Interview: Professor Abdul Rahman Arshad
In the context of the broader Malaysia development plan, what do you think are the most important educational policy priorities?
ABDUL RAHMAN ARSHAD: Sarawak is one of the fastest-growing regions in Malaysia, thus it plays a very important role in the country’s development plan, the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016-20). For our part, the UCSI University campus in Sarawak is actively contributing to Malaysia’s Economic Transformation Programme by leading Entry Point Project 10, an initiative to revamp the nation’s tourism and hospitality sector through education. This government initiative has set itself a target of producing 50,000 highly skilled graduates by 2020 to keep up with the nation’s broader industrial growth. In particular we are focusing on creating a centre of excellence in hospitality and tourism, which is one of the most promising growth sectors in Sarawak, offering many opportunities to create jobs. The challenge for us is to prevent brain drain. Many young Sarawakians still prefer to leave the state to seek higher paying jobs in Peninsular Malaysia. We want to convince them to stay in their state, because there are more opportunities here.
To support this initiative we are involved in building a combined campus and hotel at the Kuching Isthmus site near the Borneo Convention Centre. Sarawak is rich in cultural diversity, handicraft traditions, music and history. We believe there is huge potential for growing the tourism sector. Our challenge is to engage with the private sector and provide market-driven skill creation. In the past we faced the problem that there were too many graduates not ready for the real market economy. That must change.
What are the prospects of positioning Sarawak as a centre for international students?
RAHMAN: Sarawak has already managed to position itself as an attractive destination for foreign students, especially those from neighbouring Indonesia, China, Central Asia and the Middle East. Still, attracting larger numbers of international students remains an important objective. In addition to bringing new income to the state, it also creates a more dynamic environment and builds global links.
In order to succeed we believe Sarawak campuses should continue to specialise in courses that add value to the local economy. I already mentioned the potential of the hospitality sector. One programme that is quite attractive for foreigners is coursework in food science and nutrition. Malaysia is one the few countries that combines cuisine traditions from China, Malaysia, India and Europe. Sarawak is famous for its quality food and abundance of fresh seafood, herbs and ingredients. We really believe this could help draw more aspiring chefs from around the region and beyond, and could make Sarawak a centre of excellence in food and nutrition.
How important do you think the ASEAN integration process is for education? What opportunities may emerge under Malaysia’s chairmanship?
RAHMAN: Education is a top strategic priority for all ASEAN governments. With relatively young populations that aspire to better standards of living, the only way to meet their expectations is by providing quality education. We are quite optimistic that ASEAN governments will find many areas of common interest. To break down the barriers we need harmonisation among degrees and wider acceptance of qualifications. It is difficult for Indonesian students to study in Malaysia, and vice versa, if their governments do not recognise their degrees.
Another area that calls for action is sharing our talent and resources to drive research and innovation, which is an expensive and demanding process, requiring collaboration. We face similar challenges in environmental protection, food security, health and cyber security. We need more engagement among ASEAN nations to produce graduates who can adapt to the market’s needs and address local challenges.
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