Malaysian higher education soaring upwards

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Dato' Seri Haji Idris bin Jusoh

Tony Martin interviewes Malaysia’s minister of higher education, Dato’ Seri Haji Idris bin Jusoh.

The first publication of world university rankings in 2004 caused shock waves in Malaysia as its universities’ rankings indicated a level of quality lower than that perceived at that time by government and others. Twelve years on, what has been the lasting impact of this event on Malaysia’s higher education development?

The introduction of world university rankings has had a significant impact on Malaysia’s higher education. It was a catalyst of sorts for us to take a step back, reflect on what we were doing, how we were spending money, what type of research we were doing, what type of training we were giving our people, and most importantly, how we were serving our students.

After 12 years, the impact has been largely positive. In that time, we have started the Research Universities (RU) initiative, introduced the Malaysian Technical Universities Network (MTUN), introduced the High Institution Centre for Excellence (HiCOE), and more. We had also launched the National Higher Education Strategic Plan (PSPTN) in 2007 and most recently, launched its successor, the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015– 2025 (Higher Education). In both our strategic plans, achieving global prominence is identified a key goal, with university rankings recognised as vital for purposes of benchmarking, confidence building, and reputation building. University rankings have also had a significant impact on our internationalisation efforts – both in terms of staff and student recruitment.

Malaysia has been a pioneer in transnational education (TNE), its many twinning programmes – with UK and Australian universities in particular – enabling a practical solution in the 1990s for fulfilling the burgeoning demand for quality degree level education for Malaysian citizens.  In what ways has Malaysian higher education benefited from this early development?

I am proud to note that Malaysia is a pioneer of TNE, including twinning programmes. Our private institutions, an important part of our higher education landscape, have ingeniously partnered with foreign institutions to provide quality international education locally. Malaysia’s higher education has, and continues to benefit from this in many ways:

Firstly, it created competition within and among public and private institutions. Programme quality and credibility meant that universities had to provide the best in order to attract students and the best teaching talent.

Secondly, it empowered parents and students with choice – they could now opt to study locally and obtain an international degree at a fraction of the cost.

Thirdly, this raised the level of education among Malaysians as more people could access quality tertiary education. An educated and more empowered citizenry has contributed to Malaysia’s growth and development over the last few decades.

Fourthly, this set the tone for Malaysia towards positioning itself as an international higher education destination.  Governments and students of other nations began looking at Malaysia as a legitimate, credible, and quality study destination. This meant more scholarships for international students to come to Malaysia.

Fifthly, the twinning programmes created confidence within international students to recognise Malaysia as an education hub. At present, we are home to more than ten international university branch campuses, and host to the largest number of British institutions outside Britain; we have the first public university from China to set up outside of China; we have some of the world’s top 100 universities; and we are in collaboration with the best institutions worldwide.

TNE has contributed to the possibility and reality of a more future of flexible education. International students can now study their first or second years at home, and then come to Malaysia for a year or to complete their degrees. We see the twinning programme shift, with Malaysia being the completion destination. This is already happening in some of our institutions.

Last but not least, TNE in Malaysia has come full circle. From a recipient   of overseas programmes, Malaysia is now also an exporter. Malaysia’s HEIs have branch campuses and presence in Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Maldives, and several African countries.

A downside of the rapid growth of TNE in Malaysia at that time was some incidences of sub-standard degree programmes. What has the Malaysian government done to guarantee quality in the private and partnership sector of its higher education delivery?

As mentioned above, TNE had created competition and this meant attracting the best programmes and forming the best partnerships. Indeed, there have been occasional incidences of sub-standard degree programmes offered, which I must emphasise are the exception rather than the norm. In the majority of instances, TNE experiences have been positive.

The above said, in order to guarantee the quality of our HE delivery, various mechanisms have been put in place:

Firstly, strong enforcement and political will. The Private Higher Education Institutions Act (aka Act 555) which came into force in 1996 empowers the ministry to regulate certain aspects of Private HEIs on matters concerning quality and programme delivery.

Secondly, our Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA), previously known as the National Accreditation Board (LAN), is a highly reputable organisation that verifies and certifies the accreditation of all TNE programmes in Malaysia. Over time, MQA has been able to weed out programmes which do not meet the criteria or had initially met the criteria but eventually fell short.

Thirdly, in February 2013, a moratorium was put in place as a control mechanism for Private HEIs. The rapid growth and proliferation of Private HEIs over the last few decades meant that the industry was growing faster than the ministry was able to monitor and regulate. The moratorium has enabled us to review Private HEI operations. More than 20 private HEIs have ceased operations since the moratorium was introduced.

Why is Malaysia a favourite location for major overseas universities to build branch campuses?

I think there are many reasons for this, including government support, language (English as a medium of instruction), potential for growth, and cost of living. One of the key reasons is that the government as a whole has provided a conducive and supportive ecosystem for major overseas universities to set up branches in the country. We take education seriously, and in our efforts to become an international education hub, facilitating the entry of top international universities is vital towards realising those goals.

As stated earlier, our TNE experiences have instilled confidence within these top international institutions and sent a message that Malaysia is a great place to set up their operations. Beyond that, our geographic location is ideal – we are in the heart of Southeast Asia, connecting Europe and the Pacific to Asia. Our economic and political structures are stable; socially, Malaysians are a very welcoming and kind bunch; and perhaps equally important is that our food offerings are great.

With around 115,000 following degree courses, over 10% of students in Malaysia’s HEIs are now international. What have been the strategies – both of the Ministry of Higher Education and of the individual universities –  that have led to the increase of numbers and to the country’s enhanced reputation as a host country?

A report released by UNESCO in 2014 titled “Higher Education in Asia: Expanding Out, Expanding Up” noted reasons why international students choose Malaysia: i) Quality education (value for money); ii) Cost; iii) Cultural comforts; iv) Language of instruction; v) Quality of life.

I believe top international institutions also recognise this. Aside from that, we constantly engage with our stakeholders by participating in international education expos, we enter MoUs with other nations, and we engage with the students once they are here to listen to them and to understand how we can constantly improve our service delivery to them.

Metrics of Malaysian universities’ research outputs, such as number of papers published and citations received, have improved significantly over the last few years. How has this been achieved? In what subject areas is Malaysian university research particularly strong?

This has been achieved through a conscientious effort on the part of the Malaysian government, the ministry, as well as Malaysian universities to enculture research and publications. As mentioned earlier, the Research Universities (RU) initiative which began in 2007 could be said to be the point in which monumental growth in research outputs began.

A key plank has been the upgrading of university lecturers by funding PhDs overseas for selected academics. While this was initially mainly in UK universities, we are now sending staff to a wider range of countries such as Germany, USA and Japan for greater diversity.

Between 2007 and 2013, we have seen a 3.1x increase in publications (the highest rise in the world), enabling us to overtake our Thai and Singaporean counterparts. Seventy percent of the publications growth was contributed by our five research-status universities. We have also seen a 4x increase in citations, 11% yearly growth for patents files, and RM1.25 billion (approximately US$300 million) in income has been generated by our RUs through publications, expert consultancy, and research grants, or as we call it, the “commercialisation of ideas”. Between 2014 and 2016, six of our public university researchers have been recognised as the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.

Malaysia excels in a number of subject areas. Based on various subject ranking indicators, we most notably excel in various fields of engineering – our chemical and electrical and electronic engineering are ranked top 50 in the world, with other fields of engineering in the top 100. Malaysia excels in fuel and energy, membrane technology, tropical diseases, and environmental conversation based research.

MOOCs are considered to be a crucial method of meeting demand for higher education qualifications. What is Malaysia’s approach to these? How do the institutions delivering them compensate for the absence of face-to-face teaching?

MOOCs have been identified as one of the 10 shifts under the Higher Education Blueprint. For starters, Malaysia is the first country in the world with a national-level MOOCs initiative known as “MOOCs Malaysia”. This means that all MOOCs provided, be it by public or private HEIs, are placed under one umbrella. This is done to ensure quality, to provide open access to whoever may want to learn, and to encourage collaborative MOOCs. Unlike other nations where MOOCs are institution or organisation led, in Malaysia, MOOCs are nationally coordinated.

Secondly, in order to encourage long-term sustainability and interest within MOOCs, in 2016 I launched the MOOCs Credit programme –  a first in the world – whereby individuals taking MOOCs can have those MOOCs accredited. They can then use those credits to obtain qualifications or certificates, and even university degrees (subject to the fulfilment of requirements, of course). The reason behind this is that we realised many people are doing MOOCs for their self-enrichment. While this is commendable, we also realise that others want their MOOCs participation to be recognised. Hence, we have added value to the MOOCs experience by providing credits.

The MOOCs Credit framework has been developed by MQA. And I am glad to say that we do not just give credits for Malaysian MOOCs, but also MOOCs from abroad – this means that students can learn from any MOOCs provider worldwide, and it can be recognised by Malaysian institutions. This also leads to reduced study time for full university degrees and savings in tuition fee costs.

Within institutions, targets have been set for programmes to deploy lessons based on MOOCs. We believe that MOOCs is able to cater to the modern day student, who learns at their own pace. This said, institutions are encouraged to adopt a blended learning approach, i.e. where the lecturers are done via MOOCs, but then students spend face-to-face time with their lecturers during tutorials or the likes. The point is the MOOCs give them time to digest the lessons, while the face-to-face time is spent going in depth into the issue, which should lead to more meaningful engagement.

How is Malaysia future-proofing its higher education provision and development against the risks of economic downturn, whether domestic or global?

Future-proofing our higher education is certainly of importance to us. Fortunately, Malaysia is known to be very innovative in HE. We recognise that during both good and bad economic times individuals will seek out education, though what they seek may differ. For instance, during tough economic times, the trend is for more short-term skills based education – which can be applied immediately for economic prosperity.

That is why we have embarked on a “redesigning higher education” agenda. We have initiatives such as the iCGPA (integrated cumulative grade point average), 2u2i, CEO @ Faculty Programme, Malaysia MOOCs, APEL (accreditation of prior experiential learning) and modular and stackable TVET.

The Ministry of Higher Education is thus always mindful as to what we have on offer at all levels of the education spectrum. We have 94 Community Colleges that offer various types of skills certification, from culinary skills to home maintenance, video game design to online sales. We have 34 polytechnics offering diplomas in subjects such as aircraft maintenance and various engineering fields, and then we have our 20 public universities and over 497 private universities and colleges, offering more long-term education, research, and learning opportunities.

All these initiatives are put in place to ensure our HE is future-proof. Most importantly, that our students will be equipped to be future ready. Our vision is to produce holistic, entrepreneurial, and balanced graduates; those who see themselves not just as job-seekers, but rather as job creators.

In conclusion, I believe Malaysia’s higher education system has a lot to offer. We are on the right track. We have achieved many successes, and we will continue to work hard to become the best. As we say at the ministry, we are “soaring upwards”.

Appointed as Malaysia’s minister of higher education in July 2015, Idris Jusoh had previously held posts as minister of education II, chairman of Majlis Amanah Rakyat (MARA) (2008–2013), chief minister of Terengganu (2004–2008) and deputy minister of entrepreneurial development (1995–1999). Idris was instrumental in setting up programmes to bring in native English speakers from the UK and USA in order to enhance English proficiency amongst Malaysian students. He has even founded schools known as “Imtiaz Schools” which combine science and religious education. At the tertiary education level, Idris is credited with the establishment of the Sultan Zainal Abidin University (UniSZA) in Terengganu, and Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT). Idris Jusoh holds an MBA (Finance) from the University of New Haven, USA, and a degree in social sciences (economics and management) from University Sains Malaysia (USM) where he also received the Gold Medal Award for emerging as USM’s valedictorian.