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Education in Malaysia

Although the U.S. is one of the most popular destinations for Malaysian international students, enrollment has declined steeply since the 2017/18 academic year.

This ethnic diversity has played a defining role in Malaysia’s modern history. Public policy decisions have long been shaped by the often-conflicting goals of protecting the special privileges of various ethnic communities and bringing all Malaysians together as equal members of a unified nation. Over the years, attempts to balance these goals have produced a succession of uneasy compromises and differential approaches to the treatment of different ethnic groups.

Ethnic considerations have also strongly shaped Malaysian education. At some levels of the education system, three parallel systems exist, each catering to a specific ethnic group while referring to nationwide standards and guidelines. At others, all Malaysians can gather under a single roof, although doors open more easily for some ethnic groups than others.

The seeds of this situation were planted by the policies of the British Empire. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, the British slowly expanded their control over the Malay peninsula and northern Borneo, attracted by the land’s rich reserves of tin and rubber.

As a result, at independence in 1957, huge disparities in wealth separated Bumiputera and non-Bumiputera, while occupation and geographic location closely followed ethnic divisions. Non-Bumiputera, and Chinese Malaysians in particular, tended to live in cities along peninsular Malaysia’s western coast, where they dominated the nation’s trade and commerce, while most Malays and other Bumiputera remained scattered in rural communities working the soil.

Malaysia is divided by the South China Sea into two regions, separated by hundreds of miles: Peninsular, or West, Malaysia, and East Malaysia. Peninsular Malaysia, the location of Kuala Lumpur, the country’s capital and largest city, borders Thailand to the north and, across the Straits of Johor, Singapore to the south. East Malaysia, located on the north shore of the Island of Borneo, shares land borders with both Indonesia and Brunei, and sea borders with the Philippines and Vietnam.

Bumiputera coexist with large minority communities, notably those of Chinese (22.8 percent) and Indian (6.6 percent) descent. Chinese and Indian Malaysians are found in greatest proportion on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, although a large Chinese community also exists in Sarawak in East Malaysia. Unlike Bumiputera, Chinese and Indian Malaysians are often concentrated in cities, while their numbers are noticeably lower in rural areas of the country.

Chinese Malaysian communities speak various dialects of Chinese, the most common of which is Mandarin Chinese. However, the languages spoken in South China—such as Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese—where many Chinese Malaysians trace their heritage, are also widespread.

Most Indian Malaysians are ethnic Tamils and speak the Tamil language, although some other South Asian languages, such as Malayalam and Telugu, are also spoken.

The tensions inherited from the colonial era exploded in 1969. In that year’s elections, ruling coalition parties lost ground to the opposition, and, notably, to two ethnic Chinese parties. In the capital, the outcome sparked riots, and fighting soon broke out between ethnic Malays and Chinese and Indian Malaysians, killing hundreds.

The riots had a profound impact on Malaysia, revealing the fragility of the country’s ethnic balance. They prompted attempts to foster national unity, including the declaration of the Rukun Negara, which espoused a national philosophy of unity and harmony among all of Malaysia’s ethnicities.

It also spurred similar changes to the education system. In the years that followed, the government established special schools, scholarships, and universities exclusively for Malays and other Bumiputera students.

The politicization of education along ethnic lines also solidified the parallel school system first developed by British colonial authorities. Under this arrangement, three separate elementary school systems existed side-by-side: national schools, which were fully funded by the government and taught in Bahasa Melayu, and Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools, which were only partially funded by the government.

To achieve this, the MEB(HE) sketches a series of policy changes, such as simplifying the country’s immigration processes, creating multi-year student visas, and fast-tracking visa processing for international students recruited to consistently high-performing institutions.

TNE arrangements between partner institutions tend to vary from program to program, their details codified in memoranda of understanding (MOU) agreed upon by all partners. These MOUs typically specify the roles and responsibilities of each institution, touching on topics that range from marketing, profit-sharing, and the setting of admissions standards, to teaching, student assessment, quality assurance, and degree-awarding authority.

Malaysian institutions offer many different types of TNE programs, most notably twinning, joint and dual degrees, and franchise and validation programs.

Depending on the program’s structure, twinning programs, which have existed in Malaysia since the late 1980s, are also frequently referred to as 2+1, 2+2, or 1+3 programs.

Joint and dual degree programs are collaborative arrangements offered by both the international university and the Malaysian partner institution. Students typically study at both institutions, often spending the first year or two at the Malaysian institution before moving overseas to complete their studies. Depending on the details of the arrangement, students completing the program are either awarded a single, joint degree, which bears the seal of both institutions, or two separate degrees issued by each partner institution individually.

In franchise programs, the international university authorizes the Malaysian partner to deliver one of the degree programs offered on its home campus. The international university typically designs the curriculum and learning materials, sets admission standards, assesses student performance, oversees the quality of the program, and awards the final degree. The partner institution is typically responsible for marketing, administrative processing, and teaching. The franchise arrangement is intended to guarantee that the program taught at the partner institution is essentially the same as that taught at the international university.

For both franchise and validation programs, the authority to award the final degree always rests, by definition, with the international institution alone.

While these initiatives have helped increase international student enrollment in Malaysian universities, enrollment numbers have softened in recent years. The number of international students in Malaysia in 2020 was 28 percent lower than at its peak in 2016, when the country hosted 124,133 degree-seeking students.

Around 2013, unscrupulous recruitment agents began to exploit Malaysia’s student visa system. In many cases, they would trick students from countries overseas into paying exorbitant fees to enroll in fake Malaysian institutions. After arriving in Malaysia, duped students would find that their colleges held no classes, and that they were left with no prospects of completing their studies or recovering their money. Recruitment agents also often took and permanently withheld students’ passports on arrival. With Malaysia’s immigration regulations proscribing student visa holders from working, duped students were forced to work informally to survive.

Although little information is available in English, these sharp declines suggest that government response has helped to reduce some of the risks faced by prospective international students.

Despite these risks, large numbers of Bangladeshi and Nigerian students continue to study in Malaysia today. These students are attracted to Malaysia by its reputation as a modern, cosmopolitan, and Muslim-friendly country.

Despite Malaysia’s popularity among Muslim-majority nations, for the past few years China has been the largest sender of international students to Malaysia. In 2020, 16,974 Chinese students studied in Malaysian higher education institutions.

The impact of these tensions can be seen in international enrollment figures. According to UIS data, Chinese enrollment in Australian universities declined by 17.6 percent, a fall of 27,411 students, between 2019 and 2020. Over that same period, Chinese enrollment in Malaysian institutions rose dramatically, increasing by 5,261 students, or 44.9 percent.

While the top sending countries to Malaysia have remained stable for some time, the government does hope to recruit students from a greater variety of countries in the future. The MEB(HE) identifies diversifying Malaysia’s international student population as a priority, noting that it aims to target “top sending countries as well as strategic geographies for Malaysia.”

Most Malaysian international students head to Anglophone countries. Nearby Australia (14,125) and the U.K. (13,470) enrolled the most students in 2020.

Although comparable UIS data are again unavailable, sizable numbers of Malaysian students enroll in Chinese universities as well. According to statistics from Malaysia’s higher education ministry, 11,920 Malaysian students were enrolled in Chinese higher education institutions in 2021. Among all countries, China welcomes the highest number of sponsored Malaysian students. In 2020, 3,820 Malaysian students in China were sponsored, compared with just 953 who were self-sponsored.

Following their arrival in the late nineteenth century, British colonial administrators set about founding schools modeled on those in the British Isles. However, the school system they established in Malaysia was deeply fragmented. British officials set up separate vernacular schools for each of Malaysia’s major ethnic groups, creating an ethnic educational divide that continues to this day.

The inadequacies of this arrangement were readily apparent at independence in 1957, and the country’s new policymakers viewed education as an important means of nation-building. To bring the multicultural nation together, they moved to unify the country’s education system.

Ambitious plans were developed that would standardize the curriculum and mandate the use of Bahasa Melayu and English in all schools across the nation. But these plans were quickly abandoned in the face of opposition from ethnic minority communities, who viewed the proposals with suspicion.

A compromise position, outlined in the 1956 Razak Report and incorporated into the Education Act 1961, was eventually adopted. Under this system, two parallel systems of elementary education would operate side-by-side: a national school system that used Bahasa Melayu as the medium of instruction, and national-type, or vernacular, school system, using either Mandarin Chinese, Tamil, or English. Although teaching in different languages, both national and national-type elementary schools would be united by a common curriculum. At the secondary level, teaching would continue in English, as it had during the colonial period, although Bahasa Melayu would be made a compulsory language.

The events of 1969 prompted further changes. As noted above, the unrest propelled leaders to power who believed that easing ethnic tensions in the country required that the central government adopt policies favoring Malays and other Bumiputera.

The Malaysian government adopted preferential education policies, establishing schools, scholarships, and universities available only to Malay or other Bumiputera students.

The government also mandated the use of Bahasa Melayu as the language of instruction at public secondary schools. Although vernacular elementary schools remained, all students would attend national secondary schools, where Bahasa Melayu would be the language of instruction. Between 1970 and 1982, the government gradually converted all English-medium elementary and secondary schools to national Malay-medium schools.

As Malaysia began to industrialize its economy in the 1980s, economic considerations began to influence educational policy. New curricula were introduced at the elementary and secondary levels, and new national examinations were developed to track student performance.

Malaysia’s rapid economic development since the 1990s prompted new priorities for the education system. To develop a workforce with the knowledge and skills needed to staff new enterprises, the government moved to expand the higher education system. In the mid-1990s, the government legalized the establishment of private higher education institutions, a move that prompted rapid growth in higher education enrollment.

But while policymakers succeeded in increasing enrollment, they have had less success improving educational quality. Malaysia’s performance on international assessments, such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), has long trailed that of comparable countries.

“Malaysia witnessed the largest decline in test scores of all countries participating in TIMSS over the decade. In 2003, the vast majority of adolescents passed the minimum benchmark in Malaysia, whether rich or poor. However, standards appear to have declined substantially over the decade, particularly for the poorest boys, only around half of whom reached the minimum benchmark in 2011, compared with over 90% in 2003. Poorest boys moved from being similar to average performers in the United States to similar to those in Botswana.”

Malaysia’s poor performance on international assessments prompted yet another round of major reforms. Around 2010, the Ministry of Education developed new elementary and secondary curricula, replacing those developed in the 1980s, which it hoped would provide students with the skills and expertise needed to succeed in the global knowledge economy.

The government also adopted ambitious Education Blueprints to guide education policy over the coming decades. These focused on increasing the efficiency of the school system; however, despite devoting a comparatively large proportion of government spending to education, schooling in Malaysia, as measured by learning outcomes, underperforms.

Education officials also advanced plans to decentralize the education system, which is one of the world’s most centralized. Beginning around 2010, schools and universities were granted additional control over curricular development, administrative practices, and assessment techniques.

The British political system strongly influenced that of Malaysia. Like the U.K., Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy. However, in Malaysia, the monarchy is elective: every five years, traditional rulers from nine Malaysian states gather to elect from among themselves a Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or Supreme King of Malaysia. Despite the title, the role of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is largely symbolic. Executive power rests almost exclusively in the office of the prime minister.

Although technically a federal state, most political power, as well as government revenue, rests with the federal government. Malaysia’s 13 states (negeri) and three federal territories (wilayah persekutuan) exercise only limited authority.

The MOE oversees education at the preschool, elementary, secondary, post-secondary, and teacher-training levels at both public and private institutions. At these levels, the MOE’s responsibilities include strategic planning, policy development, quality assurance, funding, and staff recruitment, among others.

Other initiatives have worked to decentralize the assessment of student performance. These initiatives intensified in recent years, as the government moved to eliminate major national examinations formerly conducted at the end of elementary and lower secondary school. These national assessments will be replaced with school-based assessments (Pentaksiran Berasaskan Sekolah, PBS), which, while referring to established national standards, are developed, administered, and graded by local schools.

Language policy in Malaysia is fiercely contested, especially in education. On multiple occasions since independence, Malaysia’s three major ethnic communities have mobilized to defend their right to teach and learn in their own languages.

Today, Malaysia’s elementary school system is multilingual. National schools teach in Malay, while vernacular, or national-type, schools teach in Mandarin Chinese or Tamil.

At the secondary level, the public school system is monolingual. Secondary schools teach in Bahasa Melayu to students of all ethnicities, although elective courses in Chinese and Tamil, as well as other foreign languages, such as French or German, are available at some schools.

English has been growing in prominence in recent years at all levels of the education system. English is taught as a mandatory subject beginning in elementary school, and, in 2016, the MOE introduced the Dual Language Program (Program Dwibahasa, DLP), which gives schools the option of using English to teach science and mathematics subjects.

At the higher education level, Bahasa Melayu has been used in all undergraduate courses at public universities since 1983, although students today are required to take the Malaysian University English Test (MUET) to be admitted to public universities. At the postgraduate and doctoral level, public universities typically teach in English. Private higher education institutions typically teach in English at all levels.

The elementary and secondary school year is divided into two semesters, the first extending from January to late May, the second from early July to November.

The academic year at the university level begins at the end of February or the beginning of March and ends in October. It typically consists of three semesters, each lasting 12 weeks. Over the break from November to February, some institutions also offer weekend courses, allowing students to complete their programs more quickly.

As a result of Malaysia’s unique history, a variety of different institutions offer preschool programs.

In the 1980s, private preschools began to proliferate, educating the children of both Malaysians and non-Malaysians. In 2022, 269,260 students were enrolled in private preschools. Since independence, private and public religious agencies, such as the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jabatan Agama Islam Selangor, JAIS), have also opened networks of preschools throughout the country.

The MOE only really became involved in preschool education in the 1990s, when it began to establish public preschools as annexes to existing elementary schools. Known as MOE preschools, these institutions aim at providing education to low-income families living outside of the urban core. In 2022, MOE preschools enrolled 206,346 students.

As a result of this institutional diversity, several different government ministries oversee preschool education, the most important of which are the Ministry of National Unity, KPLB, and MOE. Despite this administrative fragmentation, all preschools, both public and private, must follow the National Preschool Standard Curriculum (Kurikulum Standard Prasekolah Kebangsaan, KSPK).

Still, despite success expanding elementary education to nearly all eligible students, learning outcomes have struggled to improve, as mentioned above. Shockingly, Malaysia’s scores on the TIMSS, which measures student performance in mathematics and science at grades 4 and 8, even declined between 2003 and 2011.

Poor international assessment results helped prompt a re-evaluation of the curricula used at Malaysia’s schools. At the elementary level, a new curriculum, the National School Standard Curriculum (Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Randah, KSSR), was gradually introduced between 2011 and 2016. The KSSR replaced the Integrated Primary School Curriculum (Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Rendah, KBSR) which was first introduced in 1983.

Until 2021, students completing the elementary cycle took the Primary School Achievement Test (Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah, UPSR). The UPSR tested students on Bahasa Melayu, English, mathematics, and science. The test was largely diagnostic—regardless of performance, all students taking the UPSR and completing elementary school were automatically promoted to secondary school.

At the elementary level, Malaysian students can study in a variety of schools, including private academic schools, international schools, and private and public religious schools.

But most students study in either national (sekolah kebangsaan, SK) or national-type schools. The latter, also known as vernacular schools, include national-type Chinese schools (Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Cina, SJKC) and national-type Tamil schools (Sekolah Jenis Kebangsaan Tamil, SJKT). As noted above, the roots of this division extend into the colonial period.

Students at all national and national-type schools follow the KSSR curriculum, although the language of instruction varies. National schools teach in Bahasa Melayu, while national-type schools teach in either Mandarin Chinese or Tamil. National schools and national-type schools are open to students of any ethnicity.

While national schools are fully funded by the government, national-type schools receive more limited public aid. At these schools, the government only funds operating expenses and teacher and administrative staff salaries. Capital expenses, such as for infrastructure improvements and facilities maintenance, must be funded by private contributions.

The difficulties national schools face in attracting non-Malay students stem in part from a widely shared perception that national schools favor Malays and Muslims. Incidents of discrimination encountered by non-Malay and non-Muslim students at national schools, accounts of which surface from time to time in the media, reinforce this perception. Concerns about the ethnic composition of the teachers and administrators at national schools have a similar effect. From the leadership of the MOE down to the teachers at local schools, national school staff are overwhelmingly ethnic Malay.

Instead, students from ethnic minorities have long elected to enroll in national-type schools. Until recently, this meant that national-type schools remained ethnically homogeneous, despite being open to all ethnicities.

But in recent years, the situation has changed significantly at Chinese national-type schools. While these schools continue to attract large numbers of ethnic Chinese students—according to the MEB 2013-2025, 96 percent of all ethnic Chinese students were enrolled in SJKTs in 2011—they have also begun to attract more and more non-Chinese students.

In 2020, Malay students made up 15.3 percent of all students enrolled in Chinese vernacular schools, up from 9.5 percent in 2010. Over the same period, the proportion of ethnic Indian students increased from around 1.7 percent to 2.8 percent. As a result, Chinese national-type schools are Malaysia’s most ethnically diverse elementary schools.

Growing non-Chinese enrollment stems in part from the widely held belief that the quality of education at Chinese vernacular schools is superior to that at national schools. While the government does not fund Chinese national-type schools at the same level that it funds national schools, private contributions from Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese community more than make up the difference.

The situation at national-type Tamil schools differs dramatically from that at Chinese vernacular schools. While Tamil vernacular schools are attended almost entirely by ethnic Indian students, a large percentage of Indian parents choose to send their students to either national or Chinese vernacular schools. According to the MEB 2013-2025, 38 percent of Indian students were enrolled in national schools and 6 percent in Chinese vernacular schools in 2011.

While private contributions make up for lower levels of government funding at Chinese vernacular schools, the same is typically not true at Tamil vernacular schools. Many of these schools were initially established on and run by rubber plantations located in rural areas. Over the years, many estate owners, who once were responsible for funding these schools, have failed to invest in their upkeep. Also, ethnic Tamil communities are often less well-off than their ethnic Chinese counterparts, making it difficult to close the gap between what the government pays and what schools need for basic capital expenses. Finally, many ethnic Indians have moved from rural towns to major cities, where few Tamil vernacular schools have been established.

According to MOE statistics, 79,309 students were enrolled in 528 Tamil vernacular schools in June 2022, down from 102,642 in 2011. In 2011, according to the MEB, 99 percent of all students enrolled in these schools were ethnic Indians.

Unlike elementary education, public secondary education, at both the lower and upper levels, is monolingual: All teaching is conducted in Bahasa Melayu.

Secondary schools follow a national secondary curriculum, the Secondary School Standard Curriculum (Kurikulum Standard Sekolah Menengah, KSSM), which was introduced in 2017. The KSSM replaced the Integrated Secondary School Curriculum (Kurikulum Bersepadu Sekolah Menengah, KBSM), which was first introduced in 1989.

The KSSM aligns with the KSSR, the curriculum recently introduced at the elementary level. Like that curriculum, the KSSM also aims to prepare students with the skills and competencies needed to succeed in the twenty-first century.

Regardless of their performance on the PT3, students were able to enter upper secondary school. However, PT3 performance strongly influenced students’ future educational trajectories. School officials used PT3 test scores to determine admissions to the various streams available at the upper secondary school level. After upper secondary, these streams themselves help determine admission to different pre-university, and, eventually, university programs.

Students in the STEM subject package can choose courses from three groups of electives: pure science and mathematics, applied science and technology, and vocational subjects.

The first elective group, pure science and mathematics, includes four subjects: biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics. The applied science and technology group includes 12 subjects, such as agriculture, computer science, and engineering. The vocational group includes 22 subjects, such as construction, interior design, graphic design, and plumbing.

Students who choose the literature and humanities subject package can also choose among three elective groups: languages, Islamic studies, and humanities and literature. The languages group includes 11 subjects, the humanities and literature group includes 11 subjects, and the Islamic studies group includes 13 subjects.

Students in both subject packages are still required to take a similar set of core and compulsory courses: Bahasa Melayu, English language, mathematics, science, history, Islamic or moral education, and physical and health education.

Students are required to sit for exams in six compulsory subjects: Bahasa Melayu, English language, Islamic or moral education, history, mathematics, and science. They also sit for a number of elective subjects according to their course of study. Depending on the subject, students take written, listening, or practical examinations. To be awarded the SPM, students must pass Bahasa Melayu.

The aim of the SPM is to prepare students for further study at the post-secondary, or pre-university, level. The SPM is also required for admission to public universities in Malaysia.

Students can also enroll in private academic, international, or religious secondary schools, as well as Chinese independent secondary schools. In 2022, 60 Chinese independent schools enrolled 79,033 students.

Chinese independent secondary schools have a long history, with some having been founded in the nineteenth century by ethnic Chinese communities. Even today, although open to all Malaysians, these schools continue to attract mostly ethnic Chinese students.

At the end of the six years of study, students in Chinese independent secondary schools take the Unified Examinations Certificate (Sijil Peperiksaan Bersama, UEC), administered by UCSCAM.

Although many vocational and private tertiary institutions admit students possessing the UEC, public universities do not. To be admitted to a public university in Malaysia, students possessing the UEC must continue their studies and obtain the SPM. As a result, many UEC holders elect to leave Malaysia to continue their studies in China.

To be admitted to an undergraduate program at a Malaysian university, students must first obtain a post-secondary, or pre-university, qualification. These qualifications can be obtained from external examining boards, specialized public colleges, and public and private universities.

The STPM examination is similar to the Advanced Level (A-Level) qualifications awarded by examining bodies in the U.K. and in former British colonies like Singapore and Hong Kong.

Students can also study to earn pre-university qualifications awarded by international examination boards. Both public and private universities accept many of these qualifications, which include the Australian Matriculation (AUSMAT), the Cambridge International General Certificate of Education (Advanced Level), the Canadian International Matriculation Programme (CIMP), and the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program.

All majors and streams are offered as One-Year Programs (Program Satu Tahun, PST). However, in 2008, a Two-Year Program (Program Dua Tahun, PDT) was introduced for science majors. The PDT is only open to Bumiputera students who do not qualify for admission to the PST.

Students completing the program are awarded the MOE Matriculation Certificate (Sijil Matrikulasi KPM).

Students completing one of these programs are awarded a Foundation Qualification and are eligible for admission to an undergraduate program in a related field of study.

Malaysia’s government, like many others around the world, has grown to appreciate the importance of technical and vocational education and training (pendidikan dan Latihan teknikal dan vokasional, TVET) to the nation’s prosperity in recent decades.

Still, troubles persist. Multiple and often poorly coordinated ministries oversee the sector, each applying a different system of quality assurance. Similarly, delivery is fragmented across several different types of institutions, each offering a different set of qualifications.

Under the SLDN, 70 to 80 percent of the program is an apprenticeship, providing students industry experience, with just 20 to 30 percent taking place in a Skills Training Center (Pusat Latihan Kemahiran, PLK).

Community colleges, first established in 2001, offer certificate and diploma programs in a range of TVET subjects. Typically established in rural areas, community colleges are administered, owned, and operated by the MoHE.

Admission to certificate programs typically requires an SPM, while admission to diploma programs requires a community college certificate.

Admission to conventional and MeTRO polytechnic institutions is typically less selective, with applicants usually required to have obtained honors in just three SPM subjects. MeTRO polytechnics aim to meet local and regional needs, and often offer distance learning programs.

In Malaysia, teachers working at different levels in the school system must obtain different teaching qualifications.

To be admitted to an undergraduate education program, students must either obtain a pre-university qualification or complete a foundation program. Education programs include courses on the fundamentals of teaching, school subject or level specialization, and professional practice. The latter usually involves a semester or more of supervised teaching at a local school, where teacher trainees can obtain hands-on experience. Programs typically last four years.

Malaysia’s higher education landscape is extremely diverse. A varied network of higher education institutions—public and private, domestic and international, academic and religious, college-status and university-status—offers an array of academic and professional qualifications, ranging from undergraduate certificates to doctoral degrees.

These conditions prompted regulatory changes. To increase the number of higher education providers in Malaysia, parliament passed the Private Higher Education Institutions (PHEI) Act in 1996, which greatly facilitated the establishment of private higher education institutions. Following its adoption, the number of private higher education institutions grew quickly.

Not only did the PHEI Act open the door to private providers based in Malaysia, it allowed overseas providers to establish branch campuses in the country as well. By the mid-1990s, many international institutions were already familiar with the Malaysian higher education market. In the 1980s, even prior to the adoption of the PHEI Act, the Malaysian government had begun to encourage international universities to establish twinning and other collaborative TNE arrangements with Malaysian educational institutions.

In the eyes of many, the state of Malaysia’s human capital and its poor research output were partly to blame for the economic malaise. While the number of Malaysian university students had grown significantly over the previous decades, employers and policymakers worried that these students lacked the skills needed in the twenty-first century.

Among the aspirations set by the MEB(HE) for the higher education system are expanding access and improving quality. By 2025, it sets goals of increasing the country’s tertiary GER to 53 percent, raising its U21 ranking for research output to number among the top 25 in the world, and placing four universities in the world’s top 200, two in the world’s top 100, and one in Asia’s top 25.

As noted above, Malaysia is home to a diverse range of higher education institutions, both public and private.

Although the MoHE owns, operates, and partially funds all public higher education institutions, enrolled students still usually pay tuition and certain other fees. However, these fees tend to be far lower than similar fees at private institutions.

As their name suggests, Malaysia’s four comprehensive universities (universiti komprehensif, MCUN) offer programs in a wide range of fields. One of them, the MARA University of Technology (Universiti Teknologi MARA, UiTM), is Malaysia’s largest public university, enrolling 185,303 students in 2021.

Ethnic considerations have long influenced admission to public universities. In the aftermath of the 1969 riots, the government instituted an ethnic quota system at public universities, requiring a 55:45 Bumiputera to non-Bumiputera enrollment ratio for all programs.

Women outnumber men at public universities by a significant margin. In 2021, around 61 percent of all students enrolled in public universities were women. In education, health, and welfare, and in social sciences, business, and law, women make up more than two-thirds of all enrolled students. Only in engineering, manufacturing, and construction are male students in the majority, making up 56.5 percent of all enrolled students.

Private universities, private university colleges, and international branch campuses are all able to award degree-level qualifications. Private colleges, however, can only award their own qualifications at the certificate and diploma levels. However, they can partner with international institutions to offer franchise and validation programs, twinning programs, and other TNE programs.

The MQF consists of eight levels and qualification types, ranging from certificates at Levels 1 to 3, to doctoral degrees at Level 8. The MQF defines learning outcomes and minimum credit requirements for each level of the framework.

The current MQF divides qualifications into two sectors: academic and TVET. Universities typically offer qualifications categorized as academic, which “include general education or discipline-oriented programs.” Still, they, along with the TVET higher education providers discussed above, also offer TVET qualifications, which emphasize industry practices and aim to produce a relevant and “competent work force to buttress the country’s socio-economic objectives.”

Academic qualifications are offered at all eight levels of the MQF, while TVET qualifications are offered at all MQF levels except for Levels 7 and 8.

Higher education programs in both academic and TVET sectors use the Malaysian credit system, in which one credit is equivalent to 40 notional learning hours. The MQF defines the minimum credit load for each level. Students usually complete between 30 and 45 credits per semester.

MQF Level 3 certificates typically require one to two years of study and the completion of 60 credits. Admission is usually restricted to students holding an SPM.

Diploma programs (MQF Level 4) typically require two to three years of full-time study and the completion of 90 credits. To be admitted to a diploma program, students are usually required to possess an SPM.

Advanced Diploma (Diploma Lanjutan)

Advanced diploma programs (MQF Level 5) require a minimum of one year of study and the completion of 40 credits.

Few institutions award advanced diplomas. In 2021, the number of students enrolled in advanced diploma programs stood at just 292 at private higher education institutions and 54 at public universities.

Graduate certificates require the completion of 34 credits, or a year of study. Graduate diplomas require 64 credits, or two years of study. In both, 4 credits in general studies subjects are required.

Students can also be awarded graduate certificates and diplomas on the basis of their prior learning and experience.

Bachelor’s degree programs (MQF Level 6) typically require a minimum of three years of full-time study and the completion of 120 credits, although some programs require up to five years of study. As described above, these programs are open to students holding a post-secondary or pre-university qualification.

Only institutions with university or university-college status can award bachelor’s degrees. In 2021, 378,806 students were enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs at public universities: 173,205 at private universities, 33,998 at university colleges, and 22,832 at international branch campuses. As mentioned above, premier polytechnic institutes are an exception to this rule, enrolling 552 students in a small number of bachelor’s degree programs in 2021.

While unable to award their own bachelor’s degrees, private colleges, through a variety of TNE arrangements, can teach bachelor’s degree programs provided the final degree is awarded by a university overseas. In 2021, 28,740 students were enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs at private colleges.

Postgraduate certificates and diplomas (MQF Level 7) are open to applicants holding a bachelor’s degree. Postgraduate certificates require the completion of 20 credits, or around one semester of study. Postgraduate diplomas require the completion of 30 credits, or around nine months to a year of full-time study.

In 2021, 378,806 students were enrolled in postgraduate diploma programs at public universities.

Master’s degrees by coursework predominantly involve classroom-based study and examinations. While students are often still required to complete a research project and draft a research report, the research component makes up less than half of the program.

Mixed-mode master’s degree programs include both coursework and research. In mixed-mode programs, students must conduct research and prepare a dissertation, work on which constitutes 50 to 70 percent of the program.

Both coursework and mixed-mode master’s degree programs require the completion of 40 credits and a minimum of a year of full-time study.

Research master’s degree programs are characterized by supervised, original research, at the end of which students draft a thesis or dissertation. These programs require a minimum of two years of research and have no minimum credit requirements.

In 2021, 56,607 students were enrolled in master’s degree programs at public universities, 23,900 at private universities, 3,516 at private university colleges, 2,122 at private colleges, and 1,386 at international branch campuses.

Doctoral degrees (MQF Level 8) are open to applicants holding a master’s degree. Like their master’s degree counterparts, doctoral programs are offered by coursework, mixed mode, and research.

Again, research activities typically make up less than half of the program of study for coursework-based doctoral programs, although students typically still complete a research project and prepare a research report. In mixed-mode doctorates, between 50 and 70 percent of the program is research, and students draft and defend a thesis or dissertation. Both coursework and mixed-mode programs require the completion of a minimum of 80 credits, or three years of full-time study and research.

Research doctorates also require three years of full-time study. Candidates in research doctorates must conduct original research and draft and defend a dissertation.

Standards for professional programs in Malaysia are typically developed by both the MoHE, usually through the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) and the relevant professional regulatory bodies.

Students completing an undergraduate medical program typically earn a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (Sarjana Muda Perubatan dan Sarjana Muda Pembedahan) or a Doctor of Medicine (Doktor Perubatan). To begin practicing, students must register with the MMC after graduating.

The MQA accredits public and private higher education institutions and programs. The MQA accreditation process ensures that programs meet established quality standards and conform to the MQF. Since 2017, the Malaysian government has recognized all MQA-accredited programs in civil service recruitment.

Before the expiration of Provisional Accreditation, institutions must apply for Full Accreditation for the program, a process which typically occurs when the first cohort of students reaches the end of the provisionally accredited academic program. In the Full Accreditation process, MQA evaluates the actual operation of the program to ensure it meets established educational standards and complies with the MQF.

Although a program’s full accreditation status has no expiration date, MQA audits programs for accreditation compliance every five years. If MQA determines that a program is no longer in compliance, it will withdraw program accreditation.

The MQA also administers various exercises to rate and rank the country’s higher education institutions. These include the Malaysian Quality Evaluation System for Private Colleges (Sistem Pengukuran Kualiti dan Kesetaraan Kolej Swasta, MyQUEST), the Rating System for Higher Education Institutions in Malaysia (Sistem Penarafan Institut Pengajian Tinggi Malaysia, SETARA), the Polytechnic Rating System (Sistem Penarafan Politeknik, PolyRate), and the Community College Rating System (Sistem Penarafan Kolej Komuniti, MySpeKK).

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