Interview: Helen Bartlett, Wahid bin Omar, Mohd bin Amin Jalaludin and Christine Ennew

How would you assess the recently launched Higher Education Blueprint 2015-25?

HELEN BARTLETT: Although the Ministry of Higher Education intends the blueprint to address both public and private universities, it is clear that it applies more to the former. The blueprint comprehensively outlines the issues and challenges faced by the sector, but an overarching implementation strategy is still needed. A playbook on governance and promoting greater independence in public universities has been launched as a first step towards implementation. This will be a crucial but challenging stage in the transformation process.

Managers and directors are critical to ensuring implementation of the blueprint by the ministry, but given the scale of the changes ahead, it is recognised that they will need support and development. Another issue relates to the proposed harmonisation of public and private sector institutions under the same legislation. For international branch universities, there are concerns as to what this might mean, given that they offer an international curriculum and wish to retain the uniqueness of what they offer in Malaysia.

WAHID BIN OMAR: The blueprint provides clear direction from the government on future development goals. Divided into 10 shifts, it focuses clearly on improving the skills graduates leave with upon graduation. Also emphasised are measures to enhance financial sustainability and governance of public universities. The latter is particularly important, as many observers have suggested that governance issues are a key factor preventing the development of Malaysia’s public universities. The blueprint seeks to address this by outlining ways to empower public universities, as well as placing a greater responsibility on self-financing. Under the blueprint, public university boards will have greater decision-making power. Crucially, the blueprint looks to eliminate uncertainties around whether approval from the government will still be necessary for certain decisions, or whether it can be left up to the board. This should lead to more rapid processes and greater efficiency. It is now important to ensure that implementation of the blueprint is comprehensive and involves all stakeholders.

MOHD BIN AMIN JALAUDIN: The blueprint is fantastic, but implementation will be challenging due to the sheer scope of its ambition. Achieving its goals will require a joint effort among all stakeholders, including members of the Ministry of Education, the private sector, and the staff and students of public universities. We also need budgetary support to assist us in its implementation. It’s a difficult balance to strike, as a key goal of the blueprint includes increasing financial self-sustainability among Malaysia’s public universities. With significant budget cuts across the tertiary sector, as announced in the government’s 2016 budget, there is a real impetus to move forward with this agenda. With 20 public universities in the country, it’s imperative that we forge a path to reduce the government’s financial burden. This will be achieved through a multi-pronged strategy involving greater commercialisation and more efficient deployment of operating expenditure as well as various investments.

CHRISTINE ENNEW: The blueprint clearly identifies key challenges for higher education, including the broadening of graduates’ skills, a need for more flexible academic career development, the push for financial sustainability, and enhanced autonomy and governance. However, there is less detail regarding implementation, and this is crucial to the realisation of what is a bold vision. The small-scale trial of an integrated cumulative grade point average system, as proposed in the blueprint, has been welcomed, but there is a need to think about mechanisms for the delivery of soft skills. There are clear aspirations to transform delivery, simplify regulatory processes and provide leadership support, but there are also layers of bureaucracy which may be resistant to streamlining operations.

The higher education system is still closely regulated compared to the UK, and this is not unique to higher education. There is a strong desire within organisations to adhere to process and follow the rules. There seems to be much greater reluctance to question the wisdom of the process.

What structural changes need to be made to further enhance the employability of Malaysia’s recent graduates?

OMAR:  I think the employability issue has been overstated. There will always be an adjustment period when graduates enter the workforce, and to ensure that students are as well equipped as possible, we at UTM and, indeed, across the sector are focusing on their comprehensive development, not just in terms of technical skills but also by nurturing their intellectual capabilities, leadership and soft skills. For example, before students graduate, we ensure they take an English test developed in partnership with industry. We also have our own entrepreneurial unit to engage private sector players to come in to share knowledge and inspire the students. We are also running microcredit programmes for students to start businesses.

ENNEW: Wherever you go in the world, you hear stories about graduates not being quite what the industry requires. However, while 85-90% of graduates in the UK are employed within six months of graduation, in Malaysia the figure is only 70-75%. The main issues that employers identify lie within the areas of critical thinking, innovation and creativity. Many employers expect graduates to be problem solvers. Instead, sometimes they are faced with graduates who need step-by-step instructions. This issue can be addressed at the tertiary level by providing students with more freedom and confidence to do things differently, take the initiative and engage in a learning process.

JALAUDIN: It is crucial to continue enhancing cooperation and collaboration with industry to ensure that students are equipped with both entrepreneurial and soft skills. Universities alone cannot deliver this. They must work together with industry to ensure consistent coordination and communication. There needs to be greater emphasis on internships and direct student involvement with the private sector during their tertiary studies, which will add another feedback loop between industry, the students and the university.

Theoretical knowledge is important but without the development of practical skills it can’t be used effectively. In recent times, we have also encouraged our professors to take an industrial sabbatical, working in the private sector for a couple of years to refresh their understanding of the latest trends and practices within their profession. Likewise, it’s important for industry leaders to take part in the curriculum and give lectures. Blending industry and academia should strengthen both the capabilities of the students and the research that academics are undertaking.

BARTLETT: The main issues raised by industry include the students’ level of spoken and written English, their level of confidence and work ethic, problem-solving skills and ability to work in teams. Universities have recognised the need for industry engagement and, consequently, have brought industry leaders into the university, giving them adjunct appointments and mentoring roles. These measures are promoted in the blueprint, along with the introduction of a cumulative grade point average that reflects both knowledge and soft skills rather than academic achievements only. While it is a positive step to recognise the problem, it will be difficult to measure soft skills objectively. Such development needs to be fully integrated into the curriculum and lead to the desired outcomes.

What efforts are universities making to address the research and innovation gap?

JALAUDIN: Our priorities are to improve research capacity and increase the frequency with which our academics are featured in high-impact journals, while ensuring that our output lies within the context of betterment for both the community and Malaysia’s economic growth. Research universities have, over the last few years, provided support for the patenting of products, but we have been frustrated by our rate of commercialisation, which has been stuck below 5%.

The main issue is that universities cannot provide the grants needed to commercialise. Consequently, we have recently engaged the private sector through a new entity called the Malaysian Innovation Hub (MIH), which functions as a matchmaker between venture capital and products developed within the university. Traditionally, researchers would develop the product and the university would license it. This would be followed by the slow process of commercialisation. However, in partnering with industry through MIH we hope to accelerate the rate of commercialisation. The programme began in the first quarter of 2015 and, should it prove successful, could easily be replicated in other universities.

ENNEW: There is a section in the “Higher Education Blueprint 2015-25” on the innovation ecosystem, which highlights the importance of industry and business engagement structures to support commercialisation. This is very welcome, although I have some concerns regarding the strong focus on patents as a performance metric. They are an easy way of measuring performance, but they are not the only way to exploit and commercialise new technologies. Moreover, if Malaysia is really looking to generate impact from its research, it must focus on rigorously applied research that will garner an international profile while also underpinning future innovation. Of course, there is an associated need to both attract returning talent and fully exploit the international talent within the country’s higher education system. Malaysia is becoming increasingly attractive to foreign education providers and talented foreign academics, thus it needs to exploit such resources for the national good.

BARTLETT: Building research capacity that has relevance and impact for Malaysia is important for research-led universities, but innovation is needed to translate ideas and deliver technologies for industries of the future. Universities have been traditionally focused on delivering research outputs such as publications and research grant income, rather than fostering entrepreneurs capable of delivering businesses for the future. To bridge the research and innovation gap, university engagement with industry is an important way forward. Environments need to be fostered in which the two sectors can work together on translating ideas into innovative solutions capable of impacting on Malaysia’s economy. Sharing of resources and infrastructure is one way to promote more collaborative working, along with targeted funding for commercialisation. Creating a culture of entrepreneurship within universities is the key to developing innovation and leaders for the future.

OMAR: Malaysia’s universities are still young. UTM, for example, only started focusing on research 20 to 30 years ago, and yet Malaysia has taken enormous strides towards improving its capacity for research and innovation. However, we cannot stop there. Some within industry say that universities are too isolated from the real economy, but industry also needs to be more proactive in seeking partnerships with educational institutions to enhance research capacity. We now have many platforms to ensure we continue to progress. The Ministry of Education is offering grants for industry-university partnerships in order to match industrial needs with university experts.

Commercialisation is another challenge, and while there has been some success, the ecosystem still needs to be strengthened through the involvement of all stakeholders, including government, industry and educational institutions. Malaysia spends a higher percentage of its GDP on education than any other South-east Asian nation, yet it does not see output equivalent to this input. Due to this, we need to continue to re-evaluate our operational model at all levels to ensure improvement.

How do you view the government’s renewed focus on technical, vocational, education and training (TVET) within the education sector?

ENNEW: The blueprint questions whether tertiary education is always the best bet for students. It is a sensible strategy, because it acknowledges that many industries do not just need graduate engineers, but also need skilled technicians to support and underpin the activities of the graduate element of the workforce. The blueprint displays a strong commitment to this aspect of higher education, and it is an area that has been undervalued in the past. So, I anticipate some moderation in the growth rate of tertiary education, and some acceleration of TVET activity.

BARTLETT: The focus on TVET is timely for addressing the current skills shortage. A strong and coordinated TVET sector that is capable of delivering quality training is essential to increase the attractiveness of a wide range of careers where qualified individuals are in short supply. In mapping out the future for TVET delivery, the possibility of creating pathways to higher education could also be explored. Australia has a number of dual-sector universities, where education pathways can be mapped from certificate to diploma to degree. The creation of building blocks in this way may encourage flexibility, allowing students to step on and off their training and education journey.

OMARWe see our role as lying within the spectrum of providing knowledge and training to educators tasked with teaching students in TVET. The government has realised that TVET has been neglected for too long, partly due to negative perceptions that stigmatise these pathways as second-best options to higher education. Thankfully, there is now recognition that for Malaysia to continue developing, it needs to enhance these skills. But, we must also incentivise prospective students to pursue these pathways, by ensuring that after completing their diploma there is a clear career pathway to follow, with a job that pays respectably and receives recognition for the contribution they’re making to the country. Because, currently, those within this middle bracket have had to end up pursuing higher education, not out of a desire, but rather to simply make ends meet. We have to ensure that the salary structure is adjusted.

JALAUDIN: TVET plays a very important part within the context of the 11th Malaysia Plan and the success of the Economic Transformation Programme. The aim is to significantly increase the number of TVET graduates by 250%. This is because the country currently suffers from a human capital shortfall across key industries. TVET will complement higher education by providing a viable career path to students who do not desire to pursue a university education, whilst also further equipping them with the specialised skills needed for industry careers.