Challenges and Opportunities: Malaysia’s Road to becoming a prominent education hub

“It’s time for Malaysia to seriously position itself as a “Gateway to Asia”


How does Malaysia position itself among the – in the Malaysian Higher Education Minister’s words – “traditional study destinations” such as USA, UK and Australia? Thomson Ch’ng, a recent Malaysian graduate from Australia and the former President of CISA, reflects on this alongside Prof Dr. Nor Haniza Sarmin, director of global education for Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM).

In 2007, the Malaysian Ministry of Education developed the National Higher Education Strategic Plan (Pelan Strategik Pengajian Tinggi Negara – PSPTN) with the goal of transforming the Malaysia’s Higher Education Sector and its institutions. This was followed by the launch of the Malaysia Education Blueprint  (2015-2025) for Higher Education.

“There needs to be a champion of international students in the Malaysian community

No doubt, the Malaysian Higher Education system has grown from strength-to-strength over the years, including the rise of global recognition in key dimensions of institutional quality and research publications. In particular, “Global Prominence” being one of the 10 “Shifts” outlined by the Malaysia Education Blueprint – with an ambitious target of 250, 000 number of international students to be achieved by 2025.

Strengthening its strategic coordination among stakeholders.

The Malaysian international education sector has come a long way. This is evidenced by the establishment of Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) by the Ministry to be responsible for International Education. However, there is a clear lack of coordination and partnership between government departments and agencies, education institutions and more importantly the international student body. Perhaps it’s now time for the nation to strike a balance between integration and specialisation.

Clearer Structure and Roles of different organizations.

While EMGS has been established as an agency to be responsible for promoting Malaysia as a study destination, the increasing responsibilities and roles that have been placed under the agency over the years are affecting the effectiveness of EMGS’s original role of the marketing arm for brand Malaysia. Among those, the differences of role between EMGS and Education Malaysia (EM), a division within the Department of Higher Education often create confusion towards stakeholders, such as education institutions.

“The differences of role between EMGS and Education Malaysia (EM) often create confusion

Over the last few years, EMGS has taken the ownership of managing student visas for international students by proactively working with Immigration. While the streamlined process is slowly getting the positive effect in easing the process of visa application, it has also taken up a lot of resources and time from the setting up to the implementation of this process over the last few years. Perhaps, it’s time to redefine EMGS’s role in providing a holistic international student experience in Malaysia.

Support from Community Stakeholders

The fact is, international education is not an island. Coordinated efforts from various  stakeholders is essential. The role of the Department of Immigration, Local Police and Emergency services, Accommodation / Employers association, foreign embassy, community groups and other commercial and non-commercial services providers, more important, student groups shouldn’t be underestimated.

The presence and the importance of international students in Malaysia needs to be recognised. There needs to be a champion of international students in Malaysian community.

Effective Public-Private partnership

The partnership between government and the sector needs to be an effective one. Currently, the highly-centralised decision-making process by the Ministry of Higher Education needs to be enhanced as to allow innovative ideas to take place.

Bureaucrats need to learn how to think out of the box and allow the exploration of possibilities of new ideas to take place. Instead of finding 100 reasons why things won’t work, we need bureaucrats who can encourage new ideas for projects and initiatives.

Redefine Malaysia’s Value Proposition for Malaysia as a Study Destination

The tagline “Soaring Upwards” is great to highlight the continuous improvement of the quality of education standard by Malaysian universities. While it may be effective to encourage our domestic students to consider local institutions as an option for their tertiary education, the question here is, is this the right strategy for Malaysia to compete effectively with other traditional study destination such as UK, USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand?

Or perhaps Malaysia should look into its strength as a nation in offering  rich cultural experience and warm hospitality – something that is being recognised globally? The truth is, the slogan “Malaysia truly Asia” is a very well recognised slogan globally. It’s time for Malaysia to seriously position itself as a “Gateway to Asia”.

Moving Forward

The fact is, there’s still a long way to go for Malaysia to be globally prominent. While it’s important to celebrate the achievements, it’s not the time for Malaysia to be complacent yet. More importantly, governance of this important sector needs to be safeguarded.

It can be done by setting up an international education stakeholder council which includes various experts and international student representatives to drive this sector moving forward, achieving “Global Prominence” as outlined in the Malaysia Education Blueprint.