Malaysia’s National Higher Education Strategic Plan Beyond 2020, which was launched in 2007, provided a framework for Malaysian universities to collaborate with other ASEAN universities. The National Higher Education Research Institute, based in Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, took up the plan’s challenge by organising the Strategic Dialogue on Higher Education and Developing Human Capital between Malaysia and Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV) Countries, also known as The Kuala Lumpur-CLMV Dialogue, on 1 and 2 December 2008. With financial and administrative support from the Ministry of Higher Education, a series of workshops and dialogues took place in 2009 in Malaysia as well as in Cambodia, Vietnam and Lao PDR to formalise a framework for the Malaysia-CLMV collaborative academic and research efforts.
One important agenda at that time was short-term student mobility initially with Cambodia, with the intention to expand this initiative to include Vietnam and Lao PDR. Besides the funding issue, at a practical level there was a need for a coordinating body to oversee a formalised student mobility programme. Admittedly, the National Higher Education Research Institute, which had initiated this idea, is a dedicated policy research institute of the Ministry and was in no position to be the coordinating body for the student exchange programme. Coincidentally, at that time Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, together with SEAMEO RIHED, were working on a framework to support a pilot student exchange programme in line with the ASEAN integration agenda. SEAMEO RIHED subsequently developed the Structured Framework for Regional Integration in Higher Education in Southeast Asia in 2009, with a focus on student mobility. What has and has not changed in terms of Malaysia’s participation in the intra-regional student mobility programmes?
The Precursor: Malaysia-Indonesia-Thailand Mobility Pilot Project
The Malaysia-Indonesia-Thailand (M-I-T) Student Mobility Pilot Project for undergraduates was launched in 2010. From Malaysia’s perspective, this pilot project should provide lessons learnt in terms of the technical and practical aspects of promoting intra-regional student mobility. While the pilot project was focused on short-duration academic exchange, Malaysia was envisioning a longer term plan to increase the number of inbound students from ASEAN countries. Additionally, for Malaysia the internationalisation of higher education through student mobility should also contribute to intercultural exposure, which is important for regional integration and understanding. Being a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, Malaysia was in a commanding position to showcase (international) higher education.
ASEAN International Mobility for Students (AIMS) Programme
Malaysia, as a pioneer in the M-I-T Student Mobility Pilot Project, saw the relevance of expanding this project for it could contribute to the international education hub objective, which was spelt out in the Internationalisation of Higher Education Policy 2011. To underscore the importance of short-term student mobility, since 2013 data on participating students in such programmes has been included in the Ministry’s statistics on international students. Notably, this inclusion has contributed to Malaysia success in meeting its target of 100,000 international students in its education system by mid-2000. Between 2010 and 2014, the Ministry had allocated RM 1.4 million annually for this programme, with a cumulative funding of RM 5.006 million by 2014.
In 2015, the Ministry reviewed lessons learnt from the implementation of AIMS with a view to strengthening the programme’s role as a springboard to attract alumni of AIMS to undertake further studies in Malaysia. From the review, AIMS continues to underscore the importance of student flows between Malaysia and Indonesia. Not much has changed in this aspect.
It is the Ministry’s expectation that as AIMS participants were students of good academic standing, exposure to the Malaysian academic system should be a motivation for them to undertake further studies in Malaysia. It is envisioned that Malaysia would transform from being an international education hub for international student recruitment to a knowledge and skill hub with a high proportion of students from ASEAN pursuing postgraduate studies in Malaysian research universities.
The initial policy was for intra-regional student mobility to be developed as a platform to expose ASEAN students to Malaysia’s academic system and socio-cultural environment from a non-monetary aspect. This was subsequently reviewed. A monetary aspect of student mobility and the internationalisation of higher education was soon introduced. (In 2012, the Ministry had allocated no less than RM 1.5 million to AIMS.) This was necessary considering reduced funding from the Ministry. Malaysian universities participating in AIMS were expected to explore innovative self-funding options.
Based on the past and present situations, the Ministry and Malaysian universities have mixed reactions to the medium and longer term outlook for intra-regional mobility programmes such as AIMS.
1 Source: UNESCO Institute of Statistics.
Responses from four of the nine participating Malaysian universities in this programme provided an overview of the future prospects for intra-regional mobility programmes. One university has suspended all mobility programmes for its students. The acceptance of inbound students from international partners has also been frozen since March 2020. While there are opportunities for virtual mobility programmes, this university’s view is that a virtual programme may not give participating students the real experience. For now, a virtual mobility programme is not being explored.
Admittedly, there are potentialities for innovation in experiential learning with evolving models of student mobility based on technology. But support from relevant central agencies is critical for such innovative models of delivery.
Universities, despite the pandemic, are still receiving applications for mobility programmes from international partners. Three universities are responding positively to such applications by proposing a virtual mobility programme, with one working on a global classroom to deliver the experience. Such preparedness in diversifying the mode of delivery could cushion the impacts of unexpected future shocks and disruptions to intra-regional physical mobility and are commendable.
With the current global pandemic situation, uncertainties over the post-COVID-19 scenario, and reduced financial support from the Ministry, these universities are expecting a downward trend in student mobility in the next few years. Internal funds for mobility programmes are also very limited. Arguably, an upward trend may be possible in the longer term with the adoption and implementation of virtual mobility programmes. Additionally, the AIMS committee and universities should consider asking the industries to contribute towards sending students abroad.
PROF. DATO’ DR. MORSHIDI SIRAT
Prof Dato' Dr. Morshidi Sirat is Founding Director of the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Facility (CTEF), National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN), Universiti Sains Malaysia, Malaysia.
Zarida Hambali is Professor in Pathology, Postgraduate School of Medicine, Perdana University, Malaysia.