Linking Malaysia & Australia:

Making Connections in Higher Education

 

Ambigapathy Pandian

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Nations, today are coming together to establish global relations in political, economic and socio-cultural arenas. Interestingly, this is a significant period where the world confronts a diverse range of changes and challenges; and it is all the more important now to build shared economic, social and security interests as well as community contacts that cross borders of nations to create a more dynamic future for the people of the world. Currently, much of the developed and fast developing world is changing from industrial economies based on automobiles and machinery to become new economies built on silicon, computers and networks. This is seen as a major shift in economic and social relationships; in fact many nations see Informational Technology (IT) as a thrust of modernisation that promises a better way of life.

Indeed, one of the most important visions for Malaysia growth in the contemporary social-economic scenario is the formulation of the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) - a RM20 billion project which is poised to bring a radical change in Malaysia. This project is viewed as a strategy capable of propelling the country into the front-line of the information age, important as a potential area of future growth as the manufacturing sector is currently reaching its plateau in terms of the percentage of economic development. The various strands of the international relations will converge even closer as we approach the new millennium and work towards achieving ecologically sustainable development in the new century.

In this regard, the earlier tenuous links between Malaysia and Australia, which have existed for many hundreds of years, were initially formalised and strengthened with the establishment of the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur in 1955. This resulted in the building of many joint-projects and activities at the national and international levels. Partnerships have been further reinforced in areas like trade, defence, education, immigration, tourism, culture and environment, entertainment and the media and in sports. Key achievements have been made to enhance co-operation between the two countries; this has taken in place in the form of an exchange of official visits and broad agreements on many policy issues, including the Malaysian-Australian Trade Agreement in 1958; The Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) Forum in 1989; Malaysia-Australia Joint Defence Program (MAJDP) in 1992 and the Australia-Malaysia Scholarship Scheme in 1990.

In this article, however, I will be examining education, specifically in relation to higher education, in order to chart out some of the major trends and directions that are now taking place in this sector. It is widely acknowledged that Malaysia has been one of the biggest single sources of overseas students in Australia. Increasingly, more links than ever before between Australia and Malaysia are now being formed with the growing number of twinning programs between institutions of higher learning in both countries. Moreover, projects, training, attachments and student-staff exchanges are being continuously structured to meet further growth objectives and stimulate wider intellectual as well as research interaction between the countries. The cultural pluralism that is present in both these countries is a distinctive feature that makes bi-lateral relations in many activities both very unique and very exciting.

In Malaysia today, almost all institutions are striving towards the goals of internationalisation and academic excellence. Local higher Institutions are working together to develop numerous schemes to address issues related to agriculture, engineering, technology transfer, microelectronics, culture, drugs, environment and living coastal resources. The discussion in this article draws on the experiences of partnerships and movements that have already been constructed between Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Australia.

Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) is the second oldest university in Malaysia and right from inception, the University has adopted an innovative approach to higher education and has responded actively to many external demands for its services, from scientific and industrial consultancy, welfare work and extension education to professional upgrading and the development of research that would drive Malaysia towards modernisation and autonomous intellectual activity.

In the present era of knowledge explosion and rapid technological progress, the academic world is fast approaching integration and the acceptance of cultural pluralism in pursuit of academic excellence. Universiti Sains Malaysia has given much emphasis to regional and international co-operation to promote cross cultural links and the sharing of experiences.

Malaysia's development co-operation programs with Australia were co-ordinated by the International Development Program of Australian Universities and Colleges (IDP). One of the key collaborative projects under this programme emerged in the setting up of USM's School of Medical Sciences wherein a Memorandum Of Understanding was forged with the Flinders University of South Australia in 1980 to stimulate staff training activities in support of the medical school taking shape in Kubang Kerian, Kelantan. Flinders University assisted with specific programs that included staff secondments from Australia as well as the placement of academic staff members from USM under the aegis of the IDP program. Short term visiting assignments by Australian senior academics were organised to assess curriculum development and other related areas. The staff members from USM also participated actively in these study visits and have gained exposure and hands-on experience in the setting up of specialised diagnostic clinics/laboratories and clinical attachments.

The second phase of support to the School of Medical Sciences focused on the planning and development of postgraduate medical programmes leading to the degree of Master of Medicine (MMed) in fields of Internal Medicine, Paediatrics and many other sub-speciality areas. The Australian contribution was integral in areas where local expertise was unavailable as numerous training workshops and lectures in sub-speciality topics were co-ordinated. Support was also garnered for upgrading skills in specialised areas relating to post-basic training in Nursing as part of this on-going programme.

Following the success of this rewarding partnership, fellowships were awarded to selected staff to pursue postgraduate qualifications at Australian universities. This co-operation scheme which was made possible through the IDP program of assistance has subsequently been extended to encompass other prominent Australian medical schools.

Similar projects have also taken place in several areas of USM's development in Distance Education; Educational Technology; Library and Media Services; and the Management Studies Programme. Apart from IDP-based projects, staff members also make links with Australian institutions on a personal basis to undertake joint-ventures in research. A programme review undertaken in 1986 took a new focus in line with USM's changing needs. Following in the footsteps of the School of Medical Sciences, consultancy visits, joint assignments and study visits were undertaken to implement a coursework postgraduate MBA program as part of a new development scheme by the now established School of Management. Research activities have also been pursued in the area of early childhood and primary education. Another current research project is focusing on Literacy and aims to identify national goals and strategies for the realisation of literacy needs in the next century. In this project there is collaborative discussion and exchange of ideas with academics at James Cook University and other universities in Australia. Further to this, USM has noted interest from several Australian institutions to explore possible collaboration in fields like Computing and IT and Pharmacy.

As Malaysia's industrial development has gathered momentum, USM has taken steps to ensure that high calibre engineering and technology graduates will be able to address the needs and the challenges of a rapid changing nation. This has meant a major expansion in this discipline with separate Engineering Schools being created in the branch campus in Seri Iskandar, Perak. The IDP assistance in the area of engineering to date has included assistance in curriculum planning in Civil Engineering and Mineral Resources Engineering. Advice was also provided concerning the development of physical facilities as well as educational programs that are innovative and relevant to the needs of contemporary societies.

In this way the IDP programs have, therefore, enabled the fostering of constructive relations between Malaysia and Australia and to date, bilateral relations between USM and the Australian counterparts in the form of Memoranda of Understanding have been signed with among others: Flinders University of South Australia; the University of Sydney; the University of South Australia; the University of Queensland; the University of Western Australia; the University of Technology, Sydney; Curtin University of Technology; Monash University; Murdoch University; and the University of Adelaide.

The agreements mentioned above provide for exchange of staff, exchange of library and other reference materials, joint research, other areas of co-operation to the mutual benefit of both nations. Whilst the IDP Program may have been instrumental in initiating many of the above links, subsequent co-operative activities are undertaken on the basis of bilateral partnerships to mutual benefit.

The Commonwealth Universities Study Abroad Consortium (CUSAC) was formed in 1992 with the aim of promoting student exchange among South-South Member countries, developed and developing Commonwealth countries. USM has devised its own Study Abroad concept in which there would be reciprocal student exchanges with universities. USM has also received Australian students from Monash University, the University of Adelaide and the University of Western Australia into its academic programs to stimulate cultural understanding and dialogue among student and staff members.

Apart from these institutionalised links, individual members and social groups of the university have also charted common interests-based projects that advance research and knowledge and inform policy needs in the 21st century. All these movements clearly indicate that the interest of the Malaysian institutions to extend solidarity and professional reinforcement for the people in education.

By way of conclusion, it can be said that increasing ties are continuously being borne out by the growing number of twinning programs between private and public institutions of higher learning of both countries. These schemes do not only provide wider access to university education but also demonstrate Malaysia's commitment to increasing and strengthening its international role, both as a provider of expertise and as a participator in collaborative endeavours for the advancement of knowledge and for the promotion of better international understanding.

Ambigapathy Pandian, School of Humanities, Universiti Sains Malaysia

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