Malaysia’s higher education sector is playing an active role to sustain the country’s economic edge in an era of global competitiveness. In 2011, the Malaysian government allocated 3.8% of its gross domestic product to education – greater than twice the average spending of ASEAN nations (1.8%). This fuelled numerous initiatives to transform Malaysia into an international education hub.


The bias for internationalization is reflected in the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education’s National Strategic Plan which aims for world recognition, innovation through R&D, attraction of foreign students, creation of marketable graduates, and implementation of 23 Critical Agenda Projects (CAP). These were complemented by the policies Intensifying Malaysia’s Global Reach: A New Dimension and Internationalization Policy for Higher Education which both kicked off in 2011.


By setting the goal of admitting 200,000 foreign students by 2020, Malaysia desires to establish a brand as an international education provider. Although ambitious, current trends show this goal isn’t impossible. From 18,242 in 2001, Malaysia boasted of 86,919 foreign students in 2011. This can be attributed to the ease of applying for a student visa in Malaysia as compared to most developed countries, as well as other factors such as its robust economy, multicultural cities, and well-developed infrastructure facilities.


Internationalization Success Cases

Curtin Universities and the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus are among the institutes Universities which take pride in the successful implementation of internationalization initiatives. In an interview with FDI Spotlight, Professor Jim Mienczakowski, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Curtin University discussed their contribution to Malaysia’s national educational agenda: “We have recently decided to increase the number of international students coming to us, on the basis that there is an international need for affordable education. Students from many countries can’t afford to go to the UK, Australia or Singapore but they can come to Malaysia and get an Australian degree at a third of the price.


Similar thoughts were echoed by Professor Christine Ennew, Former Provost and CEO of the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus: “We are a leading global university and we know that students come to Malaysia because they want to study with Nottingham. They get a UK qualification and a British style of education at a more affordable price.


Curtin University’s engineering degrees are included in the world’s top 25. In collaboration with the Ministry of Higher Education, it also develops courses that produce highly skilled workers in the fields of ICT, petroleum, and technology. Meanwhile, the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus bagged 5 stars in the Malaysian research assessment exercise and had its self-accrediting status renewed. High student satisfaction ratings also validate their quality and level of teaching which is comparable to its parent institution in the UK.


The success of these universities can be attributed to enforcing the same policies that they implement in their home countries: student exchange programs, academia-industry partnerships, curriculum and standard development, R&D commercialization, and high quality facilities and research equipment for students.Curtin and Nottingham are pioneers of the internationalization agenda which has been adopted by other renowned western universities opening their branch campuses on Malaysian soil – Monash, Reading, Newcastle. More recently, Heriot-Watt University became the 9th international institution to open its doors to local students.


Professor Ennew believes that training and development schemes for teaching personnel must also be prioritized: “A university’s ability to keep standards high is really down to the people. It is the people who deliver teaching, who control standards, and who transmit values.


Local Universities Succeeding at Internationalization

Outsiders may mistakenly believe that Malaysia’s success with internationalization is limited to inviting foreign universities to home soil. Home-grown universities have illustrated that local institutions can also link up with foreign partners to deliver an international learning experience.


Datuk Haji Mahamad Zubir bin Sheikh Saad, President of Pusrawi International College of Medical Sciences (PICOMS), said that after receiving the permit to recruit international students in 2016, the College has signed several agreements, “We have since signed MOU with Al Azhar University for the medical program, the University of London for physiotherapy, Jordan University of Science and Technology for dentistry and with the TH Hotel for hotel management.


Professor Madya Dr. Abdul Rahman Shaikh from the Co-operative College of Malaysia also spoke of his institution’s new ties within ASEAN and beyond, “We have established international links with the Co-operative in Japan, India and the UK and last year we signed an MOU to collaborate with the Co-operative College of the UK, as well as connections within ASEAN.”


Australia and China are two countries from the Asia-Pacific region that have strong ties with Malaysia. While the traditional relationship had focused on economics and trade, interest is growing towards the education sector as Malaysia encourages local colleges to develop linkages with foreign institutions. Dr Chow Yong Neng, CEO of Han Chiang College in Penang, is using that to improve his college’s credentials, “The University of Southern Queensland are going to be our key Western partner for our dual awards when we become a university – we are finalizing all of the agreements now. We are also doing a similar thing with Taiwanese and Chinese universities. This makes our degree more attractive to foreign students”.


Malvern International Academy has built a strong reputation in Malaysia as a leading accounting college. It aims to become a one-stop centre from secondary tuition to post graduate degrees. Currently, the college has partnered with 13 universities in China, making Malvern the largest foreign provider of ACCA programs in the mainland. “Our model is expertise sharing whereby we enter joint ventures with Chinese government universities in which they provide hardware and facilities and we provide soft skill support to lecturers and administrators. We have minimised our risk by avoiding fixed costs but working for each other’s mutual benefit.” said Mr. Andrew Pang from Malvern in his interview with FDI Spotlight.


University Putra Malaysia is one of Malaysia’s leading research institutions and collaborates with many ASEAN universities. Dr Aini Ideris, Vice Chancellor of UPM now wants to look beyond the region. “We don’t want to only look at the Southeast Asian countries but also form relationships with other Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and China. We are also actively collaborating with universities in Asia Pacific region, Europe, United Kingdom and United States of America, among others.


Going Forward with Education

Consistent monitoring of Malaysia’s higher education objectives will ensure the competence of graduates and their employability. Investments on developing and training human capital will also strengthen Malaysia’s economic landscape and attract foreign investors.Furthermore, Malaysia’s education-related initiatives contribute to achieving ASEAN’s shared objectives for economic and socio-cultural integration.


Professor Mienczakowski is confident with the potential global impact of the region: “I do not think they [the West] fully realize yet how powerful ASEAN could be. As economies emerge and education is given priority by governments, more people will realize it is not just a place to come and run a business, it will be seen holistically as a centre for creativity.

With the collaboration of its educational institutions, government, and industries, Malaysia serves as a model for other ASEAN countries when it comes to reinforcing economic supremacy through an empowered and internationalized higher education sector.