Globalization of economy affects all facets of society, including the way society views higher education and the manner in which it is delivered and received. One of the biggest ways in which this phenomenon manifests itself is the commercialization of education. With technological advances requiring educational institutes to stay abreast of the demands of an ever evolving, competitive global economy, education is being viewed more as a commodity for ensuring the student’s relevance and competitive ‘edge’ in the market, as opposed to a resource that enables them to become ethical, conducive members of the society.


Accelerated economic development being a key goal of the ASEAN initiative, it is valid to question whether the steps being taken for advancement of higher education in the region will lead to a decline in the social and ethical significance of education. Malaysia, being at the forefront of educational advancement in the region in many regards, is also at the greatest risk.


Will ‘internationalization’ of education threaten local universities in Malaysia?

One of the key issues associated with inviting foreign universities to set up their campuses in the country is a potential reduction in the status of local educational bodies, as students who can afford the ‘international’ institutes will flock to these campuses instead of public universities. Fortunately, the Ministry of Education has taken steps to prevent this issue by ensuring that the international campuses work in collaboration with local universities to seek out new technologies and offer programs that will benefit the economy in a balanced manner.


This is what Professor Jim Mienczakowski, of Curtin University (Sarawak), had to say on the subject: “We have met with the Minister of Higher Education, Mr. Idris Jusoh, and heard his very positive ideas for the future. The Ministry of Higher Education want branch campuses of established universities to work with them and local universities to establish MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), exploring new technologies and offering degrees that can contribute to a balanced economy.”


Such steps will also ensure that students who are unable to afford the tuition fees of a private institute will still get to enjoy the benefits of an internationally collaborative educational sector i.e. research facilities, better course materials and a bigger market for their ideas / products.


The Malaysian government’s keen interest in the synchronous growth of public sector higher education means that, in spite of the fact that international universities will offer more competitive salaries to their teaching staff, the quality of faculty in public universities can be preserved and even improved. If other ASEAN nations can implement a comprehensive education model similar to the Malaysian Education Blueprint, they can ensure that public education bodies have greater autonomy and accountability over their budgets, so that the faculty can be given more incentive to stay.


While some may argue that commercialization of education could lead to a loss of traditional values, this too can be dealt with by ensuring a harmonized curriculum that incorporates pride in national identity and heritage.


Work ethics must not be abandoned in favor of raw competence

By increasing their focus on industry relevant skills, higher education institutes risk instilling a cold, detached business mindset within their students. These institutes must ensure that their students understand their role as ethical global citizens as opposed to being ruthless career advancers, by incorporating ethical learning in their curriculum.


When asked about the balancing of ethical education with commercialization, the Vice Chancellor Asia Pacific University, Prof. Dr. Ronald Edwards, had this to say: “The APU professional has various characteristics such as competence, but also being client and employer centric rather than individually centred in their career, to be very familiar with the ethical standards of their profession and to be living and acting according to those standards.”


A necessary evil?

In order to meet the market’s requirement for skilled professionals, higher education institutes have no choice but to charge for their services to develop their own resources that will enable them to teach their students in a more comprehensive, industry-relevant manner.


Professor Christine Ennew’s words echo this need: “We regard ourselves, in practice, as not for profit. We want to be able to generate a surplus because we need it to finance capital activity, invest in new machinery, and grow our facilities. We’re very conscious about needing to serve the industry and deliver graduates who have the skills the industry wants but, beyond specific technical skills, we’re thinking about the broader transferable skills such as problem solving and creativity.


This understanding of a need for creating holistic professionals as opposed to temporarily relevant industry drones is also reflected in the words of Dr. Ho Chee Cheong, Vice-Chancellor of First City University College: ‘The industry can conduct their product development but they do not contribute to the creation of knowledge, so the creation of knowledge is very important even though you’re producing a commercial product.’


The good can outweigh the bad

The negative aspects of turning education into a commodity cannot be denied, but by taking the public sector on board, by ensuring a degree of parity between both private and public sector HLIs, and by balancing industry relevant skill development with genuine professional growth, their effects can be largely avoided.


With these out of the way, the region can enjoy the benefits of a modern higher education system – fresh entrepreneurs creating jobs as opposed to merely seeking them, professionals who are capable of taking on global challenges, and graduates that are able adapt to changing trends in the industry.