My statement that Malaysia’s higher education is “world class” has captured the attention of many Malaysians and observers.
I appreciate all views and feedback and take all criticism in stride as it is part of my job, my duty, my passion.
While there are those who are resolute that our higher education system is all doom and gloom, facts will show that we have improved, are continuously improving, or, as I am proud of saying, “soaring upwards”. More importantly, Malaysians need to know that on many fronts we are indeed “world class”.
Some members of the public have asked that I elaborate on the matter. I am quite happy to do this for all Malaysians to gain a better understanding of this vast landscape and to appreciate it as I have.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “world class” as being “among the best in the world”. The question that arises then is: How is Malaysia’s higher education world class?
There are many indicators and ways to look at it. In news reports, I had touched on just a few aspects: International student enrolment and university rankings.
For the time being, allow me to delve into these one by one.
International student enrolment
Malaysia currently has about 135,000 international students, from school to higher education.
Of this, 107,838 are enrolled in our higher education institutions. In 2014, Malaysia recorded a 16.5 percent growth in international student enrolment. This increase, according to Unesco, is higher compared to countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom.
Indeed, numbers per se do not mean we are world class. There is much, much more to it.
So, why has Malaysia become a preferred education destination?
In a Unesco report titled “Higher Education in Asia: Expanding Out, Expanding Up” published in 2014, the five prominent factors influencing international students’ choices to select Malaysia were:
- “Malaysia provides a friendly environment for Muslim students, where values and practices are understood, widely-shared and respected.”
- “The costs of undergraduate and graduate degree programmes in Malaysia are a bargain.”
Value for money
- “Not only are costs relatively low, but the quality of Malaysian higher education is seen to be good, yielding to a growing perception that higher education in Malaysia represents value for money.”
Language of instruction
- “Most instruction is offered in English, which is viewed as offering better access to international employment opportunities.”
Quality of life
- “Malaysia offers a good quality of life; it is widely regarded as a comfortable place to live and study.”
Affordable, welcoming, good quality
Based on the Unesco report, we can say that education in Malaysia is not only affordable, but accessible, welcoming and of good quality.
International students know that they can get quality education in Malaysia, and many nations send their best students here, fully-sponsored by their respective governments, in recognition of this.
Part of the appeal is that Malaysia is host to nine international branch campuses of renowned international universities such as Monash, Nottingham, and Southampton which are ranked within the top 100 in the world.
We also have locally grown universities such as Sunway, Taylors, HELP and Lim Kok Wing which are also internationally recognised.
Related, 27,812 (25 percent) of all international students are pursuing programmes at postgraduate level in Malaysia, be it Masters or PhD. A majority of them are in our public
This proves that we are trusted when it comes to advanced pursuits of knowledge and that opportunities for meaningful research are available within our universities.
In the past, we had the Colombo Plan where Malaysian students would be sent to Australia and New Zealand to study. Recently, we have embarked on the New Colombo Plan – an exchange programme where students from Australia and New Zealand would come to Malaysia.
The New Colombo Plan is testament to what we can offer and is recognition of the wealth of knowledge Malaysia’s higher education has to offer. In 2015, about 140 students will be part of the New Colombo Plan.
The above does not include the number of students from other developed nations. We are currently home to full-time students from countries such as the USA, Netherlands, Australia,
Singapore, United Kingdom, Spain, Japan, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, Hong Kong, France, Russia, South Korea and more. Students from developed nations account for about 10 percent of all international students.
Never label others inferior
While some politicians have said that this amount is “negligible”, it is important to bear in mind that the developed-nations student market is one of the toughest to crack as they have different economic strengths and access capabilities. Nevertheless, the enrolment figures are rising and this is something to build upon
Another politician recently said that students coming to Malaysia were mainly those from countries with “inferior” universities. While I accept that our universities
many of those from other nations, I would never label the others “inferior”.
In listing down the top 10 international students’ countries of origin, the politician appears to be suggesting that these students are not worthy of being labelled as world class. This is most unfortunate as one should not discriminate and judge based on origin. Not everyone is as fortunate to have studied in a developed nation.
Undeniably, there have been problems in the past with our international student population, but the bad apples are the exception rather than the norm. Most international students who come to Malaysia are good and many return to their respective nations to take up vital positions in government and the private sector.
The same goes to some of our foreign academics. Many of them who used to serve in our universities are now holding important positions in their home countries, as high as the prime minister (of Turkey).
Still, let me provide an answer.
One way to address creeping problems was to establish Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) in 2013. EMGS acts as a screening body to ensure that international students entering Malaysia are legitimate and qualified.
Previously, the respective higher education institutions handled this and there was room for abuse. There was in fact concern that EMGS’s establishment would lead to a decrease in international students coming to Malaysia as it was more stringent.
Clearly, this hasn’t happened and I’m glad to say that EMGS has instead contributed to raising the trust and confidence in our education system all round. That aside, we continue to monitor arising problems and address them.
Parents trust us
Malaysia is home to students from more than 150 nations worldwide. About a fifth are from our Asean neighbours, with many of the others from East Asia, South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East and North African region.
These students, their parents and sponsors appreciate Malaysia and believe in the quality of education offered. In turn, we continuously do our best to accommodate them and provide quality education.
The free-market of international student mobility is unsustainable if our offerings are of no value, particularly because higher education can be an expensive and resource exhaustive pursuit. Higher education is, after all, an investment.
So, does the foregoing mean we are world class? I’d say yes.
We may not be the best in the world overall, but the fact remains that we are among the best in the world when it comes to attracting international students. The market for international students is huge, and many nations would like to attract these students too.
There are economic benefits, knowledge accumulation, as well as social benefits to be gained when international students opt for a country to study in, and Malaysia is privileged to be host to so many.
As higher education becomes more and more global, Malaysia has positioned herself as one of the most competitive and attractive education destinations. We are not merely an alternative, but a genuine option in the international student mobility landscape.
Malaysia has worked hard to attract bright international students, and we certainly have a winning world class formula. According to Unesco statistics, we are the 9th most preferred international education destination, ahead of countries such as Singapore, South Africa, South Korea and The Netherlands.
In this context, I believe it’s safe and grounded to say that we are among the best in the world.
University rankings not be all and end all
I am a proud graduate of Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), having studied there in the early 80s. The quality was certainly good and the lecturers were of high standards.
How good we were exactly was hard to gauge. There were no international rankings system, the student population was smaller, and the world was generally a less complex place.
Today, with the advancement of technology and globalisation, we see more people entering universities, more campuses opening, and of course, a need to control quality, output (i.e. graduates), and ensure that the education is ‘future-proof’.
Whilst rankings are useful indicators, they are not the only exhaustive and definitive indicator. We always have to be mindful as there are many ranking bodies, each vying to be
conclusive and authoritative.
I have also said in the past that rankings are not the ‘be all and end all’ as they are not always able to capture the more subtle values of higher education, such as prioritising access over outcomes, teaching over research and publications, building infrastructure or the capacity of young lecturers and so forth.
The above said, rankings nonetheless give us a yardstick and benchmark as to where our strengths lie and how we can improve, and we find it useful for this purpose. The key is to strike a balance between setting our institutional objectives and conforming to ranking criteria.
Our results in rankings have been mixed, but ultimately encouraging. As mentioned previously, Universiti Malaya (UM) ranks 151 in the QS World Universities Rankings 2014
(up from 167). It is 32nd in Asia, and amongst OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) nations, it is the highest ranked. UM also holds a five-star rating from the QS Intelligence Unit. Other top universities with a 5-star rating include Harvard, Oxford, Duke and Columbia.
Our other universities have been doing well and have improved compared to last year with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) in 259th place (compared to 269th in 2013),
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) in 294th spot (355), a drastic rise of 61 steps compared to last year. Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) is in 309th position and Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) in 376th spot. UKM is also placed at number 20 in the Top 50 under 50 list.
As a comparative, well known universities such as the University of Exeter is ranked 161, Hong Kong Polytechnic University at 162, University of Bath at 179, Vanderbilt University at 182, Michigan State University at 195, Tel Aviv University at 196, Georgetown University (which Bill Clinton attended) at 200, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB) at 222, George Washington University at 300, RMIT University 304, Curtin University 331, University of South Australia 333, and Oxford Brookes 379.
Make no mistake; we should certainly strive to climb above higher ranked universities, especially those of our neighbours such as the National University of Singapore (22), and
Nanyang Technological University (NTU) (39). The point to be made is that we are climbing and we are working hard to continually rise.
We should also be mindful that there are about 30,000 universities worldwide.
High rank in subjects and faculties
According to subject and faculty rankings, 11 faculties of our public universities rank within the top 100 in the world. USM ranks as high as 28th in the world for environmental sciences according to the QS Rankings by Subject while UPM is at 54th place in the world for agricultural sciences (7th in Asia and first in Southeast Asia) according to the Best Global Universities Rankings.
UM ranks top 100 in modern languages, computer sciences, chemical and electrical engineering, as well as mechanical, aeronautical and manufacturing engineering. Aside from
environmental sciences, USM is in the top 100 for civil and structural engineering, chemical engineering, pharmacy and pharmacology, and computer sciences and information systems.
UM, UKM and UPM are in the top 100 for education, while UKM is ranked for politics.
In a report titled ‘An Avalanche is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead’ by the Institute for Public Policy Research, a UK-based Think Tank , it is stated that universities of the future should move towards a more niche focused approach when it comes to their offerings rather than spread themselves too widely.
If our subject rankings are anything to go by, this is a strategy that we can adopt.
Our universities are improving in overall as well as subject rankings. The Vice-Chancellors as well as all members of the universities are working hard to improve. We have many good people in our universities, doing good things for the community. The Education Ministry is firmly behind all of them in achieving this.
So, does this mean we are world class? On some level, such as USM’s environmental science ranking, the answer would probably be yes. But in terms of overall ranking, a top 100 overall ranking would instill greater confidence before a conclusive ‘yes’ is given. These are things to be firmly kept in sight.
I wish to highlight that old and reputable universities from France, Japan, Germany and Italy are very seldom ranked high in those rankings. It’s simply because their medium of instruction and excellent publications (which carry high scores under most of the rankings evaluation criteria) are not in English.
But does this mean national, technical and engineering schools in Japan, Italy, Switzerland and Germany are not world class. These countries are epitomes of engineering brilliance and technical skill excellence, and we learn many things from them.
World class professors, according to Thompson Reuters
Rankings and international students’ enrolment aside, there are many other areas in which we are world class. Allow me to explain.
Last year, four professors from our public universities were named in the Thomson Reuters ‘World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds 2014’ list. They are:
Prof Dr Abdul Latif Ahmad (USM’s School of Chemical Engineering)
Prof Dr Bassim H Hameed (USM’s School of Chemical Engineering)
Prof Dr Ishak Hashim (UKM’s School of Mathematical Sciences, Faculty of Science and Technology)
Prof Dr Saidur Rahman (UM’s Engineering Faculty)
These professors achieved this amazing distinction because their published research ranked among the top one percent most cited in their respective fields in the given year of publication. Analysts from Thomson Reuters studied citation data from over 11 years to come up with the listing.
Having met them last year, they told me that they were ‘just doing their jobs’ for the betterment of the academic fraternity and society generally.
In my view, these professors are world class.
We have many other members of the higher education community of international repute who have done wonderful things on the world stage. I do not doubt for a second that many of our lecturers and researchers are of world class.
We conducted research into scholarly output on Islamic Banking. We discovered that out of 422 publications on Islamic banking between 2009 and 2014, 178 or 41 percent of all publications originated from Malaysia.
Of this amount, 48 publications, or over 10 percent, were produced by the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM).
IIUM has been at the forefront of Islamic banking and finance development in Malaysia and the world for decades. IIUM's lecturers continue to be highly sought after as advisors to
Islamic banks and institutions locally and internationally, and are considered authorities on Islamic banking and finance matters.
I have no doubt that when it comes to Islamic banking, we are world class.
Co curriculum – Debating & More
Recently, IIUM law student Ameera Natasha Moore was crowned as the best debater at the Cambridge Women’s Inter-varsity debating tournament, outranking debaters from Cambridge, Oxford and other renowned institutions.
Malaysia was also the host of the 2015 World Universities Debating Championship. At the tournament, the IIUM debating team were placed at no.10 in the world, outranking traditional debate powerhouses like Harvard and Sydney University.
Mai Mokhsein from UiTM was named best debater in Asia, while a team from UiTM were crowned Asian British Parliamentary Debating Championship champions.
Undergraduates from UKM's law faculty also emerged as champions at the International Air and Space Law Academy Moot competition held in Paris.
At the 19th FIRA Robo World Cup held in Beijing, our local polytechnic students brought home 3 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze medals. Their robots beat a host of robots from other
institutions in achieving this.
In the 2014 Sony World Photography Awards, a Community College lecturer was the winner of the split second open competition category. He creatively put together a gorgeous picture of a lady pouring water from her quaint wooden kampung home window. It is truly a sight to behold.
The examples cited above are just a few of the many amazing successes our students and lecturers have achieved at the international level in co-curricular activities.
I raise them because I am proud of these achievements and believe that these examples act as a reminder of the world class talent that we possess in Malaysia. We will continue to support the development of our talent.
Room to improve
Without a doubt, improving graduate employability, English proficiency, and critical thinking skills are among the priorities of the Education Ministry.
We have heard from and talked to members of industry, employers’ associations and the public generally about their concerns surrounding our local graduates.
We have also talked to alumni and current students on what challenges they face and what their needs are.
Context is key. Ultimately, we need to be realistic about our strengths and weaknesses.
Having been the Minister of Education II for almost two years now, I am proud of what my predecessors have done, what the Education Ministry continues to do, and what our public and private higher education institutions have achieved.
I hope that based on what I’ve said above, you have reasons to feel proud of what our country has achieved.
The journey certainly doesn’t end here. There’s still a long way to go. We want to be world class in all areas.
We have embarked on a two year journey to review the strategic direction of our higher education sector. By early April, we will be launching the Higher Education Blueprint. You can read the summary
Every Malaysian plays a role – lecturers, students, parents, private sector and members of the public. Together, we’ll make our education system even better.
IDRIS JUSOH is Education Minister II.