Malaysia’s universities working to make the grade

Universities in Malaysia have been given a key role in government plans to raise the country to developed-nation status within the decade, but more investments may be necessary if higher education institutions are to meet the targets that have been set by the state.

According to government figures, 25% of all Malaysians between the ages of 18 and 24 are taking part in some form of higher education, a level of participation that Prime Minister Najib Razak says will help the country overcome income inequality and reach its goal of being a high-income nation by 2020.

“The odds of people succeeding in their socioeconomic upward mobility are significantly improved by raising access to education,” he said while attending a ceremony at the Unitar International University in Kelana Jaya on February 27. “Only with equity can we narrow the gap of income inequality and achieve a resilient national unity.”

Working to make the grade

However, it is not just greater access to higher education that is in the government’s sights – Malaysia is aiming to boost the quality of academics as well. The goal is to have at least one local institution ranked among the top 50 global universities by 2020, with a minimum of three in the top 100.

Meeting this target may prove difficult to achieve by the deadline set. In the latest edition of the QS World University Rankings, the preferred benchmark according to the Ministry of Education, the highest-placed Malaysian institution was Universiti Malaya, which came in at 167, followed by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (269), Universiti Sains Malaysia (355) and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (355).

Malaysia’s universities fared better in the QS World University Rankings by Subject, however, which was released at the end of February. Eight institutions are rated within the top 200 in at least one of the 30 disciplines reviewed, two more than made the grade last year.

Best-performing was Universiti Sains Malaysia, which ranked 28 for environmental sciences, while also joining the top 100 for computer science and information systems, chemical engineering, civil engineering and mechanical engineering. Universiti Malaya reached the top 100 in six categories, including computer science and information systems, chemical engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

This year’s results show that Malaysian universities are operating at an increasingly high level within a range of academic disciplines, QS head of research, Ben Sowter, told the local media.

“Overall, the performance of Malaysian institutions has improved compared to last year,” he said. “Through taking a more targeted approach to ranking universities, we have been able to pick up on the particular strengths of Malaysian institutions much more effectively than is possible in overall institutional rankings.”

Academic credence, economic gain

Apart from gaining credibility in the academic world, success in various ratings surveys are of importance to individual universities and the country, and can bring clear financial benefits. Better rankings help universities attract more international students, staff, business investment and research partners.

Another advantage of a stronger higher education system could be a reduction in the flow of Malaysian students overseas, with up to 80,000 studying abroad annually, of whom roughly one third have some form of sponsorship. While a similar number of international students come to Malaysia, the balance of revenue from higher education could be swung more firmly in the country’s favour if it was able to keep more of its students at home while attracting additional fee-paying foreigners from other markets.

One encouraging fact is that many of the disciplines where Malaysian universities scored high in the QS rankings were in technical and scientific fields, indicating strength in areas that have practical applications for economic development. Though Malaysia may find it a challenge to reach the upper tiers of global university rankings, the country appears to be making the grade in terms of moving closer to its national economic targets.

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