Malaysia’s Higher Education in Need of Radical Transformation?

Keynote Speaker
Tan Sri Dato’ Seri Hj. Arshad Ayub


  1. Prof. Dato’ Dr Ibrahim Ahmad Bajunid
  2. Prof. Dato’ Sri Dr. Zaleha Kamaruddin, IIUM
  3. Ms. Elizabeth Lee, Sunway
  4. Prof. Datuk Dr. Roziah Omar, Min. of Education (Moderator)



The history of higher education in Malaysia is considered relatively short compared to that of neighbouring countries such as Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. However, throughout the period starting from the establishment of University of Malaya Kuala Lumpur campus in 1949 till now, which is less than 70 years, several changes and reforms have taken place in various aspects of higher education. It is important that the growth, challenges and achievements are well understood in order to decide whether changes are needed to move to greater heights in the future.

Growth in Higher Education in Malaysia

The history of higher education in Malaysia can be broadly divided into four main phases.  Before 1970, access to higher education in the only university was limited to a select few.  During the 20-year period of the second phase, between 1970 and 1990, access for higher education improved tremendously with the establishment of six public institutions of higher learning (IHLs) – UKM, UTM, UPM, UUM, UIAM and USM. In addition, there were polytechnics, community colleges and private institutions that offered a wide range of courses at the certificate and diploma levels.  The third phase is defined as the period after 1990 to 2000, when eight more public institutions were set up with several private colleges awarded the university status.  

The period after the year 2000 up to the present is a period of a number of dramatic changes in the character and functions of higher education in Malaysia, in tandem with changes taking place around the region.  These changes are partly in response to globalization and the development of knowledge-based economy worldwide.   As a result, the Private Higher Educational Act 1996 higher education in Malaysia was amended in 2003 which subsequently lead to restructuring of private IHLs in order to make it more competitive globally.  Specifically, the amended act provides the provision for the establishment and upgrading of private universities, university colleges and branch campuses of foreign universities in Malaysia which lead to a steady increase in the number of foreign students enrolled.  This period is also associated with the liberalization of education in Malaysia.

Recognising the importance of higher education and its contribution to the economy, Malaysia identified it as one of the services sub-sectors for further growth and development in the Industrial Master Plan 3 (IMP3) for the period 2006-2020.  This achievement is not free of challenges that need to be addressed by the relevant ministry and agencies under it.

Challenges in Higher Education

Currently, the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE), established in 2004 is responsible for monitoring all public and private IHLs in the country, including polytechnics and community colleges.  The Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) is responsible for monitoring and overseeing the quality assurance practices and accreditation of national higher education institutions.    

As of this year, there are 20 public universities, seven foreign universities campuses and close to 500 private institutions of various categories – most of which are small colleges.    However, with over 500 institutions now established, it is of great concern that none of them made it in the top 100 of the QS World University Rankings 2012/2013 and The Times Higher Education World University Ranking 2012/2013.   In contrast, two out of six universities in Singapore consistently made it in these world rankings.

The top world universities are especially excellent in research.  In Malaysia, public universities are dependent heavily on government funding for their operations, research and development.  Unlike established world-class universities, other sources of funds are limited and thus to a certain extent hamper their efforts for world-class research activities.  On the other hand, many private universities, especially those with small enrolment are facing financial difficulties as they rely on students’ fees to survive.  Hence, research and development is definitely not their priorities.  

In 2012, over 90,000 international students from all over the world are studying in Malaysia making it the world’s 11th largest exporter of educational services.  This number is expected to grow to 200,000 in 2020.  Based on these figures, there is no doubt that Malaysia is an attractive destination for overseas students as a safe and relatively cheap place to study.   However, managing such a large number of foreign students are not a simple task as they come with different values and practices which may be unfamiliar to Malaysians.  There have cases of student’s visa abuses, conflicts among students of different nationalities and other crimes involving these students. Also, a large concentration of certain nationalities in one area often causes anxiety among the locals.  On the other hand, there have been crimes against them as well such as cheating by private colleges/agents and prejudices against some nationalities by the local communities.  

Unemployment problem needs to be looked at seriously as several studies have reported that unemployment among fresh graduates has been increasing over the last ten years.   Among the reasons cited for their inability to secure jobs are:  lack of communication skills, poor attitudes, lack of confidence and qualified in low-demand qualifications.  If these graduates are not ready for the job market, who is to be blamed?   For example, can communication problem be improved at the tertiary level or need to be addressed at the primary and secondary levels?  Similarly, should universities focus on just job-related skills or train students on attitude and other soft skills as well?

Questions to think about:

  1. What are the main challenges faced by higher education providers – public and private?
  2. Are public universities ready to be independent from the government in terms of funding and monitoring?
  3. What is the extent of autonomy should be accorded to public universities in terms of staff appointment, academic matters and financial decisions?
  4. What drastic transformations are needed to turn our universities into world top-ranked universities?
  5. How do we ensure that our graduates are ready for the job market?
  6. Is private higher education adequately monitored?
  7. What steps need to be taken to ensure foreign students recruitment is not abused?
  • 1957: Hati Malaya= Heart of Malaya
  • Sejarah Malaysia: Wacana Kedaulatan Bangsa, Kenegaraan Dan Kemerdekaan
  • Merdeka! British Rule and the Struggle for Independence in Malaya, 1945-1947
  • Dato’ Onn Ja’afar – Pengasas Kemerdekaan
  • Abu Samah Mohd Kasim (Pejuang Kiri Kemerdekaan Zuriat Datuk Bahaman)
  • Merdeka For The Mind
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