Malaysia as a Regional hub in Education

By Easton Hanna, Head of Department, Marketing, Social Science & Business, Canadian Pre-University, Taylor's College

(Published in The Bridge, a monthly by the Malaysia Canada Business Council, March 2012)

Many Malaysians were pleased with a recent New York Times article highlighting the ambition of our private schools to establish Malaysia as the regional leader in education within South East Asia. Becoming a regional leader is a realistic goal. The fact our desires were recognized in an internationally respected publication is definitely encouraging. However, in order to reach these lofty expectations, Malaysian private schools will have to endure some growing pains and incorporate the latest trends in education.

Malaysia is still a young nation. Nevertheless as the GDP rises and household incomes continue to increase the number of local students who will be able to afford private post-secondary education is escalating. As a result, there has been an augmentation of private institutions offering what is commonly referred to as "Twinning Programs". Several "Western" institutes of higher learning, such as the University of Nottingham, have also established local campuses offering degrees from their institutions. In other words, Malaysian students can obtain a "foreign" degree without having to migrate to another country.

Many local schools have also asserted autonomy by offering their own degrees. For example, Taylor's, Sunway, and others began issuing independent degrees years ago, with most now obtaining full University status. By establishing itself in the local marketplace as a place offering quality education, these institutions are in a better position to attract local students whose parents may be looking overseas for a "good" school. Furthermore, as the private school sector gains strength, neighboring countries, as well as emerging markets in Central Asia and Africa, will take note. There is incredible, not to mention profitable, potential of attracting overseas students to Malaysia. In fact, the government hopes that 200,000 foreign students will be studying in Malaysia by 2020; an incredible statement considering Britain itself had about 330,000 foreign students as of 2006.

However, nothing worth achieving is without its challenges. The recent Times article also discussed the obstacles faced by Malaysian private schools. For instance, there are a number of Malaysian Institutions which continue to fall short of achieving or maintaining minimum standards. Some institutions like Taylor's and Sunway, have worked tirelessly to exceed standards, but the rest will need to do much better if Malaysia is going to overtake regional competitors like Singapore. The more-established schools will also need to demonstrate their commitment to excellence by attracting more international expertise and becoming serious about conducting real research, as well as reinvesting in their institutions on more than just a superficial level.

On a more serious note, private schools must address issues of xenophobia faced by international students. There are frequent complaints of discrimination on campus and in the community. Since the nation is struggling to deal with similar domestic issues – it is unlikely that the public sector or a group of concerned citizens will effectively address this concern. Therefore, private schools must take the initiative to educate their employees with critical anti-racism pedagogy; eradicate racism from the classroom; and increase accommodation for foreign students where they will feel safe and valued.

Is Malaysia regionally competitive in education?
So what does the regional competition look like?

A significant issue is the fact that Malaysia is right next door to Singapore and therefore competing with Singapore's 'Global Schoolhouse' concept. That programme was launched in 2002 and includes institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, INSEAD, Chicago-Booth Graduate School of Business and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

The aim of the Global Schoolhouse is to attract 150,000 foreign students by 2015.

Economically and technologically, Singapore is significantly ahead of Malaysia. However, although Singapore is an appealing destination for study, the significantly cheaper cost of living and tuition in Malaysia gives our private institutions a competitive advantage. Also, despite problems of ethnicity equality, Malaysia is somewhat less selective in approving student visas. Although local parents are quick to remind us that the level of English is in decline, few would dispute that we are still far ahead of Indonesia, China or Thailand in English proficiency. A number of private schools in Malaysia have also achieved well-earned reputations for producing good academic results, and sending students to some of the best universities in the world. Strong track records act as reassurance to both local and international students that their academic aspirations are not in jeopardy when staying at home or deciding to come to Malaysia to study.

True Vision and Future Potential
Albert Einstein taught us that imagination was more important than knowledge; Steve Jobs proved it. Formulas can be mimicked or pirated – but original innovative ideas are the result of creativity and ingenuity. Sir Ken Robinson, who is an internationally recognized authority in the development of education, creativity and innovation has been lecturing for years on how public schools have been successfully killing creativity. Educators are finally beginning to respond.

Advertisements for universities in popular magazines such as Newsweek have tapped into the idea of promoting creativity in education to potential customers. However, how do these institutions plan to develop creativity and innovation in our young people? Some believe the answer lies in the incorporation of technology into the classroom. Others say it is strictly a question of teaching methods. Yet others say the problem is the classroom itself, and that students should be encouraged to explore alternative learning spaces. Leaders of private institutions in Malaysia will have to make serious decisions on how to modify their current systems to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world. These leaders will also have to think about their vision for their respective institutions. They need to honestly ask themselves whether their vision is based on a genuine desire to inspire young people to discover, innovate and create – or just to generate more revenue.

In closing
Malaysia is in the enviable position of becoming a regional leader in education. The education industry is already expanding and competition is making it better. However, this industry must not be confused as a factory system, producing students with robotic reactions. Instead, institutions must mold creative and critical thinkers with sensitivity to social justice. If Malaysia commits to such a system, not only will local and foreign students come to our schools – the country will be a better place to live. An improved Malaysia, as an added bonus, will also attract additional foreign investment in other sectors. In short, through education Malaysia could greatly enhance its reputation on the world stage.