Malaysia aims to be the “education hub” of South-east Asia, says Wahid Omar, vice-chancellor of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.
“Higher education is the catalyst for innovation for the country and the key agent in revolutionising the lives of the community as a whole,” he says.
While Singapore is the strongest country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in the rankings, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are also home to some of the continent’s top-ranked universities.
Thailand leads on the number of representatives, with seven, but the highest-ranked institution in the region outside Singapore is Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, in joint 70th place.
Jamil Salmi, former coordinator of the World Bank’s tertiary education programme, says Malaysia has “more consistently focused on excellence in its university sector” than Thailand and Indonesia and has “one of the highest levels of public spending on tertiary education in the world”.
But Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, says that as Malaysia has “two-thirds of the gross domestic product per head of Korea”, it “should be doing much better”, and he questions whether the country is “paying the price for being a resource-rich economy”.
“This can lead governments to ‘coast’ and underperform in higher education,” he says.
Top universities in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean)
|Asean rank||Institution||Country||2016 Asia Rank|
|1||National University of Singapore||Singapore||1|
|2||Nanyang Technological University||Singapore||=2|
|3||Universiti Teknologi Malaysia||Malaysia||=70|
|5||King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi||Thailand||98|
|6||Universiti Putra Malaysia||Malaysia||121-130|
|=7||Chiang Mai University||Thailand||141-150|
|=7||Universiti Sains Malaysia||Malaysia||141-150|
|=10||Suranaree University of Technology||Thailand||161–170|
|=10||Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia||Malaysia||161–170|
|=12||University of Indonesia||Indonesia||181–190|
|=12||Khon Kaen University||Thailand||181–190|
|=12||Prince of Songkla University||Thailand||181–190|
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He adds that the marketing of Malaysia as a “knowledge economy” and “innovation hub” has been “better than the substance”. He also argues that there “does not seem to be the same institutional desire to excel in research and work to strong international benchmarks” as there has been in Singapore.
“Malaysian pay scales are relatively unattractive, and talent is lost to Singapore and elsewhere,” he adds. “Another factor is the undeclared ethnic preference that permeates the Malaysian state and public sector. There are doubts about whether Chinese community and Indian community talent in Malaysia have equal opportunity to succeed – not a problem in Singapore, which is fiercely meritocratic.”
On Thailand, Marginson says that the country’s universities have been “held back by years of political turmoil, and lack of genuine governmental enthusiasm about funding”, although he adds that scientific output in the country continues to advance.
Kalaya Tingsabadh, vice-president of Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, ranked in the 151-160 band, says that while the country’s institutions attract top scholars and produce high-quality undergraduates, the main challenge is attracting graduate students.
“Our graduates go to top US and European universities for their graduate studies, so graduate student recruitment is a big problem. It means we don’t have quality graduate students to work as research assistants,” she says, adding that her institution is looking to negotiate double degree programmes with several UK universities to address this.
But despite this brain drain, she says, most of these graduates end up returning to Thailand.
“It’s something very special about Thai people – they always come back home despite the low salary they get in Thailand. I think it is due to our strong family ties. Thailand is also a very pleasant place to live and Thai food is more delicious than food elsewhere. So we have plenty of PhDs from top universities from around the world who come back to take positions as faculty members.”
She adds that the Asean University Network has been “really beneficial” for Thai institutions, by providing opportunities for universities to collaborate on student and staff exchanges.
Malaysia’s Omar adds that the network has “harmonised quality assurance”, facilitated credit-transfer mechanisms and strengthened “provision of technical and vocational education and training for Asean’s growing economic needs”.
But he says that for Malaysian and other Asean universities to reach the level of those in Singapore, China, Hong Kong and South Korea, institutions must focus on the “quadruple helix” – the “cooperation of academia, industry, the government and the people” to help “spur the country’s quantum leap”.
“More funding and resources are needed to make a difference, with strong governance and empowerment,” he says.
“Malaysian universities need to make their presence felt and create more impact than they have done, especially in relation to the benefit to the community as a whole.”