Malaysia – Shaping up for a giant leap forward

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Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail launches the War-on-Cancer as Senior Professor Dato’ Dr Khalid Yusoff (right) looks on.

In the context of a ‘New Malaysia’, UCSI University explores how the country’s ambitions as a global higher education hub can be boosted by an empowered private sector.

Malaysia’s push to be a global education hub has been well-documented over the past decade. Already one of the world’s top 10 study destinations, the nation is on track to surpass the psychological barrier of 200,000 international students by 2020. Both public and private universities have maintained their upward trajectories in global university rankings and ambitious targets were laid out to enhance participation in higher education from 36% in 2015, to 53% in 2025. The statistics indicate that Malaysia’s higher education sector, by any measure, will continue to expand.

By and large, the growth of Malaysia’s higher education sector has been driven by government spending. Huge allocations are given annually and some questions were naturally raised when seismic shifts rocked the Malaysian political landscape in May 2018. After the initial post-election euphoria, the true nature of the nation’s sovereign debt was revealed and the public told to brace itself for a tough budget. Pre-budget talk carried undertones of sacrifice and speculation was rife that the crucial education sector – Malaysia’s education and higher education ministries have been merged since June – could be staring at a funding shortfall in the next fiscal year.

However, instead of crippling cuts, education received RM60.23 billion – almost RM380 million more than its allocation for 2018. Investing a remarkable 19.1% of total government spending in education reflects a budget with the future in mind. People are a nation’s most valuable resource and prioritising education over more populist measures is a move in the right direction. Delving deeper, the new government has also made it clear that a major overhaul of the system is required to improve student outcomes and address perception gaps.

Such revolutionary change must start at the grassroots and the bulk of education funding went to primary and secondary education, with a RM2.9 billion allocation in aid for students in lower income groups and a further RM652 million to upgrade schools across the nation. While some have been quick to bemoan the lack of ‘goodies’ for higher education, such views are rather myopic. The interconnectivity of different stages of education cannot be overlooked and improving the life chances of students – particularly those in the B40 category – will result in a multiplier effect for higher education, particularly at the point of entry to tertiary studies.

This correlation is most evident in the area of STEM talent development. Approximately five million students enrol each year in primary and secondary schools but only around 100,000 opt for science streams at upper secondary level. Of these, around 80,000 end up pursuing STEM-related courses at tertiary level. The shrinking talent pool can only be remedied by instilling STEM awareness from pre-school onwards, as advocated by the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025. Higher order thinking skills must also be inculcated early to prepare students for the ever-evolving demands of university life.

Presently, Malaysia’s higher education landscape covers 20 public universities, more than 500 private higher education institutions (HEIs), 36 polytechnics and 100 community colleges. As public universities prioritise domestic demands at undergraduate level, the private sector has been a primary driver of Malaysia’s ever-increasing international student numbers. Over the past three decades, a number of private HEIs have recorded impressive growth, going on to attain full-fledged university status. Well regarded for teaching and learning, these institutions are casting a wider net and embarking on a strong research focus.

UCSI University is gratified to be in this category and much progress has been recorded. From 2014 to 2017, UCSI’s citation score rose by 991%, publication numbers increased by 103% and the volume of publications in Scopus™ and ISI publications doubled. In the past year alone, research endowment exceeded threefold growth. While these statistics speak for themselves, the research imperative has only just begun. And if UCSI is taken as a microcosm of the upper echelons of Malaysia’s private sector, it would be fair to conclude that larger private HEIs have much potential for growth.

This was best reflected in the recent Malaysian Education Ministry Research Star Awards, which honour the top researchers in the nation. While academics from public universities took 28 of the 32 awards and two more went to academics from a foreign branch campus, the private sector showed that it could make significant contributions with academics from private universities scooping two; one won by UCSI’s Professor Dr Ooi Keng Boon who was recognised as a Top Peer Reviewer for his contributions in the Social Sciences. The creation of a RM400 million contestable research fund under Budget 2019 bodes well in this regard. Open to academics from all higher education institutions, the fund provides much-needed access to research funding and this will undoubtedly spur more high impact research endeavours.

The abiding commitment to the pursuit and expansion of knowledge also brings other dividends. UCSI’s improving research scores have coincided with its ever-improving global profile. This year, UCSI was distinguished as Malaysia’s best private university, one of the nation’s top 10 and one of the world’s top 70 universities under 50 years old in the QS World University Rankings 2019 and the QS Top 50 Under 50 exercises. These hallmarks empower UCSI to engage with the world’s best and work on endeavours with far-reaching outcomes.

One case in point is Malaysia’s War-on-Cancer, a national movement that was launched by Deputy Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail in July 2018. Spearheaded by the College of Physicians of Malaysia, the Academy of Medicine of Malaysia, the Academy of Family Physicians of Malaysia and the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, the effort is a shared initiative that has captured the imagination of Malaysian society. To date, universities, research institutes, non-governmental organisations, societies, and even individuals have come forward to volunteer their expertise in the bid to, at longlast, overcome cancer.

UCSI vice-chancellor and president Senior Professor Dato’ Dr Khalid Yusoff serves as the founding chairman of this initiative and a number of his colleagues are part of a large consortium that involves other leading academics from Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia and the International Medical University, among others. While a great deal of scientific expertise is naturally involved in such an endeavour, the War-on-Cancer is also concentrating on other fields including education, psychology, finance, public engagement and epidemiology.

Lee Shuo Yu (left) and Eugene Low Yi Ming advancing science at the University of Chicago in 2018. The best UCSI students are annually selected for research programs by the world’s best universities.

The benefits of these research endeavours are manifold. Presently, 75% of cancer cases in Malaysia are detected late – stages three to four – and intervention at such advanced stages pass as Sisyphean tasks more often than not. The need to reverse this fundamental problem is compelling. If 75% of cancer cases can be detected early, survival rates are projected to dramatically increase. The consortium is working on the logistics to run early screening initiatives throughout the nation and operations at the local level will commence in early 2019 with the inaugural state launch in Negeri Sembilan.

But while the future looks bright for more established private providers, the dichotomy between financial health and insolvency can no longer be ignored in the private sector. A recent study based on audited financial accounts from the Companies Commission of Malaysia showed that many private HEIs are loss-making: 53% of institutions involved in the study incurred pretax losses, and 55% made losses after tax. Delving deeper, profitable private HEIs have headwinds of their own as profits before tax dipped 54% while profits after tax plummeted 78% since 2010. Many academic and non-academic staff are employed at these loss-making institutions.

View of UCSI’s Kuala Lumpur campus after recent expansion with further upgrades planned.

The same study showed that around 44% of all private HEIs are technically insolvent with insufficient current assets to cover their current bills, leading many to claim that the private sector needs and deserves government support and funding. However, the implementation of any form of bailout would be complex. While any attempt to do so might ease the situation in the short run, the effort would ultimately be unsustainable given the many private providers that are in financial trouble. Doing so would also require the government to reallocate funds, potentially straining other layers of society.

As an alternative, the time could be ripe for legislation to be put in place to facilitate the endowment model. By granting the right to set up endowed funds, the government would free private HEIs from an over-reliance on tuition fees and zero-sum mindsets. As of June 2017, the endowment funds of Harvard, Yale and Stanford stood at US$36bn, US$27.2bn and US$24.8bn respectively. Percentages of these funds are used to cover operating expenses, disburse financial aid and facilitate high impact research. The long overdue and eagerly awaited creation of such an ecosystem in Malaysia could be a game-changer.

By default, or by design, the private sector has been a major contributor to Malaysia’s rise as an education hub. And while public universities continue to prioritise local intakes at undergraduate level, private HEIs must maintain much responsibility for the annual influx of international students. The present model has already taken Malaysia far, and by addressing existing problems from the ground up it can take the nation further. The private higher education sector needs to be empowered, with grand ideas being backed up by a strong political will in the spirit of a renewing Malaysia.