The “global prominence” shift in the Malaysia Education Blueprint for Higher Education 2015 to 2025 was a continuation from the National Higher Education Strategic Plan 2007 to 2020, said Dr Wan Chang Da, deputy director of the National Higher Education Research Institute (IPPTN).
“Across these policy documents, internationalisation serves to position Malaysia as an international education hub, or more specifically, an international student hub.
“The objectives were to promote the brand of Education Malaysia and reap the economic benefits of international students. However, this approach may not be sustainable.
“Malaysia is known for its affordable education and an alternative avenue for students from countries that have difficulties entering other more developed systems. Relying on this may not sustain Malaysia to become an international education hub,” said Wan.
While in theory, universities can improve through internationalisation, such is not the case if they focus solely on international student enrolment, he said.
“We have not looked into developing the substantial aspect of our curriculum and pedagogy to fully unleash the potential of internationalisation.
“The simplistic nature of counting international students and academics gives an overly simplified picture of what is international in higher education,” said Wan.
International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) deputy rector (internationalisation and global network) Professor Dr Nor Faridah Abdul Manaf said a myriad of factors led to the slight decrease from 24 to 23 per cent in international student intake at IIUM in recent years.
“With the global economic crisis, fee hikes and virus scare, we see a drop in students coming to our shores. New competitors have also emerged, such as Indonesia and New Zealand.”
According to MEBHE, rankings can serve as a benchmark to see the strengths of an education system and how it can improve.
While the merit of a university lies in its knowledge development and academic community, rankings play a role in putting institutions on the map. However, they should not be the definitive measure of quality.
Wan said: “University rankings may be a misleading indicator of internationalisation. If we are serious about improving the quality of teaching and learning for Malaysian universities, we should not play the ranking game.
“Playing it means having international students and academics just because of their passports, not because of their expertise and capability. Students and academics became mere numbers to institutions, for the sake of chasing KPIs.
“We have not fully appreciated the diversity these individuals bring to our institutions and look into ways of integrating them to become a part of our institutions.”
The true motivation for universities to hire international academics must be explored, he added.
“From an academic viewpoint, every student and academic should be equal. Why do we treat international students as cash cows just because they pay more or treat international academics as second class citizens on a contract basis?”
Similarly, Faridah said that universities must not exist to fill the quota set by any international rankings, especially with financial limitations.
“IIUM forms collaborations with institutions in 39 countries, from America to Oceania. But we can’t expect what is right for universities in affluent countries to be right for us. Financial means are required to employ the best international academics or have the right number of staff for us to make time for research.
“In some Malaysian universities, we are still dealing with long hours of teaching thus having time to write is a luxury. The situation is evident from the number of teachers opting for early retirement, dying young or leaving academia for a greener pasture.
“We can attract international students if we have a good pool of excellent professors. Unfortunately, many of them are often promoted to the top executive positions,” said Faridah.
THE WAY FORWARD
Malaysian International Higher Education policies must be driven by long term goals, said Taylor’s University vice-chancellor Professor Michael Driscoll.
“We need to find ways to attract international students, such as providing post study work opportunities. Joined effort in crafting the government policy is crucial as immigration should be on the same page with higher education institutions.
“We also need to be open-minded towards hiring non-Malaysians to attract the best staff from around the world,” he said.
Faridah echoes the importance of having a more accepting society.
“If we want to attract more students, we have to make it easier for them in terms of job opportunities, scholarships, enrolment and visa application.
“Our general population must also be welcoming of international students especially those from developing countries. There are cases where students would get harassed for being different,” said Faridah.
Financial limitations can be overcome with scholarships, stronger alliances and edutourism, said Universiti Malaya (UM) deputy vice-chancellor (Academic and International) Professor Dr Kamila Ghazali.
“While many of our students are interested in mobility programmes, we could only sponsor a limited number. To overcome this, we try to negotiate and work together with our partners for sponsorships and cost waivers.”
“The Malaysian International Scholarship, for instance, attracts the best brains from around the world to pursue advanced academic studies in Malaysia. It can be extended to more countries to attract more students.
“Youths are also more receptive to the idea of study beyond the classroom. Through edutourism, international students can learn in natural, historical and multi-cultural environments.”
Highly accessible university websites are the driving force to enhance global appeal, she added.
“UM has an optimised website that makes it easy and enjoyable for site visitors. While our official website is in English, our Marketing and Recruitment Center’s website is available in 10 different languages.”
Curriculum internationalisation is another way forward.
Kamila said: “UM is in the midst of a curriculum review process. We are constantly striving to improve our curriculum, making sure that our courses are up-to-date and meeting the market needs of current times.”
To strengthen global reputation, universities need to develop their international research collaborations, said Sunway University Malaysia vice-chancellor Professor Graeme Wilkinson.
“We must ensure that the research impacts global problems. They need to attract the attention of academics and major companies in other countries.
“This is easier said than done, but having talented academics working on global problems and coming up with credible solutions would get us noticed internationally.”
Malaysia needs a more supportive regulatory framework for international students, he added.
“Allowing international students to work during their studies to help cover their living costs and providing post-study work visas for one or two years for them to gain valuable experience. Countries that permit these seem to attract more international students.”