Higher Education In Malaysia: An Overview

We take a comprehensive look at the education system of Malaysia and the challenges it currently faces, as well as the reforms that have been outlined to improve it.


Enrollments at the primary and lower secondary levels are nearly universal in Malaysia and recent gains in preprimary education have been noteworthy, according to a recent report from the World Bank. However, relatively few students continue on to complete post-secondary education, with just 37.2 per cent of the relevant age group completing upper secondary (Form 6 or equivalent), and 15.3 per cent of 25-29 year olds in 2012 holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The key constraints to improving the quality of basic education therefore relates to institutions, the World Bank surmises, specifically pointing to a lack of autonomy and shortcomings in teacher training and recruitment. By way of example, the World Bank describes Malaysia as having one of the most centralised education systems in the world, with over 65 per cent of schools reporting that the selection of teachers for hiring takes place at the national level, compared to just over 5 per cent in South Korea. The story is much the same for budget allocations within schools, student assessment and choice of textbooks. All this means that schools struggle to respond to local needs as policy is being dictated from the centre.

Education Blueprint

The Government launched the Malaysia Education Blueprint in 2013 to define the course of education reform over the next decade and to respond to many of the challenges faced by the system. The Blueprint sets a number of ambitious goals, including:

• Universal access and full enrollment of all children from preschool to upper secondary school by 2020.

• Improvement of student scores on international assessments such as PISA to the top third of participating countries within 15 years.

• Reduce by half the current urban-rural, socioeconomic and gender achievement gaps by 2020.

To help achieve these goals, the Blueprint identifies a number of reforms that need to be implemented. These include:

• Increasing compulsory schooling from six to 11 years.

• The introduction of a Secondary School Standard Curriculum or Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Menengah (KSSM) and revised Primary School Standard Curriculum or Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Rendah (KSSR) in 2017 with greater emphasis on promoting knowledge and skills such as creative thinking, innovation, problem-solving and leadership.

•The introduction of clear learning standards so that students and parents understand the progress expected within each year of schooling.

• The introduction of English as a compulsory subject within the school leaving examination (SPM) from 2016, and an additional language by 2025.

• Increase entry standards for future teachers from 2013, requiring them to be among the top 30 per cent of graduates.

• The definition of clear performance benchmarks (‘system aspirations’) that will help measure progress of the reforms with annual reviews.

International Mobility

Malaysia is both a big sender and big receiver of international students, although inward and outward mobility numbers have been heading in opposite directions in recent years. In 1995, for example, 20 per cent of all Malaysian students at the higher education level were studying abroad, mainly on government scholarships to the tune of an estimated US$800 million annually.

Prior to the Southeast Asian financial crisis of 1997- 98, there were more than 100,000 Malaysian students abroad, mainly in the UK and the U.S, but funding for scholarships was cut dramatically after the crisis, and in 2010 there were fewer than 80,000 Malaysians studying internationally (World Bank, 2013).

In the United States alone, there were less than half the number of Malaysian students in 2010 than the 13,617 who were here in 1996, and while the numbers have crept up slightly since 2010 they are still less than half the 1996 total.

In response to the financial crisis, the Malaysian government redirected funding to domestic provision, significantly increasing the number of universities and colleges – both public and private – and introducing initiatives designed to transform the country into a developed knowledge-based economy. The government also encouraged the building of partnerships with foreign institutions of higher education.

The goal of this internationalisation strategy was twofold: to offer more educational opportunities for Malaysians domestically through transnational education programmes and to attract international students. Ultimately, the government wants to establish the country as a regional hub for higher education in Southeast Asia, with a goal of attracting 200,000 international students by 2020.

To this end, regulations were changed in 1996 to allow for the establishment of foreign branch campuses on Malaysian soil, a move that complemented reforms from the previous decade that allowed private providers to confer degrees in partnership with foreign universities.

As a result, private providers in Malaysia offer a large number of programmes through franchise and twinning arrangements with foreign universities. In addition, nine foreign branch campuses currently have operations in the country while six Malaysian universities also have operations abroad.

Today, Malaysia is among the biggest markets for transnational education (TNE) provision and the biggest overall for UK providers with some 48,225 students studying towards a UK qualification in Malaysia in 2010, almost four times the number of Malaysian students in the UK. According to the Malaysian Qualifications Authority, there were a total of 563 accredited foreign programmes (15 per cent of all programmes in Malaysia) in 2012. The top three countries providing TNE programmes are the UK, Australia and the United States.

Currently, there are close to 100,000 international students enrolled in Malaysia-based institutions of higher education, more than double the 2007 total. The top five places of origin in 2010 were Iran (11,823), China (10,214), Indonesia (9,889), Yemen (5,866) and Nigeria (5,817). The large number of students from Islamic countries and Africa is due in large part to cultural and religious similarities and lower fees compared to universities in Europe and the United States. The appeal of Malaysia as an international study destination among Muslim students has also picked up significantly since the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring’ in 2010.

Among Malaysian students abroad, the top destination countries in 2010 were Australia (20,943), the United Kingdom (13,796), Egypt (8,611), the United States (6,100), and Indonesia (5,588), according to information supplied to the Institute of International Education by the Ministry of Higher Education.

Vision 2020

Under the ‘Vision 2020’ initiative set by the government, Malaysia seeks to become a high-income nation by 2020. One of the means of achieving this goal is education and the development of quality graduates, with a net tertiary enrollment ratio of 40 per cent.

In recent years Malaysia has been focusing heavily on developing the research quality and quantity of its major universities, and the country currently spends 1 per cent of GDP on research and development. Five of the country’s 65 universities and university colleges have thus far been granted ‘research university’ status, which means additional government funding and increased autonomy. The five research universities are Universiti Malaya, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Sains Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

According to statistics from Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), the number of PhD students in Malaysia has increased from about 4,000 in 2002 to almost 40,000 in 2012. About half of these students are attached to the five research universities.

Institution Types

Private Colleges – Private colleges that do not have partnership agreements with Malaysian or foreign universities offer sub-degree qualifications. Those that do have partnership agreements with domestic or foreign universities can offer teaching programmes leading to undergraduate degrees conferred by the partnering university. These programmes are offered through twinning and franchise agreements typically, although other credit transfer and advanced standing programmes also exist.

Under a franchise agreement, a Malaysian college teaches the courses of a foreign university entirely on its campus. These are known as 3+0 or 4+0 degree programmes and are largely offered in business and accounting. All are taught in English. A twinning arrangement includes a year or two at the Malaysian college followed by another year or two at the foreign university. These are known as 1+2, 2+1 or 2+2 programmes.

Community Colleges – Community colleges provide professional training through a variety of formal and nonformal courses and programmes. They have been in existence in Malaysia since 2003. Formal programmes lead to the award of Diplomas and Certificates, with a mix of practical (75 per cent) and theoretical (25 per cent) instruction. Oversight is through the Community College Department.

Polytechnics – Polytechnics offer programmes leading to the award of Diplomas and Advanced Diplomas, with instruction including periods of work placement. Although these are considered comparable on the MQF to community college awards, entry standards are typically higher for polytechnics than they are for community colleges. Polytechnics are supervised by the Department of Polytechnic Education and the Department of Higher Education.

University Colleges – University colleges award their own Bachelor’s Degrees and Diplomas. They are smaller than universities, and typically offer a limited number of programmes in specialist fields.

Universities – Public universities offer the full range of academic degrees from Diploma to Doctorate. The government maintains close control over the sector, although there are plans to increase university autonomy in the coming years under the 2013 Education Blueprint reform process.

Five universities have been designated research universities, a title that comes with increased autonomy and funding to undertake research collaboration with industry and foreign universities (see list above). There are two other types of public universities: Focused Universities (technical, education, management and defense), which enroll equal numbers at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and Comprehensive Universities, which enroll larger numbers of undergraduates and offer a broad range of programmes.

The Private Higher Education Institutions Act 1996 allowed for the establishment of private universities, branch campuses of foreign universities as well as for the upgrading of existing private colleges to universities. The sector is regulated by the Private Education Department within the Ministry of Education.

There are currently 21 public (five research, five comprehensive and 11 focused) and 44 private universities, including nine international branch campuses.

Higher Education

At the sub-university level, polytechnics, private colleges, community colleges and some universities offer programmes in professional fields leading to the following credentials:

Certificates require 1.5 to two years of full-time study (60 credits) following the Certificate of Education (SPM).

Diplomas require at least two years of full-time study, but typically three years of study (90 credits). Programmes include both theoretical and practical studies and are focused in professional disciplines. Some Diploma programmes provide advanced standing or transfer credit into Bachelor Degree programmes. Entry is based on the Certificate of Education (SPM).

Advanced Diplomas require an additional 40 credits after a Diploma and are designed for managerial training in a professional context.

Bachelor Degrees

Bachelor Degrees require at least three years of full-time study and 120 credits. Degrees in professional fields require a higher number of credits and a longer period of study. Programmes in accounting, dentistry, engineering, and law require four years.Programmes in architecture, veterinary medicine, and medicine require five years of study.

Programmes are generally structured with a year of generalist courses and core courses in the general field of study, with the remainder focused on compulsory core courses and elective courses in the area of specialisation.

Private colleges offer various programmes leading to Bachelor Degrees through special teaching and transfer arrangements with partnering domestic and foreign universities that typically award the degree.

Graduate Certificates and Diplomas

Considered equivalent in level to a Bachelor’s Degree on the MQF, Graduate Certificates require at least 30 credits and Graduate Diplomas require at least 60 credits. The qualifications are awarded following completion of education or formal training, recognition of work experience, inclusive of voluntary work or in combination. They are used for continuing professional development, changing a field of training or expertise, and as an entry qualification to a higher level with credit transfer.

Master’s Degree

Master’s programmes last one to two years following the completion of a Bachelor’s Degree. Programmes can be undertaken as a pure research degree, pure coursework and examination or a mix of coursework and minor thesis.

Doctoral Degrees

Doctoral degrees are offered mainly at public universities although some private universities offer a limited number of programmes, typically in applied disciplines and in collaboration with industry.

This feature was excerpted from a 2014 article called “Education in Malaysia” originally published on the World Education News & Reviews website. For the full article, please see wenr.wes.org/2014/12/education-in-malaysia.

Tags: Features, Tertiary
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