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Malaysia 2017 | EDUCATION | FOCUS: RESEARCH

Malaysia seeks to boost its research output through partnerships with foreign universities and domestic industry.

Malaysia understands well that educational advancement is key to development. A strong, well-staffed, and well-funded educational system increases the quality of human capital and boosts production, innovation, and, ultimately, quality of life. Malaysia's compulsory primary education has made strides in recent decades, producing better outcomes and watching as nationwide literacy rates have soared. Progress in the post-secondary system has been longer in arriving—just 15.3% of 25-29 year-olds held a bachelor's degree or higher in 2012. As Malaysia moves into a new era of economic development, improving the higher education system is one of the government's highest priorities. Research is at the heart of this drive for improvement; turning the country's higher education institutions into drivers of innovation, international collaboration, and international advancement will reap massive rewards for the country as a whole.

Historically, Malaysia has exported a great number of students, sending them all over the world to study in Asia, the UK, and the US. Recognizing the need to develop educational structures in-country to retain talent, the government has amended its regulations. The first round of reforms in the 1980s allowed private education providers to award degrees in partnership with foreign providers. Additional legislation in 1996 allowed foreign universities to open campuses in Malaysia, sparking a new level of international collaboration and partnerships. The government's mission is to establish the country as a hub for international education and research, with a stated goal of 200,000 international students by 2020. Today, there are more than 500 accredited transnational educational (TNE) programs in Malaysia, with most of them coming from the UK, Australia, and the US. More than 100,000 foreign students are enrolled in Malaysian universities, an increase of more than 100% over the past eight years.

The government's Vision 2020 initiative calls for the country to become a fully developed high-income nation by 2020. One of the initiative's main goals is to improve educational outcomes: the plan calls for post-secondary enrollment rates to reach 40% and for dramatic increases in research spending and investment. Today, Malaysia spends about 1% of its GDP on research and development. Just five of the country's 65 universities have been granted “research university” status, which grants them additional federal funding: Universiti Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM). While these schools produce the majority of all PhD graduates, there are additional efforts to increase the volume of research being performed at other schools. Prof. Ir. Dr. Kamal Nasharuddin Mustapha DJN, Vice-Chancellor & President of Universiti Tenaga Nasional, told TBY that research is central to the university's mission. “Our focus is on research as we embark on innovation and commercialization,” he said. “All our academic programs are nationally accredited and have international recognition from UK-based civil and mechanical engineering institutions. We have five university-level research centers… we are the recipient of the most research grants among private universities.”

The next step for Malaysian research institutions is to further strengthen their international ties and develop new research initiatives in tandem with the country's industrial sector. Malaysia's rapidly growing technology industry provides many natural opportunities for shared operations with universities to generate solutions that benefit Malaysian society as a whole. One such partnership underway is the Ericsson-UTM Innovation Centre for 5G, launched in December 2016. The center is expected to involve over 2,000 students per year, giving them exposure to state-of-the-art 5G mobile technology. Professor Christine Ennew, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Provost & CEO of University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, described another such partnership run at her university, “Our Biotechnology Research Center (BRC) is a joint venture with industry, focused on genetic research to improve the quality of plant species and particularly palm oil. The center uses cutting edge technologies to… speed up traditional breeding programs, which in palm oil take a long time.”

Other joint ventures are already underway in the finance and manufacturing sectors. It is important to note that research initiatives are not limited to multinational firms; the Ministry of Higher Education launched a Public-Private Research Network (PPRN) in 2014 that works to match SMEs with universities to solve the industry problems they face. As of October 2016, PPRN has led to 582 project matches, a number that bodes well for the future of both domestic industry and university research.