankings, which led to pressure for more research. This pressure led some faculty members to focus more of their time and energy on research, sometimes at the expense of teaching.

In short, ‘expanding up’ has changed organisational dynamics and the nature of faculty work in important ways.

* Chiao-Ling Chien is a researcher at the UNESCO Institute for Statistics in Montreal, Canada. E-mail: David W Chapman is Birkmaier professor of educational leadership at the University of Minnesota, USA. E-mail: The full report is available in the UNESCO Institute for Statistics Document Library: This article was first published in International Higher Education, Number 76: Summer 2014.