Malaysia: Higher education goals

Given that a major part of the government’s strategy for Malaysia’s economic development depends on a dynamic education sector, plans by one of India’s leading educational providers is to set up a new $180m university in Kuala Lumpur have been welcomed.

It comes at a time when many are pondering the challenges faced by the country’s labour market, with long-standing concerns over a dependency on foreign labour running parallel with a need to attract more highly qualified foreign employees to the country.

Tempting qualified Malaysians to return is also an issue, with the country’s best education and training institutions – both in academia and in-house within the business world – providing a future workforce that often prefers to use that training abroad.

The news though that Manipal Education, the Karnataka-based company, is to set up Manipal International University (MIU) in Kuala Lumpur, providing Malaysia’s education authorities with a good example of what they are after. MIU will have space for 15,000-20,000 students over the next seven years, with both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes on offer. The subjects MIU will specialise in include engineering, management studies, hospitality and tourism, commerce, law, animation and design.

The 10th Malaysia Plan (10MP), unveiled earlier this year, provides a package of changes in the way higher education should work for the next five years. These include a heavy emphasis on taking down walls between academia and the business world. These range from the subjects themselves to the way in which they are taught, with a number of concepts from the business world brought in. These include key performance indicators (KPIs), while the Knowledge Partnership Programme (KPP) dictates that at least 15% of faculty members must receive at least six months of industrial experience for every five years of service.

The largest and most public programme of KPIs will be the Rating System for Malaysian Higher Education (SETARA). This will apply to both state and private universities issuing degrees and will provide department-by-department ratings within individual institutions. KPIs will also be set for university vice-chancellors and their staff, with non-renewal of contracts for those who perform poorly. The SETARA rating will also provide the basis for university funding levels, with financing shifted away from institutions to students.

At the same time higher education institutions are being given much more autonomy, the idea being that this will gradually shift the burden of funding away from the state and onto the private sector via sponsorship programmes. Again, this will likely lead to the courses offered shifting heavily towards science and business, and away from humanities. Medical training is also likely to get a stronger emphasis as the private sector takes more of a slice of Malaysia’s health provision – another goal of the 10MP.

In addition the 10MP’s granting of greater autonomy to universities enables them to set their own staff salaries and recruit overseas. The aim is longer-term knowledge transfer. In the short term, experienced and well-qualified foreign staff can act as immediate triggers for growth in research capabilities, and in establishing incubators for innovative business-oriented projects.

Malaysia has had difficulty attracting qualified foreign staff in recent years. According to the Malaysian Employers Federation, the number of expatriates living in the country currently stands at around 38,000, while in the 1990s it was twice that. This does not include the large numbers of unqualified workers, mainly from other South-east Asian nations, who provide much of the basic labour force.

Meanwhile, many qualified citizens have left the country. Some 784,000 Malaysians currently live and work abroad. The reasons for this are many, including higher salaries in neighbours such as Singapore, alongside what many in the diaspora see as distortions in the labour market caused by affirmative action programmes aimed at indigenous Malays or the Bumiputera.

To counter this brain drain, the government recently announced the establishment of the Talent Corporation, which is due to start work in January 2011. Working under the prime minister’s office, one of its main tasks will be the drawing up of a national talent blueprint. This will likely offer greater incentives to expatriates coming to Malaysia, as well as offering Malaysians reasons to return.

All of this has been broadly welcomed by educationalists and employers, yet many see political moves as being a necessary addition if the challenge is to be successfully met.

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