Malaysia: Eye on education

Malaysia is stepping up efforts to become a regional centre for higher learning, a campaign that is focused on improving the quality of education to encourage more locals to pursue their studies at home while also attracting more fee-paying foreign students.

The plan to make Malaysia a regional and international centre for education is by no means a new one, having first been floated more than a decade ago. Though the programme has already achieved some notable successes, the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak wants to take things to a higher level.

Education has been identified as one of the key planks in the government’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) unveiled last year, which aims to elevate Malaysia to the status of a high-income country by 2020.

Under the plan, the contribution of education to gross national income will rise from the approximately $9bn currently to $20.2bn by 2020, with most of that growth forecast to come from the private sector.

One avenue the government is taking to increase education’s contribution to the economy is by setting a target of having 200,000 foreign students enrolled on Malaysian campuses by 2020, more than double the current 86,000.

According to the deputy prime minister and minister of education, Muhyiddin Yassin, more remains to be done to achieve this goal, with private schools needing to take up the baton and compete with public universities and higher education institutions to raise standards and attract students.

“The government is making the education sector an economic investment to attract foreign students. Private institutions of higher learning have a big role to play,” Muhyiddin said on March 23.

That economic investment will amount to $6.6bn in funding over the next 10 years. Of this, the government estimates just 6% will be new public expenditure, the remainder either coming from previously committed long-term spending plans or, in line with the ETP’s vision of increasing the role of the private sector in all facets of the economy, from non-state sources. All told, the ETP foresees the private educational sector expanding six-fold by 2020.

According to Siti Hamisah Tapsir, the deputy director-general for private higher education institutions at the Department of Higher Education, Malaysia already has many of the ingredients needed to be considered a centre for education.

Malaysia is located at the centre of Asia, Siti Hamisah said in a recent interview with the Malaysia Star, and as such, it is well placed to cater to the global community. Add to this the country’s Islamic heritage, which appeals to Middle Eastern students, and that English is widely spoken, and Malaysia is quite attractive for students, said Siti Hamisah.

“Private providers use English extensively and this goes down well with foreign students,” she said. “Additionally, many urban Malaysians speak and understand English, and many foreign students come specifically to learn the language.”

Malaysia will face competition in its quest to meet the educational targets of the ETP, with a number of countries in the region, and far more further afield, all working to build their international higher learning credentials. Nearby Singapore is aiming to increase foreign enrolment at its institutions by 50% over the next five years, having set the objective of attracting 150,000 students by 2015, while Hong Kong and Thailand are also working to strengthen and expand their overseas student programmes. Australia, the US and Britain are already long-established educations service providers, while a number of Middle Eastern states, notably the UAE and Qatar, are investing heavily in the sector.

The economic returns on providing educational services to foreign students should not be underestimated. This growth industry is Australia’s third-largest export earner, behind only sales of coal and iron ore, generating more than $14bn annually. Each year, thousands of Malaysian students pack their bags and travel south to study at Australian universities, an expensive trip many may reconsider if Malaysia’s own universities can achieve their ETP goals and gain recognition as being of international standard.

If they make the grade, not only will Malaysia’s higher learning institutions bring in more foreign revenue, but they will be keeping some of the country’s best and brightest at home, along with the money they would have had to spend to study abroad, another benefit to the economy.

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