What new initiatives is KDU currently involved in?
LOONG: The main initiative we are currently involved in is the new campus we are planning, together with a mixed residential and commercial property development. We are planning to house from 7,000 to 11,000 students. In association with the expansion of the campus infrastructure, we are also developing new academic programs, as well as bringing in new technologies and thus new methods of teaching. We will be creating a new environment for the students. Our time-frame is to complete the project by the end of 2014 and we will probably start a new campus early in 2015. This is a huge initiative for us.
In what ways have changes in the global and domestic economies influenced your curriculum?
LOONG: The economy has changed in the last decade or two in two ways. One change is the rising affluence in Asia, and in Malaysia. The second change is the rapid use of technology. These are the two key drivers of the economy, both regionally and locally. You will notice that the major affluence of people can be found in the leisure sector and under this profile KDU is a pioneer, as we have been offering programs related to hospitality, tourism, and culinary arts for the past 25 years. We have been in these sectors for a long time. The other aspect entailed by the continuous growth in the leisure sector resulted in the introduction of new curricula, such as, entertainment, arts, creative media, and design. On the technology front, we offer programs such as, electronic engineering and telecommunications, on top of the traditional computing programs and IT technology. We also have a unique games development program, which is catered to the technological leisure field. Of course, we are also expanding our economic programs because both business and legal services are increasing, so we have a Business School and a Law School too. In essence, we continue to develop our programs in line with local and regional needs.
How many students are currently enrolled at KDU? What is the percentage of international students?
LOONG: We have two campuses in this country at a tertiary educational level; one in the Klang Valley, which compromises 2 campuses under the same umbrella, and one in Penang. In the Klang Valley campus, we have 2,600 students, whereas in Penang we have about 2,200 students. Of these, 20% are international students mainly representing 80 to 90 different countries. We constantly try to maintain the percentage of our international students at 25%. This is because the desire of the founder of KDU is to focus more on the local students with the aim of building a national identity and, at the same time, equipping Malaysians with the necessary educational skills. I think the international students bring in a very interesting perspective as they recreate a more global environment and give the opportunity to the students to explore different cultures.
How important are international partnerships for KDU?
LOONG: International partnerships are very important for KDU. By international partnerships, we mean partnerships with overseas universities. From our perspective, these represent a confirmation of our quality. In fact, a university would not partner with another if they do not feel their standards and quality are not at the same level. Before entering into a partnership, both sides would scrutinize each other and that partnership would not be finalized unless both parties are convinced that there is value. This is one reason I deem partnerships important. The other reason is that partnerships bring a fresh perspective in the ways we teach, in the ways education is delivered beyond the classroom, as well as furthering a more international environment, which I believe is beneficial for both parties.
How do you see the dynamics between public and private universities evolving?
LOONG: Over the last decades, I have seen the public and the private universities developing quite independently. Most private universities start as colleges, they then move on and become university colleges, and finally they become full-fledged universities, just like KDU, which is now a university college. The emphasis for the private higher education institutions has traditionally been focused on teaching. The quality of teaching is pretty high, simply because we focus a lot on that aspect. This also means that the attention dedicated to the students is very high, also because these are fee-students, so they demand a high quality service. The learning environment is also strongly promoted and this also explains why the graduates produced by the private higher education sector are qualitatively better placed than the others. Another important aspect of private universities is the use of English. The standard of English is generally higher in private universities and this means that our students can fit into a global environment more easily than the other students. To this end, we deliberately hire people with a high proficiency in English. Nowadays jobs require people to know English. If I put an engineer behind a desk and I need him to pick up the phone and speak to my colleagues in the States or in Japan or anywhere, they must speak English. We cannot afford for any of our students to fall behind on English proficiency. Thus, for a student coming from a private higher education institution, the advantage of the language is clear.
What are Malaysia competitive advantages when it comes to higher education vis-à-vis other regional players such as Thailand and Singapore?
LOONG: One immediate advantage that Malaysia has over Thailand is the use of English. It has been moaned that the standard of English is pretty low in Malaysia and I see that when I employ people. However, this problem is worse in Thailand. Many times I have been in conferences and meetings and my Thai counterparts, once we get into a serious discussion, are left out. Either they have difficulty following the discussion, or they are not able to participate meaningfully. The other advantage we have, and this is in relation to Singapore, is the more affordable cost of education that we can offer. We have a lot of overseas students who come here to obtain an education, which I think is equivalent, and in some cases even better, than that of Singapore, as well as being cheaper.
In a way, the current tertiary education system is an obstacle to independent thinking and leadership. Thus, we are trying to figure out ways to encourage a more entrepreneurial mindset. I think this is a critical aspect for Malaysia to be able to move forward. We need to move away from the traditional mindset to approach a more entrepreneurial mindset.
What are the challenges for Malaysia as an educational hub?
LOONG: If you look at our educational landscape, we tripled the number of tertiary educational institutions in the last 5 to 6 years, which is huge. We are looking at around 70 plus private higher education institutions and maybe another 20 plus public universities and more in the pipeline. So the challenges are multiple. Where are we going to get the staff? Where are we going to get the quality lecturers? And, more importantly for private higher institutions, where are we going to get lecturers who are proficient in English? We are increasingly looking at hiring people from overseas, simply because of this need. This would be the major challenge for us, I think.
What is your outlook for Malaysia’s education sector? Which indicators are showing the most positive trends and which remain challenges?
LOONG: Number one, I think the population will continue to grow. I think this is a given, and not just in Malaysia, but in the whole of Asia. Number two, I think that the number of young people who will qualify at the basic entry level of tertiary higher education is also going to grow. Generally, I think people are becoming smarter. So if you look at our secondary school grades, we are getting more and more people who obtain great scores and grades I have never seen before. I also see a growing number of jobs that require a tertiary education. Overall, I see an increasing need for more and higher quality tertiary education. Thus, the landscape is positive overall. The challenge that remains to be faced is the entrepreneurial thinking. In Malaysia, we are very traditional in the way we look at education. Parents would look at education as putting someone in college for 3 or 4 years and coming out of it with a piece of paper, where the next step would be to get a job. I think we lack the entrepreneurial mindset, that is, we lack independent and creative thinking, we lack being bold and taking the challenge on things that are different. So I think that this is the big piece missing in our education. KDU is pragmatically thinking how to insert that missing piece into the education experience. Everybody talks about entrepreneurship, but to me it is not real entrepreneurship in the current tertiary educational environment. If you look at the model in the Silicon Valley, for instance, if the successful people there had received a traditional education, I do not think they would be doing what they are now. So, in a way, the current tertiary education system is an obstacle to independent thinking and leadership. Thus, we are trying to figure out ways to encourage a more entrepreneurial mindset. I think this is a critical aspect for Malaysia to be able to move forward. We need to move away from the traditional mindset to approach a more entrepreneurial mindset.
In what ways do you see the collaboration between universities and private companies evolving in the future?
LOONG: There are a lot of university programs built in collaboration with private sector industries. Most of these programs are internships, which I personally think fail to go far enough in terms of experience. I think that these types of collaborations should go towards a more meaningful level. Most of the time we look at giving students a trial in the real world, and that is what internships are designed for. But I think we should bring the real world into the universities. The students should experience what it is like to run a company for example, or to be in charge of a profit and loss account. They should experience situations in which the company is in debt and learn how to recover from those types of situation and take responsibility for it. I think that these types of experiences are far more meaningful. In Malaysia, we tend to put students in the “sand box" environment, where they play around and fail to think outside the box. Whereas we should put students into situations where they really have to sweat and they themselves really have to figure out how to resolve real problems. Finally, I think we need to move away from the traditional model towards a “boot camp” model.