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Malaysia

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Malaysia is a middle-income country that is geographically divided into two parts: Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo (also known as West and East Malaysia, respectively). Malaysia has a highly diverse ethnic and linguistic landscape, with a majority Muslim Malay population, and large Chinese and Indian minority populations. Relative to most of its ASEAN neighbours, Malaysia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the region relative to its size. Despite this, Malaysia’s population has more than tripled since the mid-1960s, owing to organic population growth and migration.1 As a former British colony with a long history of migration and cultural diversity, Malaysia likewise has a diverse higher education landscape. 

 

The establishment of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971 marked a paradigm shift in Malaysian society, as a multi-faceted system of affirmative action was implemented, giving preferential status to bumiputra, which include Malay and other indigenous Malaysians. Undeniably, socioeconomic inequality in Malaysia is pronounced and has remained a key concern of the government for decades. In universities, which were all public at the time, new ethnic quotas were established, making it extremely competitive for Chinese and Indian Malaysians to gain admission to public universities. Large-scale urbanisation of Malays and a shift towards the Malay language in the public sector also created issues of secondary school compatibility with university curricula and employability. Also considering that Malaysia has the largest Chinese-medium primary and secondary education system outside of China or Taiwan, many Chinese-taught students opted to study abroad for university education. This environment led to large groups of Malaysian students leaving the country for higher education and subsequently employment, resulting in a long-term loss of talent. 

 

Following the Private Higher Education Institution Act in 1996, which allowed for the opening and formal registration of private higher education institutions, private universities have mushroomed across the country. This change also created a space in the higher education field for non-bumiputra students who could not secure spots in public institutions or who were not matriculated in the public primary and secondary school systems. Private universities, which mostly specialise in business, IT and engineering in 2020 charge anywhere from RM40,000 to RM85,000 for a three-or four-year programme.2 As of 2019, Malaysia had a total of 38 private universities, 414 private colleges and 10 private university-colleges.3 

 

Although private universities have received a great deal of attention, shifts to privatisation have not left Malaysia’s public universities unaffected. Whereas universities in Malaysia were once viewed as “national assets”4 and highly centralised, the advent of private universities has also resulted in a higher degree of university autonomy for public universities as well as new pressure to compete effectively with private counterparts. 

 

Internationalisation 

Malaysia arguably has one of the most dynamic higher education sectors in ASEAN regarding internationalisation. From comprehensive “twinn-ing programmes” between Malaysian and foreign institutions — the offering of foreign degrees via Malaysian private institutions to full-fledged foreign branch campuses — the Malay Peninsula, and particularly the Klang Valley, has transformed into a new frontier of higher education development. One of the first ground-breaking institutions was the opening of Monash University via a tie-up with the Malaysian conglomerate Sunway Group in 1998. Since then, full-sized, foreign-owned universities such as the University of Nottingham have opened campuses to provide a British-style education experience for Malaysian and regional international students. In the southern state of Johor, the EduCity project, which is part of the Iskandar Malaysia mega-project, is a special zone allotted for foreign branch campuses, such as Newcastle University, the University of Reading, the University of Southampton and others. With proximity to Singapore, institutions in EduCity are expected to capitalise on overspill from Singapore and on the demographic of students from Johor who previously commuted to Singapore for education. The popularisation of the foreign-branch campuses in Malaysia, of which there are 10 to date, has been in their ability to capitalise on Malaysia’s affordability, appeal and relatively relaxed visa policy for students from the greater Muslim world and Global South, many of whom could not obtain visas to Western countries or afford studying abroad in English-speaking countries. 

 

In 2016, following a historic bilateral agreement between then-Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration and the Chinese Ministry of Education, Xiamen University from China’s Fujian Province opened in Malaysia the world’s first overseas branch campus of a Chinese university. Despite being directly owned and operated by Xiamen University in China, the university teaches all courses in English, except for Chinese language and Chinese medicine. Xiamen University Malaysia is an experimental institution that primarily aims to give Chinese university students exposure to Southeast Asia and tap into the historic connections between Malaysia’s Chinese community and their ancestral homeland in China’s Fujian Province. Xiamen University was also chosen as its founder Tan Kah Kee was a prominent member of the Chinese Malaysian business community and was a figure that represented ties between China and Malaysia. As a young institution, Xiamen University Malaysia’s impact is still unclear, but it has set an important precedent for possible future development of Chinese-owned universities elsewhere. 

 

Overall, Malaysia is one of the fastest growing destinations for international students in Asia: in 2019, a total of 30,341 international students, or 5.49% of the total public university study body, were enrolled.5 With an estimated 130,110 in total,6 it is estimated that over 75% of international students are enrolled in private universities. The majority of Malaysia’s international students come from countries such as Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Nigeria, Iran, Yemen and others in the developing world. The demographics of Malaysia’s international student body undoubtedly reflect both Malaysia’s long-term commitment to South-South Cooperation and historical ties throughout the Indo-Pacific region. 

 

Impacts of the Malaysia Education Blueprint

In 2015, the Malaysian government released the Malaysia Education Blueprint (Higher Education) 2015–2025, the government’s hallmark policy document that sets national guidelines for higher education reform. The MEB’s primary goals include improving quality, standards and transparency in Malaysian public universities. Malaysian public universities traditionally received almost all of their funding directly from the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education through “block grants”, comprising nearly 70% of university revenue. Block grants are being phased out under the MEB in favour of an Outcome-Based Budgeting (OBB) scheme, which relies on new KPI indicators which are managed by the Education Performance and Delivery Unit (PADU), a unit of the MOE set up for the purpose of implementing change under the MEB. While government funding is being substantially scaled back for public universities, who were prohibited by the MOE from raising tuition fees, these changes have impelled public universities to develop innovative new ways of compensating for lost government funding. Government funding is also stipulated on the number of students matriculated, incentivising universities to expand their enrolment and streamline application processes. The MEB also includes ambitious goals regarding international students, which revises the original Vision 2020 goal of 200,000 students by 2020 to 250,000 by 2025, and advises universities to target “high priority markets” in ASEAN and countries included in Malaysia’s South-South Cooperation initiative. 

 

Since 2015, Malaysia has undergone numerous high-profile political upheavals, including the notorious 1MDB scandal in 2015, the country’s first-ever electoral defeat of the ruling political coalition Barisan Nasional, which also marked former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s return to power. Amidst the breakup of Mahathir’s short-lived Pakatan Harapan government in early 2020, leading to the appointment of Muhhyidin Yassin, the COVID-19 pandemic struck Malaysia, leading to the closure of its universities, affecting hundreds of thousands of students. In October 2020, the Ministry of Higher Education suspended universities nationwide from proceeding with registrations of new students and allowing international students from entering the country until the end of the year.7 Although Malaysia has undergone numerous political changes over the past two years, each administration has remained dedicated to fulfilling the goals set in place by the MEB, which remains the government’s central policy document for higher education. 

ZANE KHEIR

Zane Kheir recently graduated with a PhD in Comparative Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.

APRIL 2022 | ISSUE 10

State of the Region: The Commemorative 10th Issue

  1. “Malaysia Population 1950–2021”, microtrends.net, accessed January 27, 2021, https://www.macrotrends.net/countries/MYS/malaysia/population. 

  2. “The Cost of Higher Education in Malaysia”, studymalaysia.com, July 3, 2020, https://www.studymalaysia.com/education/top-stories/the-cost-of-higher-education-in-malaysia

  3. “Higher Education in Malaysia: Private Universities”, eTawau.com, accessed January 27, 2021, http://www.etawau.com/edu/ IndexUniversityPrivate.htm. 

  4. Sirat Morshidi, “Strategic Planning Directions of Malaysia’s Higher Education: University Autonomy in the Midst of Political Uncertainties”, Higher Education 59 no. 4 (2010): 461–473. 

  5. Ministry of Education Malaysia, “Quick Facts 2019: Malaysia Educational Statistics”, 2019.

  6. “Can Malaysia achieve 250,000 foreign students by 2025?”, Free Malaysia Today, December 10, 2019, https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/leisure/2019/12/10/can-malaysia-achieve-250000-foreign-students-by-2025/.

  7. Joyce Lau, “Malaysia’s U-Turn on Reopening Campuses Leaves Students in Lurch”, Times Higher Education, October 8, 2020, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/malaysias-u-turn-reopening-campuses-leaves-students-lurch.

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

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Leaders and changemakers of today face unique and complex challenges. The HEAD Foundation Digest features insights and opinions from those in the know addressing a wide range of pertinent issues that factor in a society’s development. 

Informed opinions can inspire healthy discussions and open up our imagination to new possibilities. Interested in contributing? Write to us at info@headfoundation

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