There must be ways to check the current one-way flow of students from Malaysia to Taiwan for the benefit of institutions and students of both nations. The prospect of losing another 5,000 high school graduates students each year will be bleak for the private colleges in Malaysia. The cut-throat competition is getting deadlier this year!

Commentary (Feb 26, 2017):

This is the third and final part of my series of articles based on my public lecture, “Malaysian higher education: past, present and likely future” delivered at Tunghai University, Taiwan where I was a guest of Professor Lin Hsiou-wei.

The aggressiveness and seemingly well-funded campaigns by Taiwanese universities (including high-ranking ones) to recruit Malaysian students to fill up the large gap in capacities to student had mainly only receiving good attention in Malaysia’s Chinese press with the English press giving it scanty reports. The majority of the private colleges in Malaysia still do not have strong relationships with Taiwanese universities. This could be based solely on the uninformed assumption that students must be very proficient in Chinese language in order to study at tertiary level in Taiwan. Well, many Taiwanese universities, in line with the trend in China, have been having undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes entirely delivered in English for some years now. In addition, despite the difficulties in scoring grade A+ for Chinese language at national senior high school examination in Malaysia (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia or Malaysian Certificate of Education) there are still a substantial number of students taking the subject each year. Hence there would be many high school graduates with the requisite proficiency in Chinese each year to study in Taiwan. Of course some very savvy private colleges have woken up to this Taiwanese “fear factor” lately.

I had done a bit of research on the data I obtained from various sources which showed a very disappointing trend: the flow of tertiary students has been only one-way, that is from Malaysia to Taiwan. Very few Taiwanese students are found in Malaysian colleges and universities. I then set out to find ways in which a more balanced and mutually beneficial framework of relationships between Taiwanese and Malaysian institutions of higher learning could be forged.

I presented this in my public lecture but I am not fully convinced that my message was getting through to right people in Taiwan. I do hope that somehow someone will see the imbalance and try ways to address this. I for one do not subscribe to the notion that Taiwanese universities would intentionally bring about the decimation of private higher education industry in Malaysia. Hence this seemingly zero-sum game will need to be altered, and altered fast for the long term betterment of people of both Taiwan and Malaysia.

I have been asked by some of my readers and friends to translate this article into Chinese in order to attain my aim. You never know, I might take up the challenge later!


An article entitled, “Facing brain drain, Taiwan looks to poach Malaysian students” appeared on September 15, 2013 in Malay Mail Online. It was in response to the push by Taiwan to target Malaysia for new students to fill in excess seats available in their 160 or so universities and colleges. The alarm bells were starting to ring in the recruitment offices of many Malaysian private colleges in reaction to this news.

1
Dr Chow Yong Neng (second from left) receiving a warm reception from Professor Lin Hsiou-wei (fourth from the eft) and his staffs at Tunghai University in Taichung, Taiwan

Then in late May 2016 the Sun Daily reported that there are 15,000 Malaysians already studying in Taiwan. Around the same time Sin Chew Daily in turn reported that Taiwan will target to have a total of 25,000 Malaysian students studying in Taiwan within the next two years, an increase of 5,000 on average in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

With the “drought” of students hitting the industry in 2016, the Malaysian private higher education sector is already facing a collective lowering of enrollment caused mainly by the increased in Sixth Form enrollment for 2016. The further prospect of losing another 5,000 students on average caused the alarm bells at the recruitment offices of private colleges in Malaysia to ring non-stop ever since!

One cannot begin to imagine the impact of losing another 5,000 high school students each year will do to the private higher education sector in Malaysia. Table 1 shows the number of Malaysians studying in Taiwan from 2013 to 2018 (2016 to 2018 figures were projected).

able 1: The number of Malaysians studying in Taiwan from 2013 – 2018 (Data Source: 2013 – http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aedu/201412230014.aspx and 2014 & 2015 – http://english.moe.gov.tw/ct.asp?xItem=16738&ctNode=11414&mp=1)

The Taipei Economic and Cultural in Malaysia kindly shared with this author the number of Taiwanese studying in Malaysia (provided by the government of Malaysia in October 2015). A total of 116 Taiwanese students were studying in Malaysia in 2015 with only 96 students being in private colleges. These figures show the severe imbalance in the movement of students between the two countries.

So what chances do small and medium sized Malaysian private colleges (and even some of the larger ones) have in competing against well funded and highly reputable Taiwanese universities and colleges which have been very liberal in awarding scholarships lately? This is made worse by the fact that the only silver lining that Malaysian private colleges had, which is the delivery of academic courses in English is also being eroded. Many Taiwanese universities and colleges with teaching staff who are trained in USA, UK or Australia are offering international academic programmes that are fully delivered in English.

Can this seemingly zero-sum game of student recruitment be reconfigured for the long term mutual benefits of the students and institutions of both countries?

This author believes that it is not the intention of Taiwan to create the “fear-factor” in Malaysian private higher education. A zero-sum game will always have a winner (Taiwan) and a loser (Malaysia). However, given the strength in the “New Go South” policy of President Tsai Ing-wen, is there any way players in higher education in both Taiwan and Malaysia can collaborate on a “1 + 1 = 4” principle?

“Collaboration outweighs competition” should always be the motto when it comes to Taiwanese-Malaysian higher education institutions’ relationship. For the “1 + 1 = 4” principle to be realised, there must be a think-out-of-the-box collaboration model between the two countries’ universities and colleges.

A "think out of the box" model of collaboration between Malaysian and Taiwanese colleges and universities will replace the one-way flow of students from Malaysia to a bidirectional flow of students between Taiwan and Malaysia to the benefit of both nations.
A “think out of the box” model of collaboration between Malaysian and Taiwanese colleges and universities will replace the one-way flow of students from Malaysia to a bidirectional flow of students between Taiwan and Malaysia to the benefit of both nations.

Something must be done by both countries to address the severe imbalance in the flow of students which at present, for all intent and purposes is unidirectional: only Malaysian students would go to Taiwan and essentially there is insignificant flow towards Malaysia.

Hence for an equitable collaboration to work, the flow of students MUST always be bi-directional. “Share and share alike” shall be the key to successful collaboration efforts between institutions of higher learning of both countries.

To make this work, Taiwanese universities and colleges must not treat their Malaysian counterparts as “feeder colleges” but as equal partners in the sharing of students. They must be prepared to send to their Malaysian partners an equivalent number of Taiwanese students to make this work.

By having (and sharing) Taiwanese and Malaysian students we can create the “1 + 1 = 4” principle. For starter, instead of recruiting Malaysian students directly to attend all 4 years of undergraduate studies in Taiwan, we can have a modified “2 + 2  model”.  Malaysian students will be recruited by a Malaysian institution partnering a Taiwanese university or college. These Malaysian students will stay in Malaysia to complete the first part of their studies (either in diploma or in a homegrown degree programme) before credit transferring to the Taiwanese university. At the same time, the Taiwanese university partner will send a similar number of its students to the Malaysian counterpart. These Taiwanese university students could be studying on a “student exchange”, “study abroad” or credit transfer mode. So long as there is an equitable flow of students each year, both institutions stand to gain extra headcounts. Thus both institutions will have an additional student for everyone that it has sent to its partner institution, thereby creating two student headcounts on both sides, making the  “1 + 1 = 4” principle a reality.

There are also other variations to this model aside from the example above where a bidirectional flow of students between Taiwan and Malaysia can be effectively implemented:

  • Setting up dual awards in undergraduate and postgraduate programmes between institutions of higher learning in both countries (students from both countries can opt to take up both or one of the academic awards).
  • Taiwanese universities leveraging on their Malaysian partner colleges/universities to tap into the non-Chinese speaking students market (instead of just targeting the Chinese Malaysian, Taiwanese universities, through their Malaysian partners can widen their reach). These students can be placed in the Malaysian partner institutions for preparatory courses (e.g. Chinese proficiency classes) before their stint in Taiwan, thereby sharing of such students between the two partners.
  • Tapping into “seniors” and “executive development” markets in both countries by co-branding of programmes and deliver part of these programmes in the partner’s institutions on “short study visits” basis for example utilizing Malaysia’s Mobility Programme.

With a deeper collaborative relationship, both the Taiwanese and Malaysian institutions can then leverage on each other’s strength, brands and reputation to tackle other non-traditional areas of collaboration. Research and development, consultancy projects, bidding for research funding and commercialization of research are some of the “offshoots” of such collaborations. Essentially the Taiwanese and Malaysian institutions can then leverage on each other to expand their “market” and effectively reach into each other’s territory to be fully transnational.

Having bidirectional flow of students will benefit Taiwanese students by giving them exposure to Malaysia in an in-depth manner which would increase the cultural and economic intertwining of both nations, directly increasing the sphere of influence of Taiwan and still adhere to the New Go South policy of President Tsai, albeit with some modifications.

All it takes now is the collective willpower of the leaders of Taiwanese universities to put this into action and to engage with their counterparts in Malaysia (mainly the private colleges and universities) to put the current zero-sum game to bed.

The ball is now in the Taiwanese court!

Read more on Part 1: How many colleges and universities can Malaysia truly sustain?
or Part 2: Filling up Malaysian colleges’ seats – a tall order indeed

The bulk of the content of this article came from a talk given by the author as a guest speaker of Tunghai University, Taichung, Taiwan on July 28 2016 entitled “Malaysian higher education: past, present and  likely future.”

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