Education policy has been at the forefront of the national agenda since the country set out to achieve Vision 2020 in the early nineties. What have been some of the key milestones?
Higher education in Malaysia has undergone a comprehensive transformation with several milestones having been achieved over the past few years. The introduction of our five research universities in 2006 was a landmark milestone; the presence of these five research universities has contributed to more publications, citations, and R&D in the country. This has resulted in more and better lecturers who have really lifted us to the level we are at today. All of our five universities rank among the top 1% in the world. That is a landmark position achieved in the last 1-2 years, with the foundations having been laid in 2006 via the Research Universities project. Another area that deserves recognition is in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). We have 31 such programs and colleges involved in technical training. We undertake project growth in TVET in the same capacity, and are launching even more programs as we approach 2025. There are more collaborations happening with industries and corporations as well. We have the CEO Faculty Program, where the top CEOs come in and lecture our university students. We have local company CEOs, such as AirAsia on board, in addition to Shell, Samsung, and other large companies. We have 22 big names at the moment coming in to teach at our facilities, and this will continue to expand over the next few years. Moving forward, in April 2015, we launched the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education). This Higher Education Blueprint lays down the 10 shifts or key areas of growth for our higher education sector, from student outcomes to better financial management to greater autonomy for our institutions of higher learning.
Malaysia is part of the global trend towards the internationalization of higher education, with a number of prestigious foreign universities having set up branch campuses here. Why have they chosen Malaysia?
In order to set up campuses you need lecturers, which requires the level of local talent that we are capable of providing. They also need students who are willing to pay, and we have that here as well. Students come in from China, India, and Indonesia, and the economic growth rate here of 5-6% is strong. We are promoting ourselves as an educational hub for the region; this is an appealing proposition for both students and staff, and we also enjoy solid government support. Our national bank (Bank Negara Malaysia), in collaboration with the MIT Sloan School of Management, will be starting the Asia School of Business this fall, and we also have many schools in the private sector that are witnessing growth.
What role do exchange programs play in fostering bilateral relations between Malaysia and other countries?
Exchange programs are extremely important. We have students who come here from all over the world, including about 150 from the New Zealand and Australia, and we hope to see even more. We welcome students who attend summer study course firsts as a tester for more lengthy study. Students from Mexico also come here, and we hope to attract more students from European countries. We have many students coming in from Australia in a reciprocity program we are keen to advance. Currently, there are about 104,000 international students studying in Malaysia. Out of this amount, 29,000 are pursuing graduate studies (i.e. master's and PhD). This is encouraging as it shows that we have quality offerings, and that international students (many of whom are sponsored) see Malaysia as a choice destination for advanced levels of higher education.
What can be done to promote the subjects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)?
Science has to be encouraged at the high school level in order to promote learning in college and university. STEM promotion will help advance industries and research to where they need to be. Right now we have a 40:60 ratio between science and the liberal arts, and we want to shift the balance further toward the sciences. Here the sciences are not a male-dominated subject, and we have an overall female ratio of around 70% at universities. At the ministry, our Director General is a woman, and has two deputies who are both women. And there are many other women in the field as well. It is not as easy for women to achieve leadership positions, but it does start with education and we proud to have capable leaders at the forefront of the Ministry who are amazing women in their own right. The public is still less likely to accept a woman in a position of leadership, but it is just a matter of time. While in many Muslim countries, the status of women is curbed, this is not the case in Malaysia.
What will your priorities be over the next 10 years?
Ensuring that we realize the goals of our Higher Education Blueprint 2015-2025 through the 10 shifts identified will be where most of focus lay over the next 10 years. Right now our main focus is on producing holistic, entrepreneurial, and balanced graduates. Ultimately, what we do is for the students and they are our top priority. We deliver this through the integrated CGPA or iCGPA, a concept that we have been developing for the past six years, and which our professors have been testing out. In four to five years, the program should be fully integrated. Another area of focus is making sure that we have industries on campus. We want industries on campus to start teaching our students, and we want 30% of our lecturers to be people from outside. Our CEO Faculty Program works to make classes more relevant, and this is an initiative which we have in our Higher Education Blueprint.
What are your expectations for the year ahead?
We expect more and more from our professors, and we want the top minds to come and lecture. We currently have four professors who have been recognized as part of the “World's Most Influential Scientific Minds" by a well-known organization. These four individuals were recognized for being the top 1% most cited in their fields of research. At the same time, the University of Malaya (UM) is aiming for a top 50 place in Engineering in the next 2-3 years. Currently, Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and UM have one subject each in the world's top 50, namely Environmental Sciences and Developmental Studies at 31st and 32nd spots, respectively. We have many top 100 programs in subjects like agriculture, chemical, civil and mechanical engineering, architecture and more. Yet we aim to improve further still over the coming years. Our country has advanced from 28th to 27th place in the Universitas' 21 Ranking of National Higher Education System and we aim for a top 25 place in the next few years. We are improving and it is my hope to see us continually improve. As such, our tagline in the Ministry of Higher Education is that we are “Soaring Upwards."