Promoting Malaysian culture through internationalisation
The Malaysia Education Blueprint (Higher Education) 2015-2025 (MEBHE), which can be seen as the continuation of the NHESP, also encapsulates the aspiration to establish Malaysia as an international education hub, one that is valued by students for its competitive advantage in providing value for money higher education – that balances quality and affordability with the added value of rich cultural experiences.
Malaysia’s public and private universities are currently home to 135,502 students from 160 nations around the world. It has been ranked the ninth preferred destination for tertiary education among international students in UNESCO’s international student mobility survey since 2014.
Besides cultural diversity, Malaysia is an attractive study destination because of its low cost of living and affordable tuition fees. Annual university tuition fees in the United States and the United Kingdom can be more than US$27,000, while the cost in Malaysia can be as low as US$2,800.
In our study, we examined institutional policies and initiatives on internationalisation in our two case studies in Malaysia – one a public university, the other a private university.
Programmes offered in the private university are validated by their foreign partnering university, ensuring that they meet the quality requirements of that partner.
The private university in question also has twinning programmes in which students spend part of their course abroad – generally one year out of a three- or four-year course. Because students only spend a certain period of time abroad, the cost of pursuing the twinning programme is significantly less than doing the entire programme abroad.
The academic and mobility programmes in the public university are substantially different. Instead of having foreign partners, the public university has pursued foreign accreditation for some of its programmes. For instance, the faculty of education of the public university is accredited by the Teacher Education Accreditation Council (TEAC) in the US.
This arrangement enables students graduating with an education degree to work in any country around the world that recognises the TEAC accreditation, thus aiding the mobility of students upon graduation.
Apart from accreditation, the faculty of languages of the public university is also part of the Erasmus Mundus programme, a masters programme involving counterparts from Europe and the neighbouring countries of Thailand and Vietnam. Similarly, a sizeable number of graduates have gone abroad to work or intern in the countries of the language they majored in.
Furthermore, the faculty of languages also has a policy of recruiting native speakers of the language they teach to the university. Hence, there are a significant number of international academics in its foreign language programmes and courses.
For both universities, many memoranda of understanding for research collaboration in the universities were found to be inactive. Rather, both universities in our case study have attempted to enhance relationships with foreign institutions in other ways such as through joint conferences, generally with universities in Thailand and Indonesia.
Networking through university alumni in different countries such as Iran, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia has also opened access to agencies and governmental bodies for collaboration, particularly in terms of funding research, journal publications and in the organisation of conferences, fora and symposia.
In the private university, there was a concerted effort to bring in renowned scholars, academics and industry leaders from around the world to its campus. In addition to developing the relationship with these prominent experts, their presence is also intended to enhance the international profile of the university.
Student and academic mobility
At the private university, there are limited opportunities for students and academics to take up formal academic mobility programmes. In the private university, the only formal student mobility programme comes in the form of a cultural exchange programme to its partner university, but this cannot be done for academic credits.
Coupled with the significant costs of up to MYR10,000 (US$2,400), which students have to bear for a three-week stint in a foreign country, many students are understandably not keen to participate.
There is a reciprocal agreement where students from the partner university can opt to come to Malaysia for a similar three-week cultural exchange programme – but this has not been popular as Malaysia is apparently not considered a popular or exotic destination by students of the foreign-partnering university.
Students in the private university may, nevertheless, choose to participate in other overseas programme for short periods of time, in the form of exposure trips through international students’ organisations, such as the Dutch-headquartered AIESEC (formerly known in English as the International Association of Students in Economic and Commercial Sciences).
Such opportunities are also presented to students in the public university. Internships with multinational corporations can also provide some students with international experience, to some benefit to their future careers. For example, a student has the opportunity to do two-thirds of their internship with a Malaysian bank in Jakarta under the Ministry of International Trade and Industry-TalentCorp Internship Programme. However, such programmes have not been institutionalised.
As for academics, the public university sends potential academics to pursue their doctorates abroad, with the support of the Ministry of Higher Education. This initiative has ensured that local academics get international exposure. Even for those who did their doctorate in Malaysia, the public university has provided opportunities for them to go for post-doctoral attachments in foreign universities.
In the private university, there are limited opportunities for mobility and international exposure for academics. A handful of academics may have the opportunity to spend two months in the foreign partner institution as part of the exchange, but the main objective of such exchange is predominantly aimed at maintaining the partnership and to learn about the shared programmes between the two institutions.
Apart from that, support from the private university for its academics to gain international exposure is ad hoc and limited.
Good practice for internationalisation
The most important goal of internationalisation is to create an ideal student experience in a Malaysian culture. So, although English proficiency is a requirement for entry into Malaysian universities, the required standard is not set too high. International students are encouraged to learn the national language, Bahasa Malaysia, so that they can interact with the local community.
Students are encouraged to spend their final year or a semester abroad, for exposure. In this aspect, public institutions look for partner universities abroad that can match their own programmes, to benefit students.
Quality control of the programmes offered is a perennial topic for private universities in Malaysia. To achieve quality in its programmes, the private university has strong links with institutions from abroad, which validate their programmes.
The public university brings in native speakers and obtains accreditation from international bodies. Student exchange programmes are seen as more cost efficient compared to sending students abroad for a year. They have also been shown to be a good practice in improving the quality of education, given the exposure to an international environment.
International exposure for students can be limited due to cost constraints. Particularly in the private university, where students were either self-financed or financed through student loans, there is the additional financial burden associated with going abroad to gain an overseas experience on top of their tuition fees.
As part of a cost-saving strategy, Malaysia allows branch campuses of foreign universities to operate in the country. To date, Malaysia has nine branch campuses that adapt themselves to Malaysian policy as well as quality standards. Branch campuses are expected to bring not only quality education but to attract international students as well. Besides the economic factor, the diversity of students gives opportunities to local and foreign students to experience global cultures.
The private university is also looking into ways to change its approach pedagogically to enhance its programme, by adopting and adapting international curricula such as reducing lecture time and increasing the time for practical problem-solving. There is a Programme Standardisation Committee consisting of academics, which ensures that local programmes and international programmes are matched properly so that in- and out-bound students are eligible for credit transfers between universities of different countries.
Enhancing internationalisation also requires the coordination of the academic calendar. In the case of the private university, which relies heavily on student fees as its major source of revenue, there are three intakes of students in a year. As a result, the university’s academic calendar of three semesters is very condensed.
Academics in the private university have lamented the difficulties in aligning the academic calendar with local and foreign universities, and misalignment can pose a challenge in facilitating exchanges for students and academics.
To widen the benefits of internationalisation for students, strategies should focus on ‘internationalisation-at-home’ – a term first introduced in 2001 by Paul Crowther and others – where institutions would need to increase the proportion of international students and diversify the list of their countries of origins.
Most importantly, international students should integrate well with local students, so that both student groups are able to learn and benefit from an experience in a Malaysian campus.
Teaching and learning exposure can be done through many activities: comparative international literature, guest lectures by speakers from local cultural groups or international companies, guest lecturers from the international partnering universities, international case studies and practices or, increasingly, digital learning and online collaborations.
Internationalisation-at-home is not an aim but a set of instruments and activities for developing international and intercultural competences among all students within the home country. Teaching the content in English does not make a programme international in itself. Internationalisation-at-home does not require the presence of international students, although that can be a benefit.
Hazri Jamil is director of the National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN) and associate professor at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Wan Chang Da is lecturer at IPPTN, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and Ooi Poh Ling is research officer at IPPTN, Universiti Sains Malaysia. This article was first published in the current edition of Higher Education in Southeast Asia and Beyond.