The policy of attracting the "top" universities of the world to set up campuses in Malaysia, is not a bad one. Theoretically, if we are able to attract the top universities in the world to set up campuses in Malaysia, it will not only attract more foreign students to the country, it will also benefit the local education environment. For instance, the local top students will have a choice of attending the local campuses at a cheaper cost to acquire top-notch education. At the same time, public universities which has been under scrutiny today will face greater competitive pressures to improve performance to maintain their standards.
It is Malaysia's offical goal to attract up to 100,000 foreign students in 5 years time from just under 50,000 students today. Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak read a speech by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi which stated that "the country needed to recognise the impact of 'internationalisation' on the education sector," when officiating the launch of the University of Nottingham Malaysian Campus (UNMC) in Semenyih. This was reported in the Star on September 27th. The UNMC has currently over 1,200 students from a remarkable 30 countries. The University of Nottingham is ranked a very respectable 12th in the Times Good University Guide for 2006 in the United Kingdom.
On Sunday, Higher Education Ministry director-general Datuk Dr Prof Hassan Said claimed that "more foreign universities from Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States are preparing to have a presence here." This was reported in the New Straits Times on Monday this week.
Most of the universities he visited in these countries showed keen interest in either setting up branch campuses or research and development centres, he said.On the surface of it, this sounded like good news. However, upon more detailed scrutiny (with no disrespect at all to Irish Universities), these colleges are no where near the top colleges of the world. In the respected and widely cited Shanghai JiaoTung University (SJTU) ranking table of the top 500 universities of the world, 1 Irish university (Trinity College Dublin) is placed in the 201-300 category while 2 others were placed in the 401-500 category (University College Cork and University College Dublin). Even in the more doubtful world rankings list compiled by the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), the only Irish University appearing in the top 200 was Trinity College, placed at 87th. Are our Ministry officials pursuing the right universities to set up campuses in Malaysia?
"In the case of Ireland, we are discussing a lot of things. There is a possibility the individual universities will set up branch campuses. There is also the possibility that all of them might come here as a consortium."
In circumstances such as this, it is inevitable for anybody not to make comparisons to the policies instituted in our southern neighbour, and envy their success in some of their undertakings. Singapore has been extremely successful in attracting the top schools in the world to set up programmes or campuses in the country. Some of the top universities which have set up presence in Singapore includes Insead, the leading European business school from France, University of Chicago Business School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (5), Stanford University (4), Cornell University (12) and John Hopkins University (19) (SJTU world rankings in brackets). Additionally, Duke University (32) from the United States and the University of New South Wales (153-202) are expected to open their campuses in Singapore within the next 3 years. I will dwell more in terms of Singapore's policy to attract the top schools in the world in the subsequent post.
The question that we (and the policy makers) need to ask is whether we have a specific strategy in recruiting these "top universities". Are we trying to really attract the top schools, but are misguidedly pursuing the second and third tier universities - University of Nottingham (83), Monash University (203-300) and the Irish Universities?
Alternatively, is it an intentional commercial decision to attract the 2nd and 3rd tier universities, as there is justifiably a very strong demand for their degrees throughout the world? From a foreign exchange income perspective, attracting these institutes is not a bad decision at all. The number of students who can qualify to the top universities of the world are few. On the other hand, there will definitely be a larger pool of students who will qualify into the next tier of good universities.
The difference in the nature of the above policies have subtle implications for our education industry in Malaysia. The latter policy may be a successful one in terms of commercial factors, but it will not have as strong an impact in their ability to improve the quality of our students and local education sector, as the former policy. In addition, Malaysia is likely to be labelled (if not already), a "mass" education centre of higher learning, instead of the "top" education centre of higher learning.
I don't think there is a strictly right or wrong to the above choices, although I'd like to believe that Malaysia should be more ambitious in attracting the real top colleges to set up some form of presence in Malaysia. It is more important that the officials at the Ministry of Higher Education formulate a clear policy for the country and stay focused in achieving the objectives of the policy. At the moment, I'm just not convinced that the officials know what they are specifically doing.
Interestingly, Datuk Prof Hassan claimed that "Cambridge University was planning to collaborate in research and development with various local universities," in the latest interview. The same newspaper published on the 6th June this year that "Cambridge University is looking into the possibility of setting up a branch campus here." It was immediately rebutted in a low-key report in Malaysiakini, in which Cambridge officials flatly denied any plans to set up any "branch" and any other countries.
Collaboration between academics are common occurences and definitely not as claimed by Prof Hassan that "[i]t is the first time that Cambridge has explored this possibility with other universities."
I just wish that our officials focus a bit more with their roles and responsibilities and a lot less in try to "name drop" to associate themselves with supposedly "great" achievements. These actions by our government officials will obviously negatively affect potential collaborations we may have with institutions like Cambridge (imagine being questioned by the Malaysian media about a non-existent plan like setting up a "branch" in Malaysia!), not to mention that it'll make Malaysians look really stupid.
As mentioned earlier, my next post on this same topic will do a comparative study on Singapore's single minded pursuit and their innovative strategies to attract the "top" institutions of the world to the tiny island.