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Malaysia’s capital-intensive approach to become the next international education hub

Education tops once again Malaysia’s political and economic agenda. Prime Minister Najib Razak unveiled on October 10 the new federal budget for 2015, in which education receives the largest allocation equal to RM56.6 billion (USD 16.2 billion), or 26% of the overall budget.

Education is recognized as the cornerstone of Malaysia’s Economic Transformation Programme. As such, it has been identified as a National Key Economic Area, with the objective of making Malaysia an international education hub by attracting 200,000 international students by 2020. Already in 2011, the World Bank assessed that Malaysia’s public expenditure on primary and secondary education as a percentage of GDP, was slightly higher than OECD average (3.8% versus 3.4%). In the Asian context, Malaysia’s public spending on education was more than double that of other ASEAN countries (3.8% versus 1.8%), and 1.6% higher than the “Asian Tigers” (South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore).

Concerns over deteriorating performance despite enormous investment

Experts in the sector, however, are raising eyebrows over the decreasing quality of education offered as well as the expected return on investment of the 2015 budget for education. Concerns are rising due to Malaysia’s deteriorating performance in the PISA assessment. According to the latest report, Malaysia scored below OECD average and in some areas (science and reading) the country’s performance worsened compered the previous assessment.

Critics underlined that the policy embraced by the government is excessively investment-driven without paying the necessary attention to teachers’ training and development needs. The 1BestariNet project, for instance, has the objective to supply 4G broadband access to all 10,000 schools in the country and promote the use of e-learning techniques by supplying new technological equipment thereby cutting the ratio of student-device to 10:1. Budget 2015 records a RM200 million (USD 57.3 million) increase in “hardware” developments (infrastructure and ICT) but also a RM600 million (USD172 million) cut in “software” services, such as pre-service, in-service and leadership training of teachers. From 1999 to 2010, the Ministry has invested approximately RM6 billion on ICT infrastructure for schools. However, UNESCO states that there is still little evidence that the usage of this technology is actually facilitating creativity, problem solving, and critical thinking.

Risks and opportunities of aligning education to economic objectives

On the one hand, education lobbyists such as Parents Action Group for Education (PAGE) and public think tanks as the Penang Institute criticized the economic-oriented educational system that leaves little room for social objectives and equitable development of students. It appears that the adoption of latest technologies has little marginal impact on pupils in rural areas, where teachers do not receive the necessary training to reap the benefits of ICT infrastructure. On the other hand, the World Bank praises Malaysia for its effort in addressing the mismatch between education and market requirements, a gap responsible for leaving many graduates jobless. The presence of publicly funded high-tech parks – such as Kulim High-Tech Park, Senai Park, Technology Park Malaysia, Kuantan High-Tech Park – distributed on the whole national territory contribute to shape a conducive environment by leveraging R&D potential and profitability for innovative companies.

The internationalization of education

Malaysia is taking advantage of the rising global student mobility. According to UNESCO, the country is the 11th most preferred study destination worldwide and hosts students from approximately 100 countries. Due to steer competition from mid-value manufacturers such as India and China, Malaysia is investing heavily on education as the key variable to accomplish its economic transformation. This move did not go unnoticed to many MNCs that are picking Kuala Lumpur as their regional HQ because of the availability of high-skilled human capital. Private institutions and international schools have been mushrooming along with foreign universities setting branch campuses in Malaysia. EduCity, for instance, a project spearheaded by the federal government and State of Johor, is Malaysia’s first multi-campus education cluster. Ten international education institutions have signed up to set up local campuses in EduCity so far, of which two are secondary schools and the rest are higher learning institution. This provides foreigners with opportunities to send their children to internationally accredited institutions and places Malaysia in the right position to attract new talents from all around the world to fulfill its vision to become an international education hub.