Higher education was already plagued by both increasing international competition, as well as delivery modes driven by technical change. On the one hand, there has been emergence and expansion of foreign students since the 1990s at universities located in Asia, Africa, and Latin America that now compete for students with the established universities of the developed countries, such as the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Japan, and the countries of continental Europe. On the other hand, the advent of digitisation and digitalisation since 2012 has raised the potential for students to enrol in academic programmes from distant sites. Xenophobic reactions to migrants in general, and foreign students in particular have only been accentuated further with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic since 2020.
It has to be noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has derailed development across the world, and in the process, is wreaking havoc in both developed and underdeveloped countries. In fact, a number of developed countries (e.g., United States) have faced far more catastrophic collapse than developing countries (e.g., Vietnam). Consequently, this essay examines the light that will not only sustain foreign students’ interest on higher education in Malaysia, but also focuses on what the emphasis should be. The rest of the exercise addresses foreign student enrolment trends, the shift towards digital platforms, technological responses to cyber platforms, and the future of foreign students’ enrolment for higher education on Malaysia’s platforms.
COVID-19 and Impact on Infections and Deaths
Unlike predictable developmental outcomes, the COVID-19 pandemic, which remains an elusive virus that continues to mutate with hugely uncertain outcomes, threatens to undermine the agglomeration of foreign students at particular established universities as well as new proximate universities at home countries. Indeed, there is no statistical correlation between developmental status (e.g., GDP per capita) and the COVID-19 cases and deaths (see Figures 1 and 2). The explanatory power of both relationships is close to zero.
Foreign Student Enrolment Trends
The immediate response to the lockdowns and introduction of standard operating procedures (SOPs), including social distancing and suspension of travels, has been a trend fall in foreign student enrolment especially in the developed countries. However, such a fall has not been obvious in some countries, such as Malaysia. As Figure 3 shows, while foreign student enrolment among public universities stayed steady, the share among private universities picked up slightly from 2019 to 2020. This trend in Malaysia is obvious with students from China and the Middle East taking advantage of the generous opportunity for studying through online lectures.
While the Higher Education Ministry as well as universities in Malaysia have taken steps to prevent a contraction in foreign student enrolment in 2020 and possibly in 2021, the transition from a pandemic to an endemic should see a resurgence of demand for universities abroad that may intensify the competition for foreign students. This potential trend is very likely despite concerns over the emergence of the Omicron variant and the surge again in cases in Europe. Nevertheless, restrictions on the inflow of foreign students to United States and Europe — which started as a response to increased terrorism and trade friction with countries such as members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and China — have now expanded to other countries quickening the proliferation of digitalisation and IR4.0 technologies in higher education, which we turn to in the next section.
Shift Towards Digital Platforms
Some countries are ahead in the time schedule in the promotion of digitalisation and IR4.01 technologies. Taiwan’s firms for instance have reshored significant sections of agriculture and manufacturing when President Trump triggered rising tariffs and other forms of restrictions on imports landing in the United States from 2017. Whereas robots and drones dominate intensive agriculture, robotisation has attracted back from China significant volume of manufacturing, especially after the government launched a programme and two incentive schemes targeting local firms under a broad “Invest in Taiwan” that attracted collectively NT$1.19 trillion in investment from 826 companies, according to data compiled by the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA).
Malaysia launched IR4.0 masterplan in 2018 and its digitalisation blueprint in 2020 to quicken the proliferation of IR4.0 technologies in the whole economy, with higher education included.
While it may be too soon to review the progress of these two blueprints, it is pertinent for the government to focus on an appraisal mechanism that addresses target-setting, selection, monitoring, and ex-post assessment to recalibrate strategies if necessary so as to ensure that the government’s desired outcomes are met. A case in point is to avert the disastrous approaches taken to develop science and technology parks in the country.
Both public and private universities embarked on establishing digital channels to deliver education, especially for students from abroad beginning in 2019, which was hastened by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 as lockdowns and calls for stringent social-distancing policing sharply reduced international travels. Public universities were also required by the Higher Education Ministry to keep out students, especially when the Movement Control Order (MCO) came into place in both 2020 and 2021. The government subsequently raised the budget for the installation of digital platforms in its 2021 and 2022 budgets. A number of tertiary students in Malaysia were still following classes through Zoom sessions as of January 1, 2022. That includes classes on the doctoral advanced methodology course from the Asia-Europe Institute and Masters courses at the Faculty of Business and Economics at Universiti of Malaya.
Impact of Cyber Platforms
While digitisation and digitalisation holds much promise for the transformation of higher education in Malaysia, three major problems risk sub-optimal outcomes. The first is the inherent challenges of digital platforms, whether through the use of professional educators or humanoid robots. The social elements that are critical in teaching, reflecting, and learning are constrained using digital platforms as human interactions that deal with student specificities are difficult to adapt using digital technology, especially when the student numbers are large. Learning had already lost significant social elements when disciplines were born out of philosophy with some completely detached from that mother discipline. For example, economics as a discipline has sought scientific precision by focusing on statistical models that are run using assumptions that largely do not hold in reality, as described by Amartya Sen in his 1983 book, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Indeed, journals are increasingly publishing articles that tell their own stories rather than first establishing the rationale for the new story — by either identifying gaps in past studies or establishing the rationale for the creation of new knowledge paths.
The second problem relates to the capacity of universities to absorb, adapt, and invent better ways to appropriate teaching and learning synergies from digital platforms and robots. Education ministries across the world have indeed included digitalisation and IR4.0 instruments in their promotional kits and expenditure budgets, but have yet to induce enough change to suggest that its potential is being realised. Such a development is the case even though proximate teaching and supervision are still critical during the transitional phase to address disciplinary specificity. For example, in surgical instruction, while robots are increasingly engaged in diagnoses through the use of big data, Internet of Things, and cloud computing, its transition is still far from the possible frontier that such technologies promise in hospitals.
The third problem deals with the role of higher education as a driver of development in individual countries. While developed countries — with the United Kingdom and the United States being the major early starters — use higher education as a platform for both revenue extraction and to shape the foreign policies of home countries, the key universities in these countries are still earmarked to develop the workforce and to support home countries’ innovations. In fact, these Western economies have also planned to offer such students’ visas and eventually citizenships if the candidates’ roles are considered beneficial to the countries. In Malaysia the focus on generating revenue looks obvious but the utilisation of students, especially graduate students to support the country’s national innovation system, looks unclear. Interviews show a lack of coordination between those offering private university licenses and the immigration department, which have also caused serious disjunctures. That said, writers like V. Selvaratnam have noted that several private universities that emerged following the Private Universities Bill in 1996, are now on the brink of liquidation as the Higher Education Ministry starts to introduce quality standards for the approval of programmes and admission of students.
Nevertheless, writers like Michael Best, author of The New Competitive Advantage: The Renewal of American Industry, have noted that the United States has benefitted enormously from training foreign students, offering green cards to the bright ones among them to support its national innovation system. Such a practice has now been emulated by several other countries, including Australia, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, and France. While it is critical that priority should be given to national students in specialisations that are critical for the country, the shortfalls in some critical technical disciplines in Malaysia can benefit from such policies. Particularly in industries classified by the government as strategic, the government should consider offering permanent residence, and eventually citizenships to quality foreign students in strategically needed industries. This is part of the reason why Singapore has managed to attract quality scientists from abroad to renew their labour force to sustain rapid economic growth, which I have noted in my chapter in the 2020 Oxford Handbook of Industrial Policy.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely drained resources from all economies across the world — slowing down efforts to heighten innovation and adapt to the digital revolution and IR4.0 smoothly. Such a change has also not benefitted from possible cooperation among countries to address the problem. Countries are still competing individually to shield their economies from surges in COVID-19 infections and deaths, and further economic contraction.
Future of Foreign Higher Education Students
The twin forces of digitalisation-driven IR4.0 technologies, and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has left all facets of life at a conundrum. On the one hand, the proliferation of digitisation and digitalisation has offered opportunities for breaking out from a dependence on low-skilled foreign labour, to deploying robots and drones. On the other hand, Malaysia has yet to translate the two related blueprints to action since their respective launches in 2018 and 2020. It is over this time that the COVID-19 pandemic struck to delay the execution of these plans.
While the government should resume emphasis on higher education but with increased focus on meeting the needs of the country, there is also a need to offer scholarships selectively to attract talent from abroad. Indeed, such scholarships have been widely offered by the net human capital recipient countries, such as the United States, United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, France, Canada, and Singapore.
In doing so, the government should invoke the critical elements of economics to focus on the public goods properties involved in promoting higher education and related training. The critical technological and knowledge focus should be on latest strategic and complimentary industries that focus on the new frontier of technologies, such as digitalisation and IR4.0 technologies, biotechnology in intensive farming, open systems approach to education, and finally targeting higher education to meet societal needs, including achieving carbon-neutral status and energy efficiency, raising healthcare quality, and reducing socioeconomic inequality.
The initial costs may be high, especially given the disruptions necessitated by COVID-19. However, the eventual trend fall in physical classrooms and university space, and the savings from renewal and downsizing of maintenance, could equalise the new costs expected from the construction of digital platforms and IR4.0 instruments. Given the properties of education as a public good, the fees should also be assessed to be socially acceptable, especially when Malaysia is positioning itself internationally as a middle power to fight for the interests of small- and middle-income states.
The concept of education should change to be in sync with developments in some continental European economies, such as Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden — so that the emphasis will be on promoting society relevant knowledge. With the proliferation of digitalisation and IR4.0 technologies, universities can also reduce support staff to provide savings on overheads. Higher education should focus on knowledge acquisition — both adaptation and creation of new stocks, and its effective delivery through critical discourse. Malaysian higher education universities should move away from the commodification of knowledge to its promotion as critical know-how for constant re-innovation for application. Universities should also increasingly be directed to become entrepreneurial in the mould of what Schumpeter had referred to in his seminal works, The Theory of Economic Development and Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, as the essence of entrepreneurs, which is being able to innovate. University managements should be encouraged to spearhead teaching, learning and supervision that requires academic personnel to create and apply knowledge that are useful for society. While entrepreneurial universities can easily finance their activities — provided they are organised to value producer-user relations through endowments, commercialisation, and start ups — disciplines that lack the ability to attract entrepreneurs but remain essential to synergise the entrepreneurial courses will need funding. However, the funding of these disciplines, such as philosophy, history, political science, sociology, and anthropology can be kept to a sufficient extent to fertilise the entrepreneurial disciplines.
Digitisation and digitalisation have inevitably triggered the potential for disruptions and discontinuities in production and delivery of goods and services across economies, including in higher education. The COVID-19 pandemic has added to those disruptions with lockdowns and social distancing. While the world as a whole, including Malaysia, has been slow in transforming the embedding environment to embrace these developments, it is important to note that education in general, and higher education specifically should not be subjected to a mechanistic transformation that will eliminate its social and non-metaphysical attributes. Hence, this essay has offered the arguments on why and how Malaysia should transition to a digitalised world that is more resilient to epidemics, yet does not compromise the philosophical fundamentals and public goods properties of education.
For a number of reasons, it is right for higher education policy to promote access to foreign students in Malaysia. While it is important to ensure that foreign students will at least be able to support the costs associated with the provision of higher education to them, the government should also target foreign students for the potential they can bring in productively shaping the country’s development. The latter has been a major policy focus, albeit often implicitly, of successful countries, such as the United States, Canada, and Singapore.
The evidence amassed shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has offered no country any real advantage in the pursuit of attracting foreign students; but given the critical importance of social distancing and the restrictions imposed on travels, the mode of delivery has increasingly shifted to distant teaching, learning, and supervision. With the special significance of contact-based learning and research, a number of faculties are still in a transitional phase with no clear direction. While the revenue generation objective has been conspicuous in Malaysia’s pursuit of foreign students in higher education — in addition to the need to refocus it with greater emphasis on the nation’s development, as it carries tremendous public goods characteristics — it will be good to take a leaf out of the country’s foreign policy to play a hybrid middle power role by making higher education a platform for the promotion of sustainable development. In doing so, the government should call for the inclusion of complementary disciplines that emphasise the philosophical attributes of holism, realisation of creative self, integrity in the distribution and allocation of resources, cultural interdependence, and entrepreneurship focused on innovations.
This article is based on a keynote speech given at the Global Higher Education Forum (GHEF) 2021.
Rajah Rasiah is Distinguished Professor of Economics at University of Malaya. He also serves as a professorial fellow at UNU-MERIT, Oxford University, Cambridge University, and Universiti Tenaga Nasional, and is a fellow of the Academy of Sciences, Malaysia.