Higher education in Malaysia: Looking forward without leaving anyone behind

17 March 2021


Mhilmi Osman/Shutterstock.com
A group of university students in a science lab in Malaysia.

Cyber security, big data and protection, artificial intelligence, and robotics – these are all jobs on the rise in Malaysia. These are also jobs that require a highly skilled workforce. As a result, the demand for higher education is accelerating as this Southeast Asian country delves into the Fourth Industrial Revolution – the automation of traditional manufacturing and industrial practices with smart technology. However, the country is also grappling with accessibility, which can put equity and the development of human resources at odds. 

Malaysia’s story resonates with many other emerging economies worldwide. Over the next ten years, the forecast for higher education systems is continued growth, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Between now and 2030, the largest increase is expected in middle-income countries, where gross enrollment will reach 52%. This raises many questions around equity: how can higher education become more accessible for all, and what support exists to help young people not only get in, but also graduate and secure decent employment? That is why IIEP-UNESCO is researching the rising trend of flexible learning pathways in higher education in eight countries, including Malaysia.  

On the heels of a recently published report, we spoke with two of the authors, Morshidi Sirat and Muhamad Saiful Bahri Yusoff from the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang. 

What was the most striking finding to come out of research? 

Malaysia’s lifelong learning policy was initially introduced primarily for human resources development rather than access to and equity in higher education. However, with the Sustainable Development Goals, access, equity, and inclusive education have become a priority, and these focus areas have often been repeated in Malaysia’s successive higher education strategic plans. But the implementation of policy initiatives relating to access, equity, and success in higher education have resulted in serious shortcomings, in particular with respect to the impact of flexible learning pathways on marginalized and disadvantaged groups in Malaysia. Part of the problem relates to the lack of monitoring and evaluation of the impact of policy initiatives for these groups.  For instance, while much has been achieved in terms of flexible access – or admissions – to higher education for vulnerable learners, appropriate policy initiatives are needed to favour both a flexible learning environment – throughout one’s studies – and ease of entry into the labour market.

Why is this research important at a regional level? 

While the Malaysian higher education system is rated favourably and many of its universities are highly ranked in the Asian region, there is a need for the system and its institutions to practice inclusive education beyond catchy institutional slogans. Arguably, Malaysia could play a leading role in the region in promoting flexible learning pathways with a focus on disadvantaged and marginalized groups. Malaysia’s “whole-of-government” approach is already in place. Next is to demonstrate how this approach could result in positive outcomes for marginalized and disadvantaged groups. A number of best practices can be shared in this regard. For example, the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL), implemented in 2011, recognizes non-formal and informal learning throughout students’ work and life experiences, serving as an alternative admission pathway for certificates, Bachelor’s, and Master’s degrees. For some adult learners, it would mean that they do not need to start their studies from the beginning, as their experiences could be assessed and recognized. 

What impact do you think flexible learning pathways will have on vulnerable learners?

Empirical evidence has shown that persons with disabilities and single mothers in Malaysia cannot guarantee their financial well-being because of a lack of specialized job skills and qualifications. This stems from not having the education to get proper employment or to start a business. The Malaysian research report revealed the predicament of people with disabilities and single mothers in coping with the inflexible learning environment common to higher education and, consequently, their absorption into the labour market. This is the case even though the higher education system continues to be flexible in terms of admissions. Persons with disabilities and single mothers could therefore benefit from policies and programmes that both develop skills and support their needs, such as through allowances for study and exam leave, childcare, flexible working hours, or work from home options. 

How does COVID-19 affect the evolution of flexible learning pathways? 

Flexible learning pathways – and particularly flexible learning environments – have been very helpful in the country’s response to COVID-19.  In Malaysia’s Higher Education Blueprint (2015-2025) remote learning, including online learning, open and distance education, as well as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), were all already promoted by the Ministry. However, prior to the pandemic, the take-up rate at higher education institutions was rather slow and disadvantaged and marginalized groups often lacked access to the necessary technology and internet coverage.  All of a sudden, the pandemic has made technology-based teaching and learning delivery mode a priority. It showed the importance of embracing creative and innovative approaches to address issues of equity and access for all groups of students. For the equity agenda, we could ultimately benefit from the acceleration of change brought on by the COVID-19 crisis, and the research presents a number of applicable recommendations on how to develop further flexible learning pathways for success in and beyond one’s time in higher education. 


5 policy recommendations from this research:

  1. Establish a national policy framework for data management: This should include a focus on data related to marginalized and disadvantaged groups in higher education. Definitions of disadvantaged groups in data collection should also be standardized across Ministries to avoid data discrepancies and misinterpretations. 
  2. Create a dedicated entity for disadvantaged groups: Established at the national level, this entity would help realize the objective of flexible learning pathways for disadvantaged groups in higher education and address equity issues. It would be responsible for data collection and data management systems to monitor students’ progression.
  3. Integrate support systems for disadvantaged students: Innovative and creative strategies need to cater to the different needs of students and should support pathways for getting in, getting through, and getting out of higher education. 
  4. Draw from local expertise in developing flexible learning pathways: The report underlines the urgent need to build the capacity of local expertise in the implementation of flexible learning pathways to bring about transformative change. 
  5. Engage with all stakeholders and population groups, including vulnerable ones: Dialogue with stakeholders at all levels – from experts, to the public, and marginalized groups in society – can help create committed partnerships.