13 July 2018
Globally-Academic or Locally-Vocational: Malaysia's Education Agenda
At the recent Facon Education Fair, Kuala Lumpur's leading further education event, students struggled to decide whether to develop their digital skills in downtown Dubai or learn how to become a true career-long sewing sensation in Selangor.
It was something of a case of mixed fortunes for the organisers of this year's Facon Education Fair, Malaysia's long-established further education road show. While, over recent years, it has become abundantly clear that the country's government has been backing education in a big way – particularly with regard to building skills in the digital sector – exact priorities have seemed hard to identify and the underlying policy framework a little fluid.
Those concerns aside, "transition" seems to be the watchword of many of those active in the Malaysian higher education sector. Of late, a less than gentle prod from the government has seen private and public universities only too keen to raise their standards, while there has also been a surge of in the number of non-nationals coming to Malaysia to study, many of them similarly keen to burnish their digital skills.
In 2017, the country's 10 state-sanctioned campuses welcomed 177,000 overseas students, with the Ministry of Higher Education hoping to see this figure top 200,000 by 2020. Among this growing legion of imported would-be learners, the most prominent have been substantial contingents from China and Indonesia.
Against this backdrop of changing domestic priorities and the clear uptick in the country's international academic standing, this year's Facon Education Fair – a hugely well-supported 28-year-old roadshow that takes in several other locations around Malaysia, including Kota Kinabalu, Penang and Malacca, before arriving in Kuala Lumpur for its flagship event – managed to draw in a surprisingly wide array of exhibitors. These included local educational bodies, overseas institutions looking for Malay partners and even one or two specialist service providers.
Taking pride of place among the home team was the Asia Pacific University (APU) of Technology & Innovation. Established in Kuala Lumpur as a wholly IT-focused, government-backed academy back in 1993, it became a university college in 2004, before being accorded full university status in 2017. As a sign of its ongoing success, it recently opened a second campus and has now also introduced dual-degree certificates in partnership with Staffordshire University, a UK-based specialist in healthcare and digital technology education.
Spelling out APU's current priorities, Marketing Manager Chong Sau Mun said: "As well as looking to find the most effective way of recruiting tech-savvy students, we also remain committed to producing highly-employable graduates, who all leave us armed with an array of professional technical skills and all the soft skills they need to succeed.
"Overall, we are finding that the current generation of students and their parents are better informed than ever about the educational options that are open to them, making the competition to find the right calibre of undergraduate intense. While we mostly target prospective students via social media and digital marketing, events like this are useful as they allow us to talk to those school leavers who may have less of a fixed idea about their futures."
At present, some 60% of APU's annual intake is overseas-derived, with students from 110 different countries and territories now on its books. Maintaining that this mix of local and global students is hugely beneficial to both parties, Chong Sau said: "We have a number of educational and social initiatives in place, all of which are designed to encourage students to mix-in and learn from one another, whether in terms of skill-sets or culture."
Another local player to have secured a strategic alliance with a UK educational body was the International University of Malaya-Wales (IUMW). Boasting the largest stand at the event, this private university – jointly established by Kuala Lumpur's University of Malaya and the Cardiff-headquartered University of Wales – offers dual UK-Malaysian bachelor degrees in the arts and humanities, business, law, health, social sciences, life sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Outlining the current challenges facing higher education institutions in Malaysia and beyond, Banu Jane Jothimalarr, the IUMW's Senior Marketing Executive, said: "Nowadays, universities are under constant pressure to continually develop new programmes in order to both keep up with changing times and to stay ahead of rival higher education establishments.
"Higher education is very competitive right now – as soon as one institution offers a new course, another follows suit pretty quickly. This year, for instance, in response to industry demand for ever more skilled people in the real-estate management and auction house sectors, we have introduced dedicated courses in both disciplines, but we don't expect to have a monopoly for very long".
Another international partnership looking to up its student numbers through maintaining a high profile at the fair was Middlesex University Dubai. Again a UK joint venture, it first opened its doors in 2005 and now has more than 3,000 students from 100 different countries on its books, with the majority of them studying at its United Arab Emirate's campus.
Keen to emphasise the upside of studying in the Middle East, Shakil Ahmed Shaikh, the institution's Recruitment and Marketing Country Manager, said: "One of the benefits of studying in Dubai is that the employment market is very open and very diverse. In fact, many students stay on and work in the country after graduating.
"We also offer students the chance to earn a UK degree and to spend a year studying in London. At the moment, though, one of our priorities is to attract more students from Malaysia and Indonesia – hence our presence here."
While it's fair to say that joint venture educational establishments, with a focus on a more traditionally academic agenda, were well-represented at the event, another distinct group was also out in force – home-grown, vocational institutions, where the curriculums veered from the largely prosaic to the downright poetic. Among these, three further education bodies stood out in particular – The School of Communications (part of the Quest International University Perak) with its focus on journalism and the media in general, Musicpreneur Malaysia, which is helping youngsters on their way to a musical career, and the International Academy of Fashion & Design, which has a 40-year heritage in training up aspiring fashion designers.
Based in the northern Malaysian city of Ipoh, Quest has recruited Raj Dronamraju, a former journalist and marketing communications expert, to head up its School of Communications. Clearly evangelical as to the potential of the course, he said: "Being based outside Kuala Lumpur is something of an advantage for us as it ensures that we attract a really diverse group of students. At the moment, for instance we have a 36-year-old Pakistani writer, who is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, and an Indian Tamil who is pioneering a new approach to cyber-journalism."
Somewhat newer to the business was Kuala Lumpur-based Musicpreneur Malaysia, which launched its 18-month musical entrepreneurship diploma in 2017. Explaining the thinking behind the initiative, Project Manager Heidi Chan said: "Talented young Malaysian musicians often want to go overseas to establish themselves as singers or TV performers, but often they have no idea about the business side of the music industry.
"By studying with us, they get a clear idea of what they are letting themselves in for. Typically, our lecturers tend to be music producers, managers of previously successful artists, stylists, photographers or digital distribution experts – people with a real connection to the music industry. We also have our own recording studio and production facilities, allowing aspiring artists to get hands-on experience of working on jingles, films, animation, TV scores…"
The granddaddy of all these more vocational establishments is, of course, the International Academy of Fashion & Design. Based in Selangor, on Peninsular Malaysia's West Coast, it has been a staple of the country's fashion sector since 1975. Currently, it offers both a diploma and an advanced diploma in fashion, plus shorter courses for those not necessarily looking for a lifetime career in the sector.
Defining the role the Academy has played in the lives of generations of students, Manager Shahzad Khurram said: "Often, the people who come to us are very creative and image-focused. We then help them to develop their commercial skills, allowing them, in time, to manage their own fashion businesses."
With so many options on offer, both domestically and internationally, it's not surprising that one commercial operator – Kuala Lumpur-headquartered EasiUni – sensed that there was money to be made by helping to matchmake students, courses and colleges. Billing itself as "Malaysia's leading online student recruitment platform", it currently claims to have 2,000 universities on its books.
Explaining how it all works in practice, Gillian Chan, EasyUni's Head of Business Development and Marketing, said: "Essentially, we are a digital agency and we help universities reach their target audiences in Malaysia and across Southeast Asia, while also enabling school leavers to identify the universities, courses and scholarships that interest them.
"Of late, many universities have dispensed with their traditional approach to marketing altogether and gone digital, largely because it is more targeted and more measurable. At the same time, students are going online to search for the information they need, while tending to trust the assessments made by their peers, information that we have also integrated into our site."
The 2018 Facon Education Fair took place from 31 March-1 April at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.
Geoff de Freitas, Special Correspondent, Kuala Lumpur