In what ways does the Government of Malaysia invest in higher education?

NORDIN: The Government of Malaysia sees higher education as an essential factor to the success of the country’s Economic Transformation Programme. Moreover, the success of ensuring high quality human capital is one of the critical factors for the Government. In 2004, the Government decided to establish the Ministry of Higher Education in order to measure the efforts towards this goal. To further emphasize on the importance of the sector, the National Higher Education Strategic Plan was introduced. As a result of these efforts, we can clearly see that we are on the right track.

What is the budgetary allotment for higher education?

NORDIN: The budgetary allotment for higher education has been increasing on an annual basis. For 2012 alone, the budget for higher education is about MYR 12bn ($3.75bn). Out of the total budget, MYR 10bn ($3.1bn) is allocated to operating expenditures, whereas the rest, MYR 2bn ($650m), is allocated to development expenditures. In the years to come we will see a further increase in the budgetary allotment for higher education because the Government understands the importance of the sector. Furthermore, the Government accepted the fact that higher education is one of the crucial factors for the country to achieve its plan to become a developed nation by the year 2020. We need to ensure that we are able to produce the right human capital by providing effective institutions of higher learning. In order to provide greater access to higher education to the local public, further increase in the budgetary allocation to higher education seems logical.

What are Malaysia’s competitive advantages when it comes to higher education?

NORDIN: Malaysia has to prove its ability to maintain a high quality level of higher education institutions in order to become the regional hub for higher education excellence. Since 2008 we have an agency, called the Malaysian Quality Assurance Agency, to better understand the issues in the quality of our higher education institutions. At the same time, we have a very liberal policy towards the private higher education institutions that allows the participation of the sector to compliment our efforts in providing higher education opportunities to cater to the local and the global needs. As a result, we are able to provide various programs and disciplines to fulfill the needs of Malaysia and other countries in the region. We can measure the success of the policy that we have adopted by the number of foreign branch campuses that have already set up in Malaysia and the institutions considering opening campuses in the country. Other competitive advantages are the relatively low cost of living and the multi-cultural and multi-religious environment.

How would you describe the developments taking place in the private higher education sector?

NORDIN: One strategic decision that has contributed towards the proliferation of private higher education institutions is our policy of not further expanding public higher education institutions. Another policy of ours was to maintain the number of foreign students at the undergraduate level in our public universities. Every public university should not enroll more than 5% foreign students at the undergraduate level. As a result of that policy, we see the rapid development of our private higher education institutions. This allows them to participate, contribute, as well as compliment, our efforts of providing more access to Malaysians to the higher education level. Furthermore, private institutions are also able to provide diverse programs and more opportunities for overseas students to come to Malaysia.

Political opponents are proposing a major shift in higher education, whereby higher education would become state funded. What are the merits and drawbacks of this proposal?

NORDIN: The suggestion is purely political. The idea of having free education at this stage, based on the argument put forward by the opposition, is purely simplistic. There are many things to consider in terms of whether the country at this juncture can afford providing free education. If you look at any other country that is providing free education, somebody is paying for it. It might be in the form of very high taxes, which means that the public is paying for it, or it might mean limited places. If you look at Malaysia, the number of students enrolled in our higher education institutions is very high; we have about 1.1m students. In my opinion, if the Government goes forward with this suggestion, this will change the entire structure of higher education in Malaysia. Once the country has attained fully developed nation status, free education might be a relevant suggestion.

Malaysia’s “Strategic Plan for Higher Education: Laying the Foundation Beyond 2020” aims to promote Malaysia as the hub for higher education excellence among the ASEAN countries. How would you describe the progress towards this goal to date?

NORDIN: The National Higher Education Strategic Plan completed its Phase 1, Laying the Foundation, in 2010. It is now in the midst of implementation of Phase 2, Strengthening and Enhancement, which runs up till 2015. The goal of making Malaysia the hub of higher education regionally, and then internationally, is under way and moving well. This is in particular reference to the operational interface between the Strategic Plan and new government policies such as the 10th Malaysia Plan, the New Economic Model, the Economic Transformation Programme, and the Government Transformation Programme. The main aim of the Strategic Plan is to produce world-class higher education institutions. By providing first-class teaching and learning, we will be able to produce students with a first-class mentality. I am happy to say that the Strategic Plan was accepted by the stakeholders and implemented across the public and the private sector. We can already see the results in terms of access to higher education. At the moment, we are concentrating our efforts on improving the quality of teaching and learning. In terms of teaching approaches, we highly advocate student-centered learning. The first-class human capital is described as one who has a very strong knowledge base, possesses skills relevant to the discipline, and has a towering personality. We want to produce graduates who are brave, innovative, and willing to take risks and chances. Thus, our public and private institutions are actively training their academic staff to ensure that they have the infrastructure to do so.

Another area of the Strategic Plan is enhancing research and development. Various aspects are related to this area. We are talking about the expansion of our research capacity to innovate and the issues related to commercialization. In order to establish an innovation based economy, universities need to play a very active role. Many universities are starting up companies, which is a major reflection of where we are in terms of R&D. We are mindful of the fact that entrepreneurial activities will act as a catalyst for economic growth. Therefore, we are happy to see that universities are looking at commercializing their research. Next is on the matter of internationalisation  Our seriousness on the internationalisation agenda is signaled by our publication of the Internationalisation Policy for Higher Education in Malaysia. This provides a reference on how our institutions may work towards strengthening their initiatives on internationalisation. Finally, our focus will be on lifelong learning. Whilst we encourage all our institutions to give importance to this agenda, community colleges in the country are directly relevant in this matter. Currently we have 78 community colleges, where in addition to the certificate courses that they offer, we also have modular courses and short-term courses on offer.