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HIGHER EDUCATION IN MALAYSIA

OVERVIEW OF MALAYSIA’S HISTORY, POLITICS, ECONOMY AND INNOVATION

3.13 HIGHER EDUCATION IN MALAYSIA

178 Source: Rasiah and Thiruchelvam (2009)

Surveys done by MOSTI (Thiruchelvam & Kamarul Zaman, 2008) have attributed poor responses to both programs to the:

(a) Weak job market and failure to guarantee employment for those returning to Malaysia.

(b) Restrictions in the recruitment of scientists. The program under MOSTI has indicated that priority should be accorded to scientists from China, India, Pakistan, Russia, and countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

(c) No appropriate database on Malaysians residing abroad. Lack of such information hampers the adoption of more selective approaches.

(d) There is no specific unit in MOSTI to implement the program. The program was implemented on an ad hoc basis.

It is suggest that if Malaysia is serious about attracting talented scientists from abroad then it must be prepared to make a number of changes to its existing policies and programs.

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institutes in Malaysia. The total number of students at the tertiary level between the years 2002 to 2007 is 873,238 students and the figure keeps increasing (Malaysia, 2006).

The development of higher education in Malaysia can be summarized into three brief phases (see Table 3.32) (Rozita, Nazri and Ahmad, 2011). Historically higher education in Malaysia began after the country received its independence in 1957. As a result of colonial policies, Malaysia had been racially segmented in terms of economy. This segmentation starts as early as primary school where three major ethnic groups in Malaysia, namely, the Malays, Chinese and Indians attend three different types of school and practise their own languages as mediums of instruction in those schools (known as

‘vernacular school’) (Sato, 2005).

The school system that evolved catered differentially to the needs of the ethnic group resulting in their participation in different sectors of the economy. English education served well the Malay elite and urban Chinese and Indians providing an efficient avenue into modern sector jobs. The vernacular system that served the majority had limited economic value; the Malay system aspired mainly to improve the quality of Malay farmers and peasants; the Chinese system was oriented to the cultural needs of the community while Tamil education provided merely an elementary schooling to the population in the estates (Singh &

Mukherjee, 1993, p90).

Prior to independence, integrating ethnic groups as a way to boost education appeared as a strategy in a number of major reports on education (Sato, 2005) for example Tun Abdul Razak Report, 1956 and Abdul Rahman Talib Report, 1960 (both reports are under the Education Act 1961) (Singh & Mukherjee, 1993 and Sato, 2005). As a result of these reports, although the vernacular school was retained, Malay language (Bahasa

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Malaysia)42 was adopted as the medium of instruction and common content curriculum and examinations were used in all schools (Singh & Mukharjee, 1993).

Prior to independence and the enactment of the Education Act 1961, Education Committees led by Tun Abdul Razak and by Abdul Rahman in 1960 were formed to study the education system and to formulate an educational development plan.

Both reports emphasized the need to create a new national identity through the education system (Singh & Mukharjee, 1993, pp.89-102). The Razak Report argued that the “ultimate objective of education policy…must be to bring together the children of all races under a national educational system in which the national language is the main medium of instruction” (Report of the Education Committee, 1956 as cited in Chee, 1979). The Talib Report also emphasized the need to adopt the national language as the main medium of instruction and further proposed the need to take steps to make the University of Malaya (UM) a bi-lingual university with English and Malay as the medium of instruction (p. 328) (Sato, 2005, p74).

Despite structural changes in primary and secondary education, the implementation of national unity policy was also reflected in the development of higher education.

In 1960, the Federation of Malaya saw the necessity of having an exclusively national university within its own territorial boundary. The necessary legislation arrangements were made and in 1962, the former University of Malaya, established under British rule in 1949 with campuses in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, became two separate universities; the University of Singapore and the University of Malaya (Selvaratnam, 1989). In 1962, the University of Malaya (UM) had only 1,341 students and many of its graduates were absorbed into governmental sector (Lee, 2004, p.41) (Sato, 2005, p74).

42 “The main objective in promotion Bahasa Malaysia as the sole medium of instruction at all levels of education was to provide for national identity and promote unity. This policy was envisaged to solve the country’s long-standing ethnic problem. A prominent Malaysian educator claimed that ‘from the common language [Bahasa Malaysia] comes common awareness which ultimately develops into a commonly accepted national identity” (Selvaratnam, 1988, p183)

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Table 3.32

Malaysian Higher education Development Phases

Period Higher Education Development

Phase 1: Colonial period to independence

-Higher education was not a priority in the British colonial education policy

-Those privileged gained their higher education in Singapore, Hong Kong or the United Kingdom. Also, some Malays from rich families who enjoyed the rise of rubber prices, had chance to further their studies in the Arab countries. They were mainly students from Islamic oriented school

- In 1962, University of Malaya was established and in the same year, the Higher Education Planning Committee was formed with the aims to identify the workforce needed in a 20 year period and also to plan the educational facilities towards producing the required workforce

Phase 2: After 1969 Riot -The quota system was introduced in student university‘s admission in order to ensure a balanced ethnic composition. Scholarships, special assistance and tuition assistance were established for rural students

-Malay language as the medium of instruction

-The increase in number of private higher education institutions

-From the late 1980s onwards, a few new universities were established; International Islamic University (1980), Universiti Utara Malaysia (1984), Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (1992) and Universiti Malaysia Sabah (1994)

Phase 3: Globalization era -Corporatization of public universities. Universities start to engage in market related activities.

-Establishment of the Ministry of Higher education in 2004

-Promotion of Malaysia as the educational hub Source: Information compiled from Rozita, Nazri and Ahmad (2011)

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The establishment of University of Malaya (UM) in 1962 marks the expansion of higher education in the country. Concurrent with the establishment of UM, the Higher Education Review Committee was formed. The function of the committee was to review improvements and development of the higher education system in the country. In its first report in 1967, the committee recognised the need of science and technical education to assist the country’s future development. Responses to the report were incorporated in the First Malaysia Plan (1966 -1970) and during the plan period a few new universities that offered programs in scientific and technical discipline were established (Selvaratnam, 1985, Sato, 2005 and Singh, Schapper & Mayson, 2010). Since then, Malaysian higher education expansion has been coupled with the country’s economic transition (Lee, 2004, Sato, 2005, Morshidi, 2009 and Singh, Schapper & Mayson, 2010).

Lee (2004) claimed that the government has always played a strong role in the development of higher education in Malaysia especially through the formulation of national policies and controls over the management of the universities. Morshidi (2009) shares a similar view with Lee (2004) except that for him, it is the racial riot incident in 1969 that prompted the government to put strong policy guidelines on public tertiary education. To Morshidi, before the country’s independence, the influence of the government was far less as the institutions then catered mainly for the elite class of people. According to Morshidi, on the whole, Malaysian public university development has been influenced both by academic and also political powers. This is explained in his work, Strategic Planning Directions of Malaysia’s Higher Education: University

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Autonomy in the Midst of Political Uncertainties (2009).

By the late eighties, the State had a major role in determining the development of university education and the establishment and subsequent running of universities. For instance, the State determined student enrolment, staff appointment, curriculum development, and the financing of universities. For Isahak (1988), the argument for State control of universities is partly academic and partly political. The academic part is in relation to academic quality, which is money spent on producing quality higher education. The partly political basis of State’s intervention in the higher education system relates to the idea of ‘national interest’…. (Morshidi, 2009, p466).

He asserted that higher education in Malaysia is characterised as being both neo-liberal and state-centric.

Arguably, Malaysia is still holding on to the state-centric model of higher education (because of the ‘nation interest’) but would like also to ‘embrace’

fashionable American and European models. ‘University autonomy’ is a fashionable neo-liberal percept to be included in a strategic plan for higher education… (Moshidi, 2009, p471).

State-centric in this sense means that higher education in Malaysia is still reliant on the government in terms of financial sources, and the government meanwhile, needs the university as a medium to assist in building the country’s socio economic development.

At the same time, Malaysian higher education tries to practice a neo-liberal model in terms of autonomy of the university. The adaptation of western style of management and emphasis on marketization of education are expressed in the aim to create independent higher education institutions (Morshidi, 2009).

Following Morshidi it is not surprising that the role of higher education has regularly appeared as feature in Malaysia’s development plans. In the First Malaysia Plan (1966-1970) for instance, focus was given on diversifying and expanding the country’s

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economic activity. Malaysia’s traditional economic growth that depended on two natural sources; rubber and tin, was seen as uncertain with the unstable price of rubber and the gradual depletion of tin supply (Malaysia, 1966). Thus, during the plan period, as a safeguard for the country’s future development, strategies were taken to reduce dependency on natural sources by generating and stimulating new kinds of economic activity. Industrial activities were given new priority to generate income (Malaysia, 1966).

As the labour intensive activities began to be given emphasis, educated and trained workers with a wide range of skills were necessary. And to implement the policy, efforts were made to expand the courses and programs offered at all colleges and higher education institutions; new universities and polytechnics were established and this increased students’ enrolment in universities (Malaysia, 1966). As a result, the enrolment of students in UM was doubled. It is reported that about 7,777 students enrolled in UM during the 1970/1971 (Khoo, 2005).43 It was also during this time that two new universities; University of Science Malaysia (known as Universiti Sains Malaysia, USM) (1969) and National University of Malaysia (known as Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, UKM) (1970) were established.

Immediately after the 1969 riot, the government announced a legislative framework known as the Universities and Universities Colleges Act (UUCA) which appointed the Ministry of Education as the responsible body in setting the policies and directions of

43 Please see Chapter Five for further information on the topic of students’ enrolment in University of Malaya.

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higher education in Malaysia. Under the act which was formulated in 1971, the Federal Government was responsible for students’ enrolment, staff appointment, and university’s curriculum and financing for public universities while the Ministry of Education was in charge of the courses offered by the university, establishment of new faculties and appointments of the university’s vice chancellor and deputy vice chancellor (Lee, 2004).

Several acts were implemented under the Constitution (Amendment) Bill of 1971 in order to reduce inter-ethnic differences (Lee, 2004). Among the major actions included the students’ enrolment ethics quota where 55 percent of places at the public universities were allocated to Bumiputera students (Sato, 2005). The purpose was to increase the number of Bumiputera students in public tertiary educational institutions and also the job market particularly in professional fields (Lee, 2002). According to Sato (2005) most of students that entered public universities during the 1950s and 1960s were non-Malay especially ethnic Chinese.44 It is reported that during the period of 1968-1969 out of 5,566 students in University of Malaya (UM), only 1,825 were Malay45 students (Mohamed Suffian, 1976, cited in Sato, 2005, p76). As the major ethnic group that constitutes 60 percent of the country’s population, this number was considered small.

Thus, the introduction of the quota system was introduced to balance the amount46 and as a result the percentage of Malay students at public universities increased (see Table 3.33).47

44 “During the 1950s and 1960s, enrollment at higher education institutions had been predominantly non-Malay, especially ethnic Chinese. For example the percentage of Malay students in UM in 1960 was only 22 percent as compared to 78 percent of non-Malay students” (Sato, 2005, p76).

Besides that, Bahasa Malaysia (Malay language) was made the medium of

45 Malay and bumiputera are commonly used interchangeably.

46 At the same time, according to Sato (2005) the quota system has made universities lost their control on students’ admissions.

47 “Because of restrictions on admission to public universities for non-Malay students, the number of

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instruction in the education system. Although Bahasa Malaysia is used as the national language, Chinese and Tamil are still used in the Chinese and Indian Independent schools. The establishment of the UUCA and Constitution (Amendment) Bill of 1971 attempted to “kill two birds with one stone” that is to manage the universities to be in line with the country’s growth and to make the NEP a success. These links could be seen in policies such as university students being forbidden under the UUCA to be involved in any political party (Lee, 2004).

Table 3.33

Enrolment at Universities in Malaysia by Ethnic Group in Percentage Year No. of public

universities

Malays students Non-Malay students

1960 1 22.0 78.0

1970 3 54.2 46.8

1980 5 63.1 36.9

1985 5 67.0 33.0

1990 6 74.6 25.4

Source: Sato (2005)

The relationship between the government and universities was further strengthened with the launch of NDP (1991-2000). At some stage of the NDP, the Malaysian government has set a new vision known as Vision 2020. As Vision 2020 focussed on building R&D capability to increase productivity and employment, the government started to restructure local higher learning institutions. Privatization and corporatization of higher

Malaysian students studying in overseas institutions increased in the 1970s. by 1980s, there were 21,994 students enrolled at local universities (Had Saleh, 1994), meanwhile 39,908 Malaysian students were studying at overseas universities, of whom 60.5 percent were Chinese, 23 percent Malays, 15.9 percent Indians and 0.6 percent other Malaysians” (Sato, 2005, p79-80).

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education were two crucial steps taken by the government in order to fulfil the nation’s needs and at the same time to enhance the function of local universities.48 The privatization of higher education was also encouraged for several other reasons (Lee, 2004). The first reason was the need for higher learning institutions to accommodate the increasing demand of students. Limited placement in the public universities was due to Malaysia’s economic policy which aimed to increase the amount of skilled human capital and the ethics quota policy which has encouraged students especially the Non-bumiputera to choose private universities to further their studies. The second reason was the high cost of overseas education which has led many students to study locally.

Finally, the government’s policy intention to reduce the currency outflow has also contributed to the establishment of many private universities. Most of the private universities in Malaysia are owned by either the private companies or by public listed corporations which could be profit oriented or non-profit oriented. The existence of these private universities has not only has increased the nation’s income through the incoming of foreign students but also has offered job opportunities to the local citizens (Lee, 2004).

In addition, pertaining to the mushrooming of private universities, Malaysia has made an effort to ensure that its higher education is maintaining high standards and is competent in the global education market. The government through the Ministry of Higher Education has taken the initiative to establish the Malaysian Qualifications Agency

48 According to Mok (2010) Vision 2020 plan has set a target that by year of 2020 at least 60 percent of high school students will be enrolled to public university and to achieve student enrolment up to 200,000 for each corporatized university.

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(MQA)49 as a step to monitor and ensure the quality of higher education in the country.

Among the strategy outlined is that all programs offered by both public and private tertiary education have to obtain approval from the agency.

Corporatization of some public universities on the other hand has been an alternative way for the government to overcome budget constrains (Lee, 2002).50 It is hoped that this will allow the universities to operate on ‘business basis’51 and give the opportunity to the universities to have their own style of management. And at the same time, it is expected that this corporatization will hold back loss of talent among academicians through the competitive market wages offered (Lee, 2002). However corporatization does not mean that these universities have full autonomy. In the case of Malaysia, although it has been corporatized, the universities are still subjected to certain conditions set out by the government.52 To quote Morshidi and Kaur (2010):

Malaysian public universities are not legally (and politically) independent from

49 In 1997, Malaysian government has formed the National Accreditation Board (NAB) as a statutory body that control the quality of private higher education in Malaysia. And in 2001, the Quality Assurance Division (QAD) was set up by the Ministry of Education to supervise the quality of public universities (Lee, 2004). Twenty years later, in line with the rapid growth of the country higher education industry, the quality assurance system in Malaysia is updated and known as Malaysian Qualification agency (MQA).

Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) is a merge entity between the National Accreditation Board (NAB) and the Quality Assurance Division (QAD) of Ministry of Higher Education. Established in 2007, MQA is responsible for monitoring the quality assurance practices and accreditation of national higher education both public and private. Please see Lee (2004) and the official website of MQA at

50 In 1998, University of Malaya was corporatized. This is then followed by other eight universities.

51 Business bases as proposed by the government is “to diversify their financial resources by charging students tuition fees, increasing the number of students, branching out to work closely with the business and industrial sectors, and offering professional courses, consultancy and community services” (Mok, 2010, p427).

52 Although they are corporatized, public universities in Malaysia are still subjected to government rules and policies. This is because, the government is still provides 70-80 percent of funds to public universities.

For instance, universities have the power to determine the fees for postgraduate students; however, the fee for undergraduate student is still subjected to the guidelines of Ministry of Higher Education. In addition, the government is still responsible for appointing the university’s leaders and students’ selection. For further information on this topic, please see Kaur, Fatimah and Sirat (2010), and Sufean and Soaib (2010).

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the government and, second all the public university employees in Malaysian remain as civil servants (p191).

According to Lee (2004), corporatization of public universities means that the universities were corporatized only in terms of their governance but not financially.53 The government is still in charge of the allocation and continues to own the universities’

assets. In fact, staff members of universities are still employed under public civil service terms (Mok, 2010). As Lee (2004) describes the situation:

It should be noted that the restructuring of higher education in Malaysia did not take place in the presence of a shrinking welfare state, as in many western countries, but instead it took place through the initiative of a strong interventionist state. The state may not be the sole provider of higher education but has full control in the governance of the public universities and act as a strong regulator in the quality of both public and private higher education.

Instead of cutting back on educational expenditure, the state continue to invest heavily on education and human resource development so that Malaysia can becomes a fully developed nation by the year 2020 (p58).

Nevertheless, although the government still continues to provide development funds and expensive capital projects, the universities are responsible in terms of operational expenses (Lee, 2004). As a way to gain income, these universities are allowed to be

53 According to Kaur, Fatimah and Sirat (2010), public universities in Malaysia still rely on government allocation, “Every year, each university submits a budget proposal based on intake number decided by the MOHE [Ministry of Higher Education]. The Ministry of Finance then makes the final allocation which usually reflects the previous year’s allocation plus a small increase based on overall availability of public resources. In 1997, while the government of Malaysia introduced the Modified Budgeting System (MBS) which operates as an output-oriented budget allocation, funds were still distributed on the basis of an incremental-cost approach linked to inputs” (p32-33). Nevertheless, pertain to university governance, research done by Soaib (2008 cited in Sufean &Soaib, 2010, p6) found that Board of Directors in public universities has limited power, “the governance process work through functional representation and powers were vested in various bodies or committees and only the selected or the elected individuals were allowed to participate. Nevertheless, it was felt that in reality, the university Board of Directors was powerless because many of the Board’s powers were executed or delegated to the universities’ Vice-Chancellors. The University Constitution has allocated the powers of the Board and regarded the Boards as the executive body. Paradoxically, by tradition the Board’s attendance in the universities was limited to that of attending Board meetings or official functions. The members realized that they should play bigger roles and contribute more to the university development. They started raising issues that were deemed as relevant to governance process. However, such initiatives were viewed as micro-managing and interfering with the university’s operations, which ultimately has created resistant from the university community”.

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involved in business enterprises, setting up of companies and making loans (Lee, 2004).

Box 3.8:

The Changing Academic Profession in Malaysia

As universities expand, the direct power of the academics over the structures of governance has been limited by new layer professional bureaucrats who have significant power in the day-to-day administration of the university (Altbach, 1991). The emphasis on accountability has required the academics to submit to more fiscal control, pressure to increase productivity, and subject to more rules and regulations as well as rigorous assessment procedures. As a consequence, the academic culture loses its collegiality and becomes more bureaucratic and hierarchical with a concentration of power at the top (Lee, 2002). The penetration of the corporate culture into public universities has required the academics to behave like entrepreneurs and to market their expertise, services and research findings. The emergence of a corporate culture in the universities is beginning to cause a cleavage between academics in the natural and applied sciences who constantly subjected to the pressure of being engaged in entrepreneurial activities on the other hand, and on the hand, those in the social sciences and humanity who perceive the social value of their research being undermined by the university authorities. The corporatization of public universities may have brought about increase institutional autonomy but it also demands more accountability on the part of the academics. The corporate culture in universities places a lot emphasis on performativity. The academic staffs in all public universities have to work out “personal performance contract” with their respective heads, and annual salary increments are based on performance. Academic freedom in Malaysia is limited when compared to other countries. There are restrictions on what can be researched and what the academic community can express to the public. Topics on ethnic conflict, local corruption, and other politically sensitive issues have been banned from academic research. There have been cases of censorship of research findings, which are deemed to be political sensitive by the powers that be.

There is also a ruling that academics must seek permission from the vice-chancellor before expressing their views publicly.

Source: Lee, Molly NN 2004, ‘Malaysian universities: towards equality, accessibility and quality’ in Lee, Molly NN, Restructuring Higher Education in Malaysia, School of Educational Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, pp54-55

This corporatization not only gives the opportunity to the universities to have their own style of administration but also be more competitive with others.

The Malaysian government has recently made an effort to lessen its domination on public universities. With the launch of the National Higher Education Strategic Plan 2020 for instance, has brought opportunities for universities to be more autonomous in

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the future. Under this long term plan, the universities administrative and vice chancellors are given authority to undertake suitable plans to achieve the university mission and vision (Mohamed Khaled, 2008). An article written by the vice-chancellor of UKM has elaborated on this situation:

Academic autonomy has begun with the granting of self-accreditation status to the four research universities which have satisfied the stringent performance standards of the Malaysian Qualification Agency. The senates of these universities enjoy the highest degree of academic autonomy in introducing or terminating degree programmes, defining the structure, content and methods of teaching, conferring degrees, deciding on areas, scope, aims, and methods of research and establishing the extent of control over student admission (Sharifah Hapsah, 2010).

Fong (2010) also agrees that the government’s policy towards higher educational opportunities is widely open to all levels of society.

The implementation of the 1996 Private University Act saw rapid expansion of opportunities for tertiary education in the country. And with the establishment of the Government University Loan Scheme (PTPTN), providing financial aid to all students including those from Independent Chine Schools, as well as the opening up of JPA [Public Service Department of Malaysia] scholarships to all excellent students, all Malaysians who are aspire for tertiary education can now pursue their dream within our shores (Fong, 2010, p7).

As a conclusion, it could be said that, because of the country’s unique socio-economic and historical background, the development of higher education in Malaysia might not be similar in any simple sense to any existing model. Although in the west, the intervention of the government into higher education is assumed to reduce the university’s freedom in Malaysia, the relationship between the government and university is important (Morshidi, 2009).