NEAC's target of an international student population of 50,000 in five years is too small and modest and should be doubled if not trebled

Media Statement
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya,  Friday): The National Economic Action Council (NEAC) has set the target of an international student population for 50,000 in five years, contributing about RM3 billion in foreign exchange earnings.

The NEAC executive director, Datuk Mustapha Mohamad said that currently, there were 18,000 foreign students in the country, contributing about RM500 million in terms of fees, rental and their families' expenditures.

The 50,000 foreign students targeted in five years are expected to come mainly from China, Indonesia and the Gulf countries. The direct potential earnings could be around RM1.25 billion annually, which would contribute about RM2.8 billion to Malaysia's gross domestic product (GDP) when the multiplier effects are taken into account.

The NEAC's target of an international student population of 50,000 in five years is too small and modest and should be doubled if not trebled.

The global education industry involves astronomical expenditures in the region of trillions of ringgit. Education, in particular higher education, has become a very lucrative industry, both domestically as well as internationally.

There are at present some two million international students pursuing higher education abroad, nearly half of them from Asia, which has been described as "only the tip of the iceberg" as the demand for higher education will grow by leaps and bounds in the next one to two decades with East Asia's combined GDP set to surpass that of the US and the European Union around 2020.

Malaysia should aim to secure at least five to ten per cent of these international students to come to our universities by the end of the decade, which should not be too difficult if our universities are of international repute, as the cost of living in Malaysia are very much cheaper and lower than those in the West. This would mean a target 100,000 to 200,000 international student population by 2,010 with a potential of RM6 billion to RM12 billion foreign exchange earnings instead of a paltry 50,000 by 2,007 targetted by NEAC.

The only hurdle to surmount is for Malaysia to establish itself as an international centre of educational excellence with universities and tertiary institutions recognized globally for their academic attainments - a provider of quality education not only for Malaysians but for international students to further their education in the country.

Instead of continuing to allow education to divide Malaysians, the government should provide the lead and set the example to make quality education for primary, secondary, tertiary, mother-tongue and ICT education the top national educational objective.

A major drawback for Malaysia at present is the absence of an university which is internationally recognised for its academic excellence.

Previously, the country had one, as the University of Malaya in the sixties was undoubtedly an university of international repute and standing. However, in the Asiaweek's 2000 ranking of Best Universities in the region, University of Malaya was ranked a lowly 47th position out of 77 universities, with Universiti Putra Malaysia in 52nd and Universiti Sains Malaysia in 57th position.

Asiaweek in 2000 also had a separate ranking for "Science and Technology Schools" where Malaysia's sole mention, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, was ranked 30th out of 39th universities/institutes, while in the Asiaweek 2000 ranking of the Best MBA Schools in the region, Malaysia's top MBA school, the Faculty of Business and Accountancy in the University of Malaya was ranked a lowly 32rd place among the top 50 MBA schools.

In 2001, the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC) conducted a survey of foreign business executives working in the region on the best education system in Asia and the highest quality labour force. Malaysia came out poorly, ranked seventh out of 12 countries when we should be among the top three, which went to Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

The NEAC should commission a masterplan for an education revolution and not just reform to make Malaysia the provider of quality education for primary, secondary, tertiary, mother-tongue and ICT education.

Quality education at the tertiary level is only possible if there is quality education at the primary and secondary schools, as they lay the foundation of a generation's educational prowess and greatness.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman