Malaysia consolidates its position as a regional hub

University World News has recently featured a range of articles on the subject of the value of an international education and of international research, from a commentary on the student experience at micro-campuses to an article on how international study can increase social mobility.

These recent articles support Hans de Wit's commentary about the misguided notion of internationalisation of higher education being simply about mobility and international rankings. His article draws attention to higher education’s failure to cater to the internationalisation needs of 98% of the student population, who are non-internationally mobile.

There is a clear need to focus on internationalisation at home and to pursue initiatives to establish a strong national (and internationally linked) community of researchers. This is particularly important for Malaysia, which has been the recipient of research funding cuts in spite of its ambition to consolidate its position and become a regional higher education hub.

Internationalising comparative education in Malaysia

With approval granted to establish the International and Comparative Education Society of Malaysia or ICESM in April, Malaysia’s commitment and capacity to contribute to international and comparative education broadly, and in particular to Southeast Asian education research, has significantly increased.

ICESM, linked with the Centre for Research in International and Comparative Education or CRICE, University of Malaya, aims to:
  • • Promote awareness and interest in international and comparative education in Malaysia;
  • • Investigate issues that affect educational policies and practice, broadly defined; and
  • • Advance research and training of this kind, especially in relation to Malaysia and by extension the Southeast Asian region.
CRICE at the University of Malaya was formally established in late 2011 by its current director, Dr Lorraine Pe Symaco, who is also the UNESCO Chair in International and Comparative Education with Special Reference to South East Asia. The UNESCO chair is the first to be awarded to Malaysia and is a pioneering move with regard to education in the Southeast Asian region.

The UNESCO chair enables broader collaboration between high-level, internationally recognised researchers and teaching staff at the University of Malaya and other institutions in Malaysia and other regions in the world. It aims to support capacity building in the country and the sub-region through, among other things, relevant teacher and research training in local universities in the region.

Furthermore, the Journal of International and Comparative Education, CRICE’s publication, is fast becoming one of the key publications in the field of international and comparative education.

Importance of international and comparative education

At a time characterised by increasing (but recently challenged) regionalisms, a shift towards knowledge-based economies, innovation-led economic development and massification and internationalisation and regionalisation of higher education, international and comparative education has increasingly become a key priority in national, regional and global policy-making. In fact, education is relevant to achieving many of the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

In developing regions and countries, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN region, education policy borrowing and transfers and hybrid education policy development have been standard practice to the detriment of indigenous policy development, given local, national and regional contexts.

The advent of comparative education data (such as TIMSS and PISA), institutional rankings and research performance indicators and benchmarks has increasingly brought a focus on policies which have industrial and economic relevance and has increased competition in the global education market.

Furthermore, fiscal challenges and the view that higher education is a private good have been at the heart of the quest for sustainable and equitable financing of education beyond engaging the private sector and highly controversial student loan programmes.

In the Southeast Asian region, ASEAN has been working on increasing regional integration, the establishment and recently the consolidation of the ASEAN Community, which requires evidence-based policy-making to effectively sustain its cultural, economic and social development.

As such, international and comparative education has gained prominence, especially with its capacity to provide the required evidence and comparative perspectives, and it is timely that CRICE, its UNESCO chair and the International and Comparative Education Society of Malaysia have been established not only to promote international and comparative education in Malaysia but to serve as a focal point for interdisciplinary educational research focused on (but not limited to) the Southeast Asian region.

Implications for Southeast Asia and beyond

The establishment of CRICE, the UNESCO chair and the recent creation of ICESM signify Malaysia’s desire to increase its educational research capacity, to serve as a focal point for educational research in Southeast Asia and to contribute to the international and comparative education field and Southeast Asian educational developments.

The UNESCO chair shows the international backing for what CRICE is doing. Furthermore, the creation of ICESM establishes a Malaysian platform to bring together international and comparative education scholars and practitioners to form a community of practice supported by the University of Malaya (and other Malaysian universities and stakeholders).

Through the various initiatives established such as CRICE, ICESM and the UNESCO chair, the University of Malaya has successfully revitalised and institutionalised international and comparative education in Malaysia.

Given the global mandate of a UNESCO chair and the recent creation of the International and Comparative Education Society of Malaysia, Malaysia is positioned to make a significant contribution to Southeast Asian educational developments.

Its contributions should not be limited to educational research and dissemination, but should expand to advocacy, policy recommendations and supporting UNESCO’s mandate to achieve the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals as well as the establishment of a sustainable and peaceful global community.

Despite its extensive mandate, with the support of the international and comparative education community, the various governments involved, higher education institutions and stakeholders in the Southeast Asian region and beyond and the extensive UNESCO network, Malaysia’s increasing capacity and focus in Southeast Asian education will significantly contribute to Southeast Asia’s sustainable development and ongoing consolidation of an ASEAN Community.

Roger Chao Jr is senior consultant of the UNESCO International Centre for Higher Education Innovation, China.