Interview: Lim Kok Wing

Is Malaysia’s education system competitive in comparison to other countries in the ASEAN region?

LIM KOK WING: We can look at ability of Malaysian higher education institutes to attract foreign students as a barometer of how effectively we are competing, and this figure is increasing by nearly 10% per year. Malaysia needs to ensure it is setting the bar for competition beyond ASEAN and must focus on building its value proposition within the global education marketplace, particularly against the standards of first-world universities.

On the other hand, when it comes to educating students from developing or emerging economies, some arguably desire an educational experience in surroundings similar to their home and future place of employment. Many students from developing countries return home from studies in the US or the UK and find themselves in an environment that starkly contrasts that in which they studied, and thus have difficulty adapting. They may encounter challenges in drawing parallels between their education and the realities of their home country. In Malaysia, students from the developing world can receive a quality education in an environment that resonates with their home countries and thus find their skills sets more easily transferable.

Furthermore, due to the government’s package of incentives, there has been considerable success in attracting foreign investments in tertiary education. This is forcing local institutions to raise their standards as they begin to compete directly with first-world universities setting up branch campuses in Malaysia. The fact that local institutions do not qualify for some incentives offered to their foreign counterparts provides an added challenge, but higher standards are positive for the development of the sector.

What types of investments will be required for Malaysia to meet its goal of attracting 150,000 international students by 2015?

LIM: Investment in facilities is important, as they can be used effectively to attract people. Developments such as EduCity are a good example of what we need to move forward in this regard, but in my view they are not the most important aspect in the long run. At the end of the day, reputation and quality in education is built on what happens inside the classroom.

The number of international students seeking high-quality education will increase as the global population becomes more affluent. Again, I want to stress the importance of marketing: if we talk about exporting Malaysian education, we need to talk more about the Malaysian brand itself. To some, it is already desirable, but others may prefer the brand of education in Australia or in the UK, for example. Assuming the country brand is acceptable, then the university brand is also assessed; however, the country must brand itself properly. This underlines the importance of marketing and building the Malaysian brand as the first step.

How can standards be maintained as the government focuses on universal education?

LIM: I think the market could benefit from further competition, which would boost both enrolment and standards. I think we can reach a level of 70% enrolment in tertiary education within 10 years, and a large portion of the growth will be driven by the private sector. Private sector education is reasonably priced and competes in terms of quality with public institutions.

As world-leading educational institutions establish branch campuses in emerging markets, how are local private institutions being affected?

LIM: Some of the lower-performing institutions will suffer as students will have more choices, thus making it harder for them to retain market share. Furthermore, branch campuses primarily promote foreign brands. We must not confuse this with building the brand of Malaysian education. At the same time, however, the concentration of foreign universities in our country will help establish Malaysia as a regional education centre, which would be positive for all involved.