Towards harmonisation of higher education in Southeast Asia: Malaysia’s perspective

The idea of harmonising higher education systems in Southeast Asia was inspired by the development of regionalism in higher education in Europe, specifically the establishment of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). The idea of regionalism in higher education in Asia or Southeast Asia is a very exciting idea, indeed. Is this idea feasible?

Higher education systems in Southeast Asia are very diverse, and even within each nation incompatibility is to be expected.  In the case of Malaysia, the Malaysian Qualification Framework (MQF) was introduced to ensure compatibility of qualifications and learning outcomes within and outside of Malaysia. More importantly, harmonising the highly diverse systems of higher education in the region is seen as an important step towards the regional integration objective. But, it is important to appreciate that in the context of Southeast Asia, with its diverse systems, harmonization is about comparability; not standardization or uniformity of programmes, degrees and the nature of higher education institutions.

Admittedly, there are benefits in creating a common higher education space in Southeast Asia. The more obvious ones are greater mobility, widening access and choices, academic and research collaborations, enhanced collaboration on human capital investment, and the promotion of ASEAN and/or Southeast Asian within the fast changing global higher education landscape. The immediate advantage of such a harmonisation in higher education system is presented as easier exchange and mobility for students and academics between nations within Southeast Asia.

Arguably, the model that is most desired and considered most feasible is that which does not require all higher education systems to conform to a particular model.  The general consensus is that a system that become a reference or one that can be fitted into without jeopardising cultural diversity and national identity is considered most feasible and desired.

The likely scenarios of higher education landscape in Southeast Asia as a result of such a harmonisation of higher education systems are generally perceived as follows:

  1. Students from different countries spend at least a year studying in other countries
  2. Students in different locations are offered the same quality of education regardless of  higher education institutions
  3. Graduates from one country are recruited by the employment sector in other countries
  4. A multi-national workplace
  5. Close collaboration  between faculty in creating and developing new knowledge
  6. Close collaboration between students in creating and developing new knowledge
  7. Close collaboration between employment sectors in creating and developing new knowledge
  8. Larger volume of adult students in the higher education system

The implementation of the harmonisation idea is not without challenges. Steps should be taken in order to increase student readiness. Barriers to language and communication must be overcome and there should be serious efforts to reduce constraints that are very ‘territorial’ in nature. Admittedly, students involved in mobility program may be faced with adjustment problems particularly with respect to instructional practices, curriculum incomparability, and cultural diversity. Then there is the language problem: differences in languages post a great barrier for inward and outward mobility of students at the macro level. ‘Territorial’ constraint, whereby each country hopes to safeguard the uniqueness of their educational programs, which in turn, may ultimately constrain the implementation of regional harmonization efforts is a major consideration to be factored in.

In so far as Malaysia is concerned, it has to be recognised that harmonization is not about ‘choice’. It is a global movement that now necessitates the involvement of all Malaysian higher education institutions. There are benefits to the private players. Initially, we need a state of readiness at the macro level, whereby the aims and principles of harmonization have to be agreed upon by all stakeholders and players in the local higher education scene.

In conclusion, familiarisation with the idea and concept of harmonisation, as opposed to standardisation, of higher education system in Southeast Asia is indeed an initial but a critical step towards the implementation of a meaningful and effective harmonisation of higher education system in the region. While managers of higher education institutions and academics are not ignorant of  the idea of harmonisation, they tend to talk of it with reference to the Bologna process in Europe and the creation of the EHEA. Other stakeholders (particularly students) however are not very familiar as to how this concept could be realised in the context of Southeast Asia, which is culturally and politically diverse. Generally, students failed to appreciate the positive aspects of harmonisation to their careers, job prospects and, of equal importance, cross-fertilization of cultures.

The task of creating a common higher education space is insurmountable in view of the vast differences in the structure and performance of the various higher education systems and institutions in Southeast Asia. Admittedly, we need to harmonise the internal structure of the higher education systems in the first instance before attempting a region-wide initiative. More importantly, the determination to realise this idea of harmonising higher education in Southeast Asia should permeate and be readily accepted by the regional community. Typical of Southeast Asia, directives should come from the political masters. Thus the role of Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation (SEAMEO) is very critical to a successful implementation of this idea of harmonisation of the higher education systems. Equally important, national prejudices and suspicions need to be put aside if we are to realise regional aspirations and goals.

Morshidi Sirat

Incorporation of State-controlled universities in Malaysia, 1996-2008: flirting with the market

All State-controlled universities in Malaysia are by definition statutory bodies and their setting up is governed by laws. Statutory bodies are established with the objective of implementing certain duties and responsibilities in line with government objectives. When statutory entities such as universities are incorporated the objectives of this exercise is different from the incorporation of other State body such as the National Electricity Board. In the case of the latter, the objective is to transform this entity into an independent commercial company. In the context of higher education services, in particular universities, incorporated universities, according to Bostock (1999), are expected to raise a much greater proportion of their own revenue, enter into business enterprises, acquire and hold investment portfolios, encourages partnerships with private business firms, compete with other universities in the production and marketing of courses to students who are now seen as customers, and generally engage with the market for higher education. But in the case of State-controlled universities it does not necessarily mean that these universities will be privatised eventually. At least this is true in the case of Malaysia. It is interesting to examine why the flirtation with the market, but the unwillingness to leave everything to the market.

Incorporation of State-Controlled Universities in Malaysia

The World Bank (see Wall 1998) and OECD (see Marginson 1997) are the two most influential supra national bodies that have had an influence on the incorporation of State-controlled universities in Malaysia. In the early to mid nineties the changes in the global higher education landscape have exerted new demands and pressures on Malaysia’s higher education system. In order to be competitive and relevant to the global and regional changes Malaysia’s state-controlled universities in particular have to respond accordingly, specifically to the emerging challenges arising from globalisation era and the internationalisation of higher education. Mok (2007, 440) reported that technocrats in the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) itself felt that the old higher education governance model would never prepare public universities for facing new challenges. Thus, the incorporation of State-controlled universities is meant to make them more proactive to changes and to do these they need more resources and a governance system that is quick in its response to changing needs and demands.

In this context, State-controlled universities in Malaysia were hard pressed to accept the impending reform, which was aimed at diversifying funding sources through a range of means, including the policy of incorporation. Another important development in Malaysia at that time was the apparent success of several corporate-style universities, operated by major state-owned companies in the areas of telecommunications, petrochemicals and electricity (UNESCO 2003). The reform is seen as an attractive proposition for these State-controlled universities, as presented by the State to them, in that they are allowed (albeit under strict treasury guidelines) to generate additional revenue through university-owned companies, which generate income for these universities through the sale of services and use of university facilities.

The Government has introduced corporate governance for State-controlled universities in 1996 by amending the University and University Colleges Act, 1971. This amendment allows for the incorporation of these state-controlled universities, which sets the tone for a new way in running universities in Malaysia. It is argued that with incorporation public universities should be operating as an efficient, transparent, and most importantly, financially able (if not independent) entity. It is now up to individual universities to face up to these challenges and generate revenue equal to thirty percent of their annual running cost. Neville (1998) appropriately observed that the Malaysian government has adopted a policy of incorporation, making universities more accountable for some areas of their operations, and seeking to increase entrepreneurial activities. He argued further that in this, universities are expected to adopt management systems similar to those of the corporate sector, although the government will still retain explicit control.

Universiti Malaya was the first state-controlled university to be incorporated in 1997/8. To date, all state-controlled universities, in particular the 4 more established ones, have (in line with incorporation objectives) established their private holding companies to generate income for the universities concerned through the sales of consultancy services, medical and health (private) services and joint venture activities with the industry. While active in commercial activities, to date none of these commercial arms of the incorporated State-controlled universities have managed to generate sufficient income to be financially independent from the State. But the issue here, will the State ever allow these universities to be independent? Will the World Bank, UNESCO and other supra agencies pressure the State to let go or follow the example of Japan where national universities have been incorporated and become very competitive.

Incorporation of State-controlled Universities: Will the State Let Go?

Neville (1998) noted that incorporated universities are expected to adopt management systems similar to those of the corporate sector, although the government will still retain explicit control. Arguably, in this sense, state-centrism in higher education policy is still strong in Malaysia, but at the same time neo-liberal policies are being implemented. At the core of this irony is the statement made by the then Minister of Education (now the powerful and influential Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister-in-waiting) that the Cabinet of Ministers has decided that the Government will still maintain control and autonomy over the public universities once they were incorporated (Bernama News Service for Malaysian Students 1995). The then Minister of Education was quoted as saying to the effect that incorporation means that the universities will remain non-profitable but will be managed as commercial and competitive entities. More importantly, he said that the Government would have the last say in the operation and administration of universities and its administrators would have to refer to the ministry before implementing any changes. There have been no significant statements from the government so far giving the incorporated universities a sense of ‘independence’ from the State.


Barr (1993) distinguishes between two main types of marketisation in so far as higher education is concerned: the introduction of performance-related funding mechanisms (quasi-market element) and the introduction of tuition fees and loans (the privatization of higher education). The incorporation of state-controlled universities gave rise to an interesting phenomenon in Malaysia’s higher education landscape: a financing mechanism for incorporated universities which tie public funds to specific targets (in particular student numbers at the undergraduate level). The government set the tuition fees for students at this level for all incorporated universities. This in effect means “using the logic of the market without actually letting the market in”. At the same time, all private higher education institutions and incorporated State-controlled universities offering postgraduate qualifications are allowed to set their own tuition fees. In this sense, the price mechanism begins to operate and this is when a market in higher education is in place.
In Malaysia’s case there is clearly the unwillingness on the part of the State to let go of state-controlled universities. This situation arises, and following Levidow’s (2002) argument, because universities represent the needs of the State. Morshidi and Abdul Razak (2008) have alluded to the “national interest’ argument in the case of Malaysia. It is in this connection that the Malaysian Government continues to support and finance incorporated universities. Under incorporation set-up university staff are supposed to be delinked from the civil servants scheme of service, but to this day university staff are still paid through state-funded emoluments. However, because of incorporation, they are allowed and are increasingly driven into entrepreneurial competition for external funds for research and extra income. Slaughter and Leslie (1997) rightly observed that under central government and university pressure, staff devise ‘institutional and professional market or market-like efforts to secure external monies’.

It is also interesting to relate and connect Levidow’s (2002) observation to the case of Malaysia in that beyond simply generating more income, higher education in Malaysia has increasingly become a terrain for marketisation agendas. This is particularly pertinent in relation to Malaysia’s ambition of becoming a regional education hub with education export accounting for a substantial figure in its national account. Since the incorporation of state-controlled universities in 1997 and more so beginning 2000, affected universities have been urged to adopt commercial models of knowledge, skills, curriculum, finance, accounting, and management organization. Strategic planning becomes an important instrument for charting university’s direction. More importantly, and there is a great debate on this, university education has become more synonymous with training for ’employability’ at the local and international level. Marketisation policy of higher education in Malaysia is already in place in the system, but it is hidden under the heavy presence of State-centrism and control.


Barr, N. (1993.) ‘Alternative Funding Resources for Higher Education’. Economic Journal. 103 (418): 718-28.

Bernama News Service for Malaysian Students, Thursday, July 13, 1995. ‘Najib: We’ll Maintain Control over Varsities’.

Bostock, W. W. (1999). ‘The Global Corporatisation of Universities: Causes and Consequences’. In: Antepodium, Victoria University of Wellington. (accessed 15 May 2008)

Levidow, L. (2002). ‘Marketizing Higher Education: Neoliberal Strategies and Counter-Strategies’. In: K. Robins and F. Webster, eds, The Virtual University? Knowledge, Markets and Management, Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.227-48.

Mok. K. H (2007). ‘Questing for internationalisation of universities in Asia: critical reflections’. Journal of Studies in International Education, 11; 433. URL: (Accessed 15 May 2008).

Morshidi, S. and Abdul Razak, A. (2008). ‘Policy for Higher Education in a Changing World: Is Malaysia’s Higher Education Policy Maturing or Just Fashionable?, Forum on Higher Education in a Globalising World: Developing and Sustaining an Excellent System, Merdeka Palace Hotel and Suites, Kuching, 11 January 2008.

Marginson, S. (1997). Markets in Education. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Neville, W. (1998). ‘Restructuring tertiary education in Malaysia: the nature and implications of policy changes’. Higher Education Policy 11: 257-279.

Slaughter, S. and Leslie, L.L (1997) Academic Capitalism: Politics, Policies and the Entrepreneurial University. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2003). Higher education in Asia and the Pacific 1998-2003. Regional report on progress in implementing recommendations of the 1998 World Conference on Higher Education. Adopted at the Second Session of the Regional Follow-up Committee
(Bangkok, Thailand, 25-26 February 2003). (Accessed 15 May 2008).

Wall, E. (1998). ‘Global Funding Patterns in Higher Education; the role of the World Bank’. Paper presented at the International Conference of University Teacher Organisations, Melbourne, February.

Morshidi Sirat