Development of Graduate Education in Malaysia:
Prospects for Internationalization
By Dr. Ahmad Mahdzan Ayob and Dr. Noran Fauziah Yaakub
Universiti Utara Malaysia
These paper will seek to address the following questions:
(a) What factors led to the development of graduate education in Malaysia's
(b) How did graduate education develop in the last twenty years in Malaysia?
(c) How are the graduate schools in Malaysian universities organized?
(d) How are graduate programs in Malaysian universities structured?
(e) How do Malaysian graduate school conduct quality control of their
(f) What roles did Malaysian public universities play in promoting graduate
programs to international students?
(g) What do international students have to say about graduate programs
that they are going, or went, through in Malaysia?
(h) What are the prospects for further internationalization of graduate
education in Malaysia?
Evolution of Graduate Education in Malaysia
Graduate education is of recent origin in Malaysia. The first local university
to provide this advanced training is none other than Malaysia's oldest
university, namely, the University of Malaya (UM). The university was
founded on 8 October 1949, in Singapore, to serve the needs of the Federation
of Malaya and Singapore. The rapid growth of the U.M. in its first decade
of existence led to the setting up of two autonomous campuses in 1959,
one in Singapore and another in Kuala Lumpur. After the passing of a law
in 1961 in the then Malayan Parliament, the University of Malaya in Kuala
Lumpur was founded as an independent entity on 1 January 1962, and remained
as the only university at the time Malaysia was formed in 19633.
Based on the date of its establishment, it is likely for the first graduate
student to enroll at this university after January 1965 when the first
batch of undergraduates completed their training.
Universities that were established in the late sixties and early seventies
(The Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM),
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) embarked upon graduate education
around the late seventies or early eighties. At that time academic staff
at these universities were coming back with their advanced degrees from
overseas. Most of these universities would probably feel more comfortable
conducting graduate training if their academic staff possess the doctorate
degree. The Ph.D. was deemed essential for an advanced degree supervisor
to have since the early graduate programs were mostly research-based,
rather than coursework-based. In the early years, many Ph.D. holders working
in the local universities were employed in administrative positions such
as Deputy Vice Chancellors, Deans or Heads of Departments. They were more
concerned with strengthening undergraduate programs, rather than worrying
about advanced degrees. At this time, many academic staff in these universities
were being sent abroad for their advanced degrees, in preparation for
bigger roles in research and graduate teaching and supervision
At first, the need for graduate education in Malaysia was felt mainly
by the universities themselves. The minimum qualification to be a university
lecturer in Malaysia was (still is in many campuses) the master's degree,
most of which were obtained internationally. Many lecturers with this
minimum qualification went on to do their doctoral degrees overseas, mainly
in the English-speaking countries (Australia, New Zealand, UK, and USA).
Since the Malaysian economy was doing well during much of the period
(1970-97), financing graduate training of these lecturers was not a big
financial problem. The Malaysian currency vis-à-vis the US Dollar strengthened
from RM3.00=1 USD to about RM2.5=1 USD between 1970 and 1997. The Public
Services Department (PSD) was given ample allocation to support these
training programs. Later, a scheme, known as Skim Latihan Akademik Bumpiutra
(SLAB), for bumiputra lecturers was instituted, whereby bumiputra graduates
with excellent academic records were recruited by the universities as
Tutors, and then sent overseas to do their Master's and Ph.D.s. At the
same time, civil servants in the Administrative and Diplomatic Services
and in the Professional Departments (e.g. Agriculture, Forestry, Public
Works, etc) were also being sent in droves to do their advanced degrees
overseas. This went on for more than two decades. As a result of this
liberal policy, development of graduate education in the local universities
took a back seat. The priority of the universities was undergraduate education.
However, as more and more lecturers were returning home with their Ph.D.s,
the graduate programs of local universities gained momentum. More candidates,
mainly school teachers, were applying to do their graduate degrees locally
in the soft sciences. As most of these teachers are part-time students,
universities have arranged week-end classes for them, and their full-time
counterparts. One attraction of the local universities to these teachers
is the liberal policy of allowing the use of Bahasa Melayu and English
media of instruction at graduate level4.
As most of the new entrants into the graduate school would have had their
education fully in BM, the use of the national language at the graduate
level was a natural development. UKM's and USM's language policy requires
students' theses be prepared in BM, unless prior permission has been obtained
from the Senate. Permission is almost automatically given to international
students to write in English or Arabic.
At the same time, the flexibility allowed to international students who
are more comfortable with English, attracts many applicants from some
African, Middle-eastern countries and the Indian Sub-continent. These
international students are aware that even though writing skill in English
is necessary to undertake graduate programs in Malaysia, they also know
they do not have to pass any TOEFL-like English competency tests before
they could be admitted, unlike admission into universities in Western
countries. As cost of higher education continued to rise in the English-speaking
countries, more and more Third World students were applying to study in
4 At the undergraduate level it is government policy
to use Bahasa Melayu (BM), the national language, as the medium of instruction.
At the graduate level, both BM and English are allowed in most universities.