If the ability to attract foreign students is an indicator of a world class higher education system, does that mean that our public universities are of a lower quality compared to the private universities?

Media Statement by Dr. Ong Kian Ming, MP for Serdang, 24 February, 2015

The 2nd Education Minister, Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh, said last Sunday that our higher education system is already world class based on the high number of foreign students who are studying in Malaysia. If we follow the silly logic of Idris Jusoh, then the quality of our public universities must be lower than that of our private universities since the number and percentage of foreign students in our private universities is much higher than that of the public universities. And this must mean that the Ministry of Education has done a poor job in improving the quality of education in our public universities since they have failed to attract more foreign students compared to the private universities.

My colleague, Zairil Khir Johari, MP for Bukit Bendera, has already shown yesterday that there are hardly any British, German or Australian students who are studying in Malaysian universities especially in comparison to the much larger number of Malaysian students who are studying in the UK as well as Australia.

But even among the foreign students who are studying in Malaysia, more of them choose to go to private universities rather than the public universities. Using the latest available statistics from the Perangkaan Pendidikan Negara: Sektor Pengajian Tinggi 2013, there were a total of 28,826 foreign students studying in the public universities, representing 5.1% of the total student population (not including polytechnics and community colleges). At the same time, there were a total of 52,598 foreign students studying in the private higher education institutions – universities, university colleges and branch campuses, representing 10.8% of the total student population. (See Table 1 below)

Table 1: Number and % of foreign students in public and private higher education institutions, 2013

IPTA / IPTS Citizens Foreign Total % Foreign
IPTA     531,533            28,826     560,359 5.1%
IPTS     432,365            52,598     484,963 10.8%

If we zoom in on individual universities, the three public universities with the largest number and % of foreign students are the International Islamic University with 5408 foreign students (17.2% of student population), Universiti Teknologi Malaysia with 4103 foreign students (11.8%) and Universiti Malaya with 3289 students (12.7%).[1]

In contrast, the top three private universities with the largest number and % of foreign students are Lim Kok Wing University with 5764 foreign students (70.6%), Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation with 4843 foreign students (65%) and the little known Al-Madinah International University with 3272 foreign students (95%).[2]

Does this mean that our public universities are worse than our private universities in terms of education standards? Is this why there are more foreign students in our private universities compared to the public universities? In addition, does this mean that UM is not on par with Lim Kok Wing from an education standards standpoint? These would be the conclusions we would arrive at if we used Idris Jusoh’s silly reasoning.

The reason I am highlighting these statistics is to show that the number and % of foreign students currently studying in a country or in any particular university can never be used as an indication of the quality or standards of education.

The % of undergraduates in Cambridge who are international students was approximately 19% compared to 11% in Harvard. The % of international students who are undergraduates at the London School of Economics is 42%. Should we take this to mean that the level of education at LSE is higher than that in Cambridge which in turn is better than Harvard? Of course not! What matters is the quality of the students entering these universities, regardless of whether they are foreign students or citizens. And what matters to these students is the type of educational experience they will receive once they enter into these universities.

The danger in giving too much focus on international students is that some of our policy makers make use this as a ‘shortcut’ to artificially boost our university rankings. The % of foreign students is one of the components of the QS University World Ranking making up 5% of the overall score. It would be a sad day indeed if the thinking of our Education Minister then gets passed on to our university administrators which will then open up their doors to allow in foreign students, regardless of their quality, so that university rankings can be artificially improved. Which makes Idris Jusoh’s statement on Sunday even more irresponsible and worrisome!

[1] Statistics are taken from Perangkaan Pendidikan Negara: Sektor Pengajian Tinggi 2013

[2] Statistics are taken from Buku Informasi IPTS 2012 bertaraf university, kolej university dan kampus cawangan