Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Malaysia's Comparative Advantage

I was chatting with a student from an Islamic country this morning. He seems like a really bright guy and he was interested in doing a PhD on Islamic Finance in a Malaysian university. This got me thinking. Malaysia should use its comparative advantage as a Muslim majority country where English is widely spoken and used at the higher education level to attract bright and young aspiring scholars from other Muslim majority countries to do research in Malaysia.

This is an untapped market. Many bright young potential scholars from countries like Pakistan and Nigeria may not have the necessary background and resources to apply to universities in the developed world to do their PhDs. Some of them also may not want to apply to some of these countries because of the visa restrictions post 9-11.

Malaysia is actually a good place for some of these scholars to do their PhDs. There is more cultural affinity because Malaysia is a Muslim majority country which means easy access to mosques and halal food. English is widely used in most if not all public universities. Our universities have decent resources and infrastructure.

Our public universities perhaps in collaboration with MOHE should pick the best brains from these countries to come here to Malaysia. Offer them scholarships but bond them to teach in our public universities for at least 3 years. Similar to what Singapore does when it gives Malaysians scholarships to study in NUS and NTU. Except that they Singapore government bonds Malaysians to work in Singapore in ANY field for 3 years.

Doing this would solve 2 problems for our public universities. Firstly, it would partly solve the problem of not having enough Malaysians to fill the spots in PhD programs in Malaysia. This is likely to happen if MOHE forces the public universities to increase their post grad intake. Secondly, it would partly solve the problem of not having enough PhDs to teach and do research in our public universities. Some of you criticized me for seemingly not being aware of the new UM VC's statement that he would bring in an additional 300 academics in critical sectors to teach at UM even as he increases the number of postgrads there. The problem is that qualified academics don't grow on trees or in the paddy fields. It's not easy to hire 300 good academics just like that. Of course, increasing the number of PhD students won't solve this problem immediately as well but long term, if these students stay on, get their PhDs and teach in our public unis, it would certainly help.

I know what some of you are going to say. What about our local students? Shouldn't they take priority over foreign students? Of course they should. After all, Malaysian students have parents to are taxpayers and they should get first dibs at any scholarships and places at the postgrad level. Malaysian postgrads should make up a majority of students in these postgrad programs. I would be worried if this was not the case. Even in a place that is as open as the US, foreigners make up only 20 to 30% of the graduate population. It varies by course but there are good reasons for this. I don't expect Malaysia to be any different. If the ratio was anywhere close to 50-50, I would start raising a ruckus.

But if my intuition is right and not enough Malaysian students apply for these postgrad positions and if there is a latent demand coming from good foreign students like the one I talked about earlier, I think it would be a strategic move for the Malaysian government and our public universities to make.

It would be ideal if we could attract Malaysians who have been trained in universities in the developed world to come back and teach in our universities but we all know that that is going to be difficult at least in the short term. This is one of the alternative solutions.

Of course, this shouldn't distract us from something that I have blogged about many times before, which is that the promotion process in our public universities should be made more transparent. It would be sad indeed if we gave scholarships to foreigners to come do to their PhDs here and they are promoted faster than some of the local staff even though the local staff may be as good if not better than some of these foreigners. In other words, the playing field has to be leveled. If the foreign PhD students are good, they should be offered jobs and promoted. But if the locals are equally good, they also should be offered jobs and promoted.

Lastly, I just want to emphasize that this works only if the selection mechanism put in place in our public universities is sound and rigorous. This is to ensure that only the best foreigners who don't want to apply to schools in the developing country get to come to Malaysia and do their PhDs here. No point getting those who want to come here only for the free education and whose qualifications are less than stellar.


Anonymous said...

I have been following your concern about education in Malaysia and I find it very sensible indeed! Keep up your good work. By the way, I am looking forward to talking to the writer or meeting someday in the future!

Anonymous said...

I hope that MOHE do realize the potential market......

Anonymous said...

The PhD stundent mentioned above choose Malaysia to do his PhD in Islamic Finance is not because Malaysia is actually a good place for some of these scholars to do their PhDs.
The fact is Malaysia is the world leading and largest Islamic Finance market. We are best at this but not other field of studies.

Shawn Tan said...

Sounds like a good idea.

However, as you mentioned, this will only work for fields in which Malaysia has a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, there are not too many such fields.

Anonymous said...

Some Islamic universities only accept those who are conversant in Arabic. This is ok so long as you want to do business in the Middle East but if you only want to do a PhD then the entry requirement is a hindrance. Secondly, I hope that Malaysian unis do not copy the model that a uni which I call CSU from Wagga Wagga has whereby they continuously charge monies for their program with no passable result in sight. Sad to say this is legalised extortion.

Anonymous said...

It is important that Malaysia does not have subprime education which is substandard. Further, supervisors are important as if you have Economists to supervise a Marketing PhD you have subprime research as Economists don't deal with debt and monies. They only take it away and tell you what to do and dont HELP HELP HELP you.