Malaysia 2017 | EDUCATION | REVIEW

With an economy hungry for not just growth, but smart growth, Malaysia's education sector is under pressure to deliver the next generation of innovators, equipped with the skills needed to deal with the fast pace of the employment market.

Aseries of structural reforms have been undertaken by successive generations to bolster the vigor of Malaysia's education sector. The most recent set of changes came with the Education Blueprint 20013-2025, which made structural changes to bring the sector in line with the best practices of high-performing education systems across all sections of the education chain.

The blueprint included a number of goals and targets, including universal access and full enrolment of all children from preschool to upper secondary school by 2020, improvement of student scores on international assessments such as the OECD's PISA benchmark to the top third of participating countries within 15 years, and to halve the current urban-rural, socio-economic, and gender achievement gaps by 2020.
The efforts so far seem to be paying dividends, with the Trends for International Mathematics and Science Studies (TIMSS) 2015 results illustrating that Malaysia improved by 10.6% in science and 5.7% in math in a poll of 39 countries. Today, in these subjects, it is standing par with the UAE, and ranked higher than Chile and Turkey in science.

According to the British Council's study, The Shape of Global Higher Education: National Policies framework for international engagement, Germany and Malaysia have the strongest higher education policies of the 26 countries surveyed. The two scored highest across the categories of openness, quality assurance, and degree recognition, earmarking Germany's Akademischer Austauschdienst's Strategy 2020 and Malaysia's Higher Education Blueprint 2015-2020 as internationally recognized best practices.

Similar praise was heaped on Malaysia by the most recent IMF report on the sector's progress: “Malaysia has made significant progress toward achieving high-income status. A range of structural reforms has been undertaken to boost longer-term economic growth … through encouraging female labor participation, improving the quality of education, addressing skill mismatches in the labor market, enhancing productivity, investing in infrastructure, and promoting research and development.”

The school system is structured on a 6+3+2+2 model. Malay and English are compulsory subjects at schools, and the teaching of Mandarin is compulsory in SJK(C) primary schools, and Tamil is compulsory in SJK(T) primary schools. Enrollment in primary level education has been universal for decades, and secondary enrolment has also increased rapidly too. For example, the share of the labor force with a secondary education or higher increased from 37% in 1982 to 56% in 2012.

Students who want to pursue higher education after secondary level need to reach an academic target measured by the Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) public examination. If the students make the grade, then there is a choice of 61 private universities, 30 university colleges, 400 colleges, and nine international branch campuses.

Malaysia spends more on higher education than many of its regional peers and performance in the region's university rankings has become a policy preoccupation. While Singapore is the strongest country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia are also home to some of the continent's top ranked universities.

In June 2016, the Asia University Rankings were released, and five Malaysian public universities made it into the top 100 list. Universiti Malaya (UM) reached 27th place, the Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) came in at 49th, swiftly followed by Universiti Sains Malaysia (51), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (55), and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (63).

The ambition for higher education standards is helping support the local research capacity, as well as attracting more students. For example, one problem facing Malaysian universities is the tendency for students to pursue their master's or PhD studies overseas in European or American institutions. Therefore, raising the standards of the educational offering in-country not only helps plug the brain drain, but also helps build the knowledge-economy that policy makers seek.

The development of specialties is helping achieve knowledge-economy targets. According to the Asia University Rankings, Malaysia's strongest subjects are development studies, electrical and electronic engineering, and chemical engineering. The strength of the engineering curriculums, as well as strengths in agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and computer sciences, increasingly reflects and helps push advancements in the nation's biggest economic activities.

As well as the impressive array of Malaysian universities, Malaysia is also home to 10 international university branch campuses—the highest in Asia. There are five British universities (Nottingham, Reading, Newcastle, Southampton, and Heriot-Watt), which constitutes the largest battalion of British universities outside of the UK. There are also three universities from Australia, one from China (Xiamen—the first Chinese university approved to open overseas), and Singapore (Raffles).

Malaysia is also home to the Asia School of Business (ASB), a collaborative effort between Malaysia's Central Bank and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, which opened in September 2016. This proliferation is due to the favorable policies in Malaysia that offer foreign universities foreign ownership, tax incentives, and the absence of enrolment caps on local students, which has helped make the country more attractive than its regional peers.

Growing and cultivating a reputation of excellence is key to attracting both local and international students into higher education. This campaign was helped when two Malaysian professors and an Iraqi serving at two Malaysian universities topped Thomason Reuters Most Influential Scientific Minds list.

Malaysia has roughly 120,000 international students (151,000 including school children), and more than 30,000 of which are pursuing postgraduate degrees. The international students currently contribute around MYR7.9 billion to the nation's economy. The country hopes that this figure will increase to MYR15.6 billion per annum by 2020.

Students studying at public universities need to pay tuition fees, although these are subsidized by the government. There are also many types of financial aid available for students who pursue their higher education in country, including scholarships and study loans from both the public and private sector. In October 2016, when Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak unveiled the country's 2017 budget, the funding for scholarships remained the same with an allocation of MYR4.3 billion.

The next transformative stage to reach will be the expansion and monetization of online learning. In 2015, there were 64 online MBAs available, and today through the Open Learning platform founded in Sydney four years ago, there are now 300 courses that can be used as credits towards a degree.

MYR663 million has already been invested in bringing technology into the classrooms to improve teaching standards, in an attempt to provide pupils with the 21st Century skills needed by the individual and the wider economy. One thing to bear in mind with this move to digitalization of education is that with rising student debt and tuition fees, online learning will be the education of choice for those who want to gain qualification but don't have the time or money to study for a campus-based degree. Incorporating the formal fee-charging degree courses will put the higher learning institutions onto an entirely new business model.