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Malaysia’s Higher Education: Tumbled Out of its Trajectory?

hesb-10-11-malaysias higher education-featured image

Since the early 1970s, Malaysia’s successive five-year national development plans have had a brief section on higher education with narratives on its role in nation building and human resource development. In the late 1990s, the sector’s trajectory reflected Malaysia’s perspective on issues such as access and equity, massification and the quality of the provision of higher education, and the internationalisation of higher education. Policy responses to these issues were formulated in the context of Malaysia’s aspiration to be a high-income nation by 2020. Against the backdrop of increasing types and number of higher education institutions, and its potential contribution to the economy, the National Higher Education Strategic Plan Beyond 2020 (NHESP) was launched in 2007. This was the first comprehensive higher education plan with a long-term development trajectory. In 2015 the Malaysian Education Blueprint (Higher Education) 2015–2025 (MEBHE) was launched, superseding the NHESP. The MEBHE prioritises higher education development, which adopts technology for and not at the expense of human development. But, the move from the NHESP to the MEBHE did not involve a major or drastic shift in the higher education trajectory to 2020 and then to 2025. Many of the underlying governance structures and arrangements prior to the MEBHE and the underlying assumptions that have underpinned innovation in higher education prior to 2015 were retained. In fact, the Minister’s recent annual address for the development of higher education in 2021 did not mention a rethinking of the current trajectory despite the pandemic. In the absence of such ministerial directive, a major aspect of the current review of the MEBHE must begin with a new trajectory. In our view this review should not begin to think about enhancing the development of higher education (Wave 2 in the MEBHE) and subsequently, to produce a Higher Education Action Plan 2021–2025, without a new trajectory as the strategic planning framework.

Image Source: Ministry of Education, Malaysia, “Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education)”, 2015.

This article is an attempt to think through the development of higher education after 2020 with an assertion that the higher education trajectory, which was the basis for the NHESP and the MEBHE, needs to be reviewed and a new trajectory put in place. Arguably, an Action Plan 2021–2025 based on the current trajectory will send higher education off-course. Worse, we anticipate it will tumble out of its trajectory. For the post-2020 era, a major shift or clear break from the current trajectory is highly desirable, as new key drivers or disruptors to higher education development have emerged. But technology will remain as the main enabler to move the higher education agenda post-2020. What are the components and implications of a new trajectory for Malaysia’s higher education with the introduction of the clear shift in 2021?

 

Past Trajectory – The Achievements
The achievements of the higher education system based on the previous trajectory (2007–2020) can be gleaned and summarised from the U21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems. This ranking methodology assesses Malaysia’s higher education system in terms of resources, environment, connectivity and output. Malaysia was ranked 27th overall in 2015, an indication of its performance based on the implementation of the NHESP. In 2020, with the implementation of the MEBHE since 2015, the system was once again ranked at 27th position. Notably, there were positional changes between 2015 and 2019; there were commendable improvements in the performance at the institutional level, particularly in the research universities and some private universities. But the system as a whole was in need of a review. Arguably, the previous trajectory worked well for some universities but not for others in the system.

Source: Annual report by Universitas 21, global network of research universities for the 21st century with 26 members that enrol over 1.3 million students and employ over 220,000 staff and faculty. The U21 Index compares national higher education systems for 50 countries.

2 Ministry of Education, Malaysia, “Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education)”, 2015.

The Disruptor – Previous Trajectory
The MEBHE acknowledged that technology is a major disruptor. It has changed the traditional way of delivering higher education, with technology-based learning through websites, learning portals, video conferencing, YouTube, mobile apps, and other blended learning tools. The MEBHE underscored the importance of Open and Distance Learning (ODL), Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and micro-credentialing. Primarily because of the MEBHE’s emphasis on technology-based learning, some Malaysian universities were able to shift to online learning and adapt well to the learning requirement in the context of the new normal during the COVID-19 pandemic. On hindsight, this pandemic has vindicated the MEBHE’s move towards digital learning pedagogy for both students and lecturers. It has highlighted the need to consider synchronous or asynchronous learning methods in Malaysian higher education institutions. There is a likelihood that a protracted international and national pandemic will drive higher education institutions towards domestic orientation or localisation, a dependence on online platforms for learning and research collaboration to sustain the “internationalisation” of higher education, and a hybrid higher education service delivery system with financial austerity as the overriding consideration. For Malaysia, insofar as the internationalisation agenda is concerned, a new higher education trajectory post-2020 is a priority.

On hindsight, this pandemic has vindicated the MEBHE’s move towards digital learning pedagogy for both students and lecturers. It has highlighted the need to consider synchronous or asynchronous learning methods in Malaysian higher education institutions.

Future Trajectory – Its Components
For Southeast Asian countries that have internationalised their higher education systems, the impact of COVID-19 will be disorientating for some, and traumatic for others. Malaysia, for instance, has developed and pursued the pre-COVID-19 higher education trajectory on the expected monetary and non-monetary benefits of the internationalisation of higher education. This was exemplified by its internationalisation policy and the international education hub strategy. The review of the MEBHE, which is now in progress, comes at an opportune time and it has to take cognisance of the fact that a new trajectory is inevitable. In other words, this COVID-19-related disruption should provide the basis for envisioning and developing a new higher education trajectory.


Indeed, it is logical to expect that many countries in Southeast Asia will begin to envision the future in a similar fashion, with targets and outcomes of the process equally similar. Arguably, donor or sponsor agencies are the major source of uniformity
in response and policies. As a result, many will begin to offer a hybrid model, with pandemic-induced online instruction complemented by in-person classes for laboratory-based subjects. Undoubtedly, MOOCs will record a sharp rise in enrolment in Malaysia, as the successes of its pilot project prior to the pandemic will be the basis to convince sceptics. Demand is expected to increase for short programmes based on micro-credentials that provide certification leading to jobs in the technology sector and other technical areas. In short, the future trajectory should factor in the likely impacts of a prolonged recovery period, highlighting the need for practical and effective educational options.


For Malaysia, charting a different course for its higher education system as a result of this “seismic change” will require a dramatic shift in 2021. This shift will push the system on to a different trajectory to 2025 and beyond. What are the components of this dramatic shift? It is envisaged that the new higher education trajectory will need to consider the following: (a more realistic) international and transnational education positioning; enhanced online learning and collaborative research; regulatory flexibility for higher education institutions in both public and private sectors offering courses online and face-to-face; and government and institutional service delivery based on technology.


Post-2020 will see the emergence of a myriad of local and global alliances, driven by complex motivations and objectives, and using highly sophisticated management and business models propelled by advanced technology and data science. These will permeate the higher education system, a system eager to learn how resilience was developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, some Malaysian universities already in severe financial stress are developing closer relationships with stronger institutions; merging with these institutions appears inevitable in the near future. The MOHE has been persuading smaller HEIs to merge since 2011 but with little success. Perhaps these higher education institutions and even some universities experiencing post COVID-19 trauma will see the logic of such mergers from a business perspective.

Higher education providers that may emerge and operate based on the future trajectory will represent an arrangement based on public-private, private++, social enterprises-private, public+private+non-governmental organisations, non-governmental individuals++, or even philanthropy++. Fundamental to the National Higher Education Enterprise (NHEE) business model will be the establishment of more alliances and collaborations – global in outlook and orientation, less state more society, and robustly competitive. Their approach would be more of inclusion rather than prestige or elitism, focussing on unleashing the potentials of each and every one instead of just a selected few. Empowerment, diversity, sustainability and balance, and debunking exclusivity will be the key aspects where the NHEE will emphasise and create the most impact.

 

Suffice to argue, the NHEE will dismantle and reconstruct the current governance model of universities, introducing a model that is future-proof and flexible, better served through alternative and innovative models of alliances, collaborations, and societal-driven enterprise. It is predicted that the NHEE will envisage higher education more as a global common good rather than a commercial commodity, as advocated by Simon Marginson in his book Higher Education and the Common Good (2016, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne). This is crucial because the future of Malaysia’s higher education competitiveness should be grounded on the ideals of advancing the greater societal good rather than converting it into a commodity.

 

However, the public good ethos should not be confined to only domestic concerns, and it is vital for the new higher education actors to manifest the capability to translate such notion of common good into a global scale, propelled by a wider range and altered composition of partnerships and collaborations in the form of the NHEE.

Empowerment, diversity, sustainability and balance, and debunking exclusivity will be the key aspects where NHEE will emphasise and create the most impact.

Conclusion
The current pandemic has shown, in the case of Malaysia, that the higher education development trajectory cannot be based on the internationalisation agenda in the current mode and context. Future governance arrangements and structure of the system must be flexible for higher education institutions to respond immediately to a very critical situation. In 2021, Malaysia needs a reset, introducing a framework and trajectory which is more robust and in tune with regional and global co-existence, exhibiting a high degree of resilience, and with clarity on the role of the state vis-à-vis universities (including private entities). A regulatory regime that determines which higher education institutions can and cannot offer online courses must be reviewed. From a regulatory perspective, all higher education institutions should be able to offer courses online to increase preparedness for future eventualities.

 

This article was first published in the IPPTN Issues Paper No. 1 of 2021.

ABDUL RAZAK AHMAD

Abdul Razak Ahmad is a member of the Board of Directors, University of Nottingham Malaysia, and Founder of Bait Al Amanah.

MORSHIDI SIRAT

Morshidi Sirat is Honorary Professor at the School of Humanities, and at the National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN), Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang. He is also Honor

APRIL 2022 | ISSUE 10

State of the Region: The Commemorative 10th Issue

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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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