Shafie Salleh should organize a consultative forum with MPs on the crisis of higher education and how to rebrand Malaysia as a truly international centre of academic excellence so that the country can be competitive with Singapore and Australia and be a magnet for international students
by Lim Kit Siang
(Petaling Jaya, Tuesday): The Minister for Higher Education Datuk Dr. Shafie Salleh should be the next Minister to organize a consultative forum with Members of Parliament on the crisis of higher education and how to rebrand Malaysia as a truly international centre of academic excellence so that the country can be competitive with Singapore and Australia and be a magnet for international students.
Malaysia has failed not only to meet its target of 50,000 foreign students this year, but there has been a dramatic fall in their numbers.
The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, in the pre-Budget 2005 consultation in his capacity as Finance Minister on 7th May 2004 announced that as at the end of 2003, some 40,000 foreign students from 162 countries had studied in Malaysia. In 2002, there were 22,824 foreign students studying in the country.
We are now told that the current figure for foreign students has plunged to the 2002 level of 23,000, including 11,058 from China, 7,503 from Indonesia, 1,409 from India, 1,369 from Thailand and 1,296 from Singapore – a far cry from Singapore’s ambitious target under its “Global Schoolhouse” project to increase its 50,000 international students in 2003 to 100,000 international full-fee paying students and 100,000 international corporate executives for training by 2012.
Shafie has called for a meeting of eminent personalities in the public and private education industry to brainstorm and seek immediate solutions to the problem, while the Higher Education Ministry special envoy Datuk Seri Effendi Norwawi has asked the five foreign university branch campuses in Malaysia to come up with a Cabinet paper outlining ways to attract more foreign universities here.
Effendi gave a very revealing insight about the crisis of higher education in Malaysia in his recent speech on “Internationalisation of Higher Education” at the Universiti Putra Malaysia when he cited the comment of University of Nottingham in Malaysia’s pro vice-chancellor Prof Brian Atkins that his university would not have agreed to set up a campus in Malaysia if they knew there was going to be so much red tape.
The reason why Malaysia has failed to become an international centre of academic excellence is not difficult to find, as what is missing is the political will to resolve the problem.
To resolve the crisis of higher education, Malaysia must rebrand itself truly as an international centre of academic excellence so that Malaysia can be competitive with Singapore and Australia and be a magnet for international students – with quality of education and meritocracy at all levels and aspects of higher education in the country.
Claiming to want to be an international centre of educational excellence and actually being one are two completely different things. Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM), for instance, announced last April its aim to be “among the top of globally-acclaimed institutions of higher learning by 2006”, but who believes it could achieve this aim even by 2026 unless it is prepared to open its doors to the “best and brightest”, whether bumiputra, non-bumiputra or even foreign students?
Parliament, for instance, should hear MPs regardless of party affiliation calling for UiTM to become one of the top-notch world universities with the recruitment of the “best and brightest”, whether bumiputra, non-bumiputra or foreign students, instead of demands that it should be kept completely closed even to non-bumiputra Malaysian students!
This is why a consultative forum with MPs is imperative on how to rebrand Malaysia as a truly international centre of academic excellence, and how to find the political will to ensure that meritocracy undergirds the entire policy and system of higher education to transform Malaysia from a regional centre of academic mediocrity into an international centre of academic excellence.
For a start, let all MPs, whether Barisan Nasional, Barisan Alternative or DAP, reach a national consensus that it is just not acceptable and a national disgrace that Malaysia fared so poorly in the recent The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) global ranking of the world’s best 200 universities.
Only two Malaysian universities made into the list, the University of Malaya ranked No. 89 and the Universiti Sains Malaysia ranked No. 111. Singapore has two universities in the Top 50 universities, with the National University of Singapore ranked No. 18 while the Singapore Nanyang Technological University ranked No. 50. Australia has six universities in the Top 50 or eight in the Top 60 - Australian National University (16), Melbourne University (22), Monash University (33), University of New South Wales (36), University of Sydney ( 40), Queensland University (49), Melbourne’s RMIT (No. 55) and Adelaide University (56).
The other top-ranking universities in Asia are: Tokyo University (12), Beijing University (17), Kyoto University (29) , Hong Kong University (39), Indian Institute of Technology (41), Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (42), Tokyo Technological University (51), Tsinghua University China (62) and Osaka University (69).
It will be a major stride in the journey to rebrand Malaysia as a truly international centre of academic excellence if MPs can achieve the parliamentary consensus that Malaysia’s higher education policy must aim to ensure that there are at least two Malaysian universities in the world’s ranking of Top 50 best universities or three universities in the world’s Top 60 best universities.
* Lim Kit Siang, Parliamentary Opposition Leader, MP for Ipoh Timur & DAP Central Policy and Strategic Planning Commission Chairman