In many developing countries, and Malaysia is no exception, the national government has seen fit to steer higher education policy in a direction that is in the ‘national interest’. This notion of ‘national interest’ is best exemplified by the changing relationship between the state, higher education institutions and the market. We would like to think that after independence in 1957 the state facilitated the growth of universities appropriate to both national and regional circumstances at that time. While serving the ‘nation interest’ public universities were also pursuing objectives that are some semblance of the “idea of a university” right up to the late eighties. However, during the 1990s, the government began to intervene in the higher education system and there were many policy changes that higher educational institutions have found to be increasingly complex and unmanageable. We would like to assume that these changes, as explicitly outlined in the National Higher Education Strategic Plan 2020 and detailed out in the National Higher Education Action Plan, 2007-2010, are Malaysia’s responses to fast changing global landscape of higher education and the rise of the ‘Asian Century’.
We need to explicate higher education policy changes in Malaysia and then answer one specific question: are these changes indicative of a higher education policy that is going through a maturing process or are these changes nothing more than an attempt to be current and fashionable in the light of neo-liberalism tendency and its associated new public management practises, which is widespread in the developed world. The recently released World Bank Report on higher education in Malaysia has a profound impact on the way higher education policy is being framed in Malaysia.
Using both neo-liberalism model/new public management concepts and state-centric model of higher education as analytical framework to analyse the plans documents, we conclude that Malaysia’s higher education policy has characteristics of both neo-liberal and state-centric models. Many new public management concepts and ideas are adopted to translate policy to actions, without meaningful or significant ‘retreat of the state”, which is typical of neo-liberalism. Arguably, Malaysia is still holding on to the state-centric model of higher education (because of the ‘nation interest’) but would like also to ‘embrace’ fashionable European and American models. Reports from the World Bank on neo-liberalism, as well as successful examples of the USA, UK and Australia are too attractive for Malaysia to ignore. Thus, Malaysia’s higher education policy is clearly an attempt to be current and fashionable to face the new challenges in higher education based on the same state-centric approach. Time will tell whether this approach will work.
We are tempted to conclude that, following Readings’ (1996) The University in Ruins, the likely scenario for Malaysia is as follows:
historically the integrity of the modern University has been linked to the nation-state, which it has served by promoting and protecting the idea of a national culture…now the nation-state is in decline, and national culture no longer needs to be either promoted or protected. Increasingly, universities are turning into transnational corporations, and the idea of culture is being replaced by the discourse of ‘excellence’.
And in relation to the two blueprints on Malaysian higher education, Jermadi and Disney writing in the latest issue of Prospect Malaysia (a higher magazine in Malaysia) caution us as follows:
Those with long and cynical memories will recall numerous previous strategies; those who glance at the more recent past will find blueprints and studies upon which the ink is barely dry. So what’s new about these recent proposals? Are they necessary, are they original, and are they workable? The short answers to these questions are: ‘yes, no, and yes’.