Long road to higher education hub

Private education operators are concerned that Malaysia is losing ground to its neighbours in attracting foreign students. They believe that the country must brand itself in order to compete, writes SIMRIT KAUR. 

THE DECISION by the University of Warwick not to go ahead with the setting up of a planned campus in Singapore does not augur well for Southeast Asian countries’ ambitions to become hubs for higher education in the region. 

More needs to be done to promote Malaysian higher education overseas including marketing the country as an educationdestination, not just individual colleges. – filepic

The top-10 ranked British varsity cited the lack of academic freedom in the city-state as the main reason.  

Despite the setback, private education operators are concerned that Malaysia – long considered the forerunner in twinning programmes and linkages with foreign varsities – is losing ground to Singapore.  

At a recent higher education conference organised by the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu), many speakers highlighted the need for Malaysia to step up its branding and marketing strategies if it wants to compete with Singapore as well as other neighbouring countries like Thailand and Indonesia.  

There are currently 538 registered private institutions of higher learning, 17 public universities and university colleges, 21 private universities and university colleges, 11 local university branch campuses as well as five foreign university branch campuses in Malaysia. 

Positive indications 

In his opening address, Higher Education Minister Datuk Dr Shafie Salleh noted that Malaysia’s tertiary education system has successfully attracted students from other nations. 

“This is indeed an achievement but we should not rest on our laurels lest we become complacent and forfeit our competitiveness,” said Dr Shafie. 

Malaysia has set an ambitious target of attracting 100,000 foreign students by 2010.  

Many would agree that private colleges, where the majority of foreign students are, have been treated like stepchildren. They receive virtually no financial support or incentives. 

Budget 2006 sought to balance the equation somewhat. A special unit will be set-up to assist private institutions in obtaining accreditation and overseas recognition, and tax breaks will be given for science-based programmes. 

The ministry also announced that private institutions would be allowed to offer “joint degrees” with foreign universities. 

The Mapcu conference’s theme was Securing Malaysia's future in higher education: Realigning goals and priorities in private education.  

In his paper on internationalisation and the private sector, Education Quarterly’s chief editor Mark Disney outlined the various measures and policies put into place such as the establishment of education promotion offices in Beijing, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh city and Dubai, streamlining of immigration procedures, and the appointment of an education envoy with Cabinet rank. 

As of January this year, there are 40,000 foreign students – about 26,000 in private tertiary institutions (IPTS), 6,000 in public tertiary institutions (IPTA), 5,000 in private and international schools and 3,000 in public schools.  

This is significantly below the 50,000 target set for this year. 

There has also been a 10% drop in students from China, partly due to issues related to lack of quality andthe mistreatment of Chinese students. 

Branding Malaysia 

Singapore aims to increase its foreign student enrolment from the current 60,000 to 150,000 by 2012.  

Education is expected to contribute 5% of GDP, with China being the main target market. 

Singapore is also going for quality. INSEAD and The University of Chicago offer courses there while the University of New South Wales Asia will be operational by 2007. 

“Many foreign students are on scholarships that bond them to Singapore. Students from China are being wooed through easier visa policies and the presence of Singapore Tourism Board offices throughout China,’’ said Disney. 

He believes that Singapore poses a real threat to Malaysia. “Our first mover advantage has gone. We need better branding, marketing and promotions as well as more concerted and coordinated policies.” 

Dr Ariff Kasim from the Higher Education Ministry’s Private Higher Education Institutions (PHEI) management sector spoke about the factors hindering the development of private higher education in the country.  

Key among them is the lack of brand that differentiates Malaysia from other countries. 

“Building up a brand takes time and effort. A (good) brand creates interest and attracts students. More effort needs to be taken to brand Malaysian private higher education institutions,” said Dr Ariff. 

INTI international group of colleges president Tan Yew Sing called for established colleges with good track records to be given preferential treatment. 

He also called on the authorities to hold more recruitment fairs abroad.  

“We should organise Malaysian education exhibitions and set up additional promotion offices overseas. There should be greater incentives for education providers who participate in international marketing activities.” 

Tan also said that red tape and bureaucracy needed to be reduced if Malaysia is to become an attractive destination for international students.  

Other than faster and easier visa procedures, “the authorities must secure mutual recognition of academic qualifications on a government to government basis.”  

He added that this was a real problem preventing students from China from coming here. 

University College Sedaya International (UCSI) president Peter Ng called on the authorities to recognise that although higher education is an export commodity, the regulations in place were more geared towards import and domestic consumption. 

“Increasingly, international students are seeking multiple-site higher education experiences. Malaysia needs to think of itself as part of the global supply chain.” 

He added that the Ministryshould acknowledge that higher education is a lifestyle investment. 

“Students want social and cultural life experiences – the soft services are important.” 

Ng also called on the Government to recognise Mapcu institutions as “premier league”.  

“We can’t brand and position Malaysia with hundreds of small colleges. A premier league identity will be a guarantee of quality,’’ he said. 

Organising chairperson Mei-Ling Young said that the conference’s proceedings and recommendations would be forwarded to the Higher Education Ministry. 

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