Can private education contribute to nation building?

Most governments face challenges related to diverse populations. Different groups might call the same country home, but they are separated socially by factors like religion, language or lifestyle.

In Malaysia the situation is particularly complex. Malaysia is home to large, wealthy minority groups who have prospered in the growing economy but have limited political power. Not surprisingly, the young adults in these groups want, and can afford, a university degree. Public institutions, however, have traditionally held fewer spaces for these students.

In order to expand access to university for these groups, Malaysia’s government and institutional leaders have embraced internationalisation full-tilt, establishing hubs to attract numerous foreign providers and programmes.

Internationalisation has been transformational for the country’s higher education sector, but it also raises numerous questions about equity, sustainability and the changing relationship between higher education, the state and its citizens.

Ethnic diversity in Malaysia

Few countries can boast that their ethnic minority groups are more prosperous or prolific than their ruling majority. But such is the case in Malaysia.

The peninsula has seen more than 400 years of rich trading attracting groups from India, China and even the Middle East. These coexisted alongside the Malay leaders and, at independence in 1957, all resident groups were granted citizenship. Since then, many citizens of Chinese and Indian descent have succeeded in the business sector at a greater rate than their Malay counterparts.

In an attempt to rectify this situation, affirmative action policies have been implemented to increase Malay enrolment in public universities. Not surprisingly, the wealthy Chinese and Indian business communities have looked elsewhere for higher education.

In the 1980s and 1990s this often meant leaving Malaysia to study at Australian or British universities. But with the economic collapse of the late 1990s, and the decreased value of the Ringgit, these groups remained in the country and demanded a university degree.

Sector transformation

In order to address the supply gap in higher education, the Malaysian government has transformed the sector through two related policies: increasing private providers and internationalisation.

The Private Higher Educational Institutions Act of 1996 allowed private providers to operate in the country. Currently more than 500 hundred private providers offer programmes of different shapes and sizes.

Perhaps most intriguing has been where private provision meets internationalisation. When the government opened its doors to private providers, several business leaders took notice and developed partnerships with overseas universities to establish twinning programmes and branch campuses.

These partnerships benefit students, allowing them to attain a degree with global recognition, and the corporations benefit by recruiting top graduates directly after graduation.

Diversity and hierarchy

Malaysia’s post-secondary sector is now a fascinating landscape of different providers. There is no set uniformity to institutions. They can be large or small, local or global.

Interestingly, this mix of institutions has developed a sort of informal hierarchy, with the international branch campuses from Australia or the United Kingdom at the top. Students consider these institutions as prestigious places to earn a degree.

It is interesting to note, however, that different divisions seem to exist, sorting the students who attend particular institutions. A large number of students from the wealthy, ethnic minority groups attend the prestigious Western branch campuses.

These students have little hope of attending a public institution and their degree from the international branch campus only reinforces their connection to the business sector, positioning them well in Malaysia’s prosperous economy.

Internationalisation and the nation state

Malaysia’s example of innovative internationalisation, these business partnerships that bring foreign providers to the country, has been essential for transforming the higher education sector. Yet it certainly presents a new picture of how higher education has an impact on a nation and its diverse groups.

In much of Europe, universities have historically had close ties to the state and higher education has been important for developing citizens and collective identity. Yet Malaysia’s international branch campuses operate apart from the state, providing manpower solely for the business sector.

In some ways they offer a similar service to polytechnics: educating the labour force with relevant skills apart from the knowledge production of the research university. But the students who attend them are different. As wealthy minority groups head to international branch campuses, it is fascinating to consider the incredible wealth and expertise in the private sector, aimed only at pursuing business careers, with little connection to nation-building.

As governments look to foreign, private providers to educate their population, the position of ethnic minority groups is an important consideration. Is it possible for private universities to contribute to a unified nation, bringing together those from different backgrounds? Or will institutions always emerge to match the privilege and positioning of wealthy groups?

Grace Karram Stephenson is a doctoral candidate in higher and international education in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, Canada. Watch Live - Grace Karram Stephenson lectures on Western Branch Campuses and Ethnic Minorities – Tuesday, 13 September 2016 6pm (EDT).