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Opening to the world

Last Wednesday we had visitors from the Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) at UP Diliman. The visitors paid a courtesy call to UP president Alfredo Pascual and I was asked to attend.

By coincidence, that same day was UP’s 106th Foundation Day. As I sat listening to the visitors describing their campus, I thought of how the Malaysian university, only about 30 years old, might offer some insights to a much older UP.

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UUM is one of six state universities, and its specialization is the area of business and management. Its main campus is in Kedah, very close to the southern border of Thailand.  At this Kedah campus, it has some 30,000 students, all residential, meaning they all live on campus. UUM has a smaller nonresidential campus with about 6,000 students in Kuala Lumpur. I thought of how at UP Diliman, just running dorms for 3,000 students has been a major feat, the dorms—both old and new—rather rundown.

But the idea of providing on-campus housing for students seems to be coming back, with the National University of Singapore also looking into how it might increase the number of its residential students. The advantage is that students have more time to interact with each other, even as they learn to live with other students, and to become more independent. For public universities with many students from all over the country, adequate on-campus housing becomes even more important.

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Let’s go back to UUM. Its specialization is reflected by its different undergraduate and graduate degree programs around business and management. For example, the university has a Master in Islamic Finance and Banking. Its Master of Business Administration (MBA) offers all kinds of specializations: for example, agribusiness, healthcare management and human resource management.

It has more than 2,000 students at the doctoral level, with choices like a PhD, which is more research-oriented: a Doctor of Business Management (DBA) which is more case-study oriented and an advancement over the MBA; and a Doctor of Management, which is for people who have already accumulated years of experience in management, usually in corporations.

Internationalization

The word “internationalization” kept floating around in our conversations, with UUM, and Malaysia as a whole, intent on carving out a niche in international education. The university already has a large number of international students, mainly from neighboring Indonesia, from the Middle East, and increasingly from Africa. The tuition fees are competitive—more or less $1,000 per term for Malaysian students, $1,200 for Asean nationals, and $1,500 for non-Aseans. The $1,200 is less than P100,000, quite competitive with our private business schools.

The UUM visitors showed us a video featuring their campus: modern buildings and classrooms in a sprawling campus of more than a thousand hectares. A come-on again for international students.

Other measures they’ve taken for internationalization is a shift, done in 2011, in the academic calendar; its school year starts in September. At UP, after rather heated debates, we are making the shift this year—our new school year will start in August.

UUM’s graduate classes are now conducted in English, and there is talk about offering Mandarin classes, with ongoing negotiations to set up a Confucius Institute with the Chinese government.

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These shifts are quite revolutionary for Malaysia, which is fiercely nationalistic. For years they implemented a bumiputra (sons of the earth) policy, giving preference to ethnic Malay in business, social services and many areas of national life. The ethnic Chinese often felt like second-class citizens, and the tensions between ethnic Malay and Chinese resulted in the breakaway city-state of Singapore.

Our visitors explained the shift to English, and the offering of Chinese is a simple response to international realities. Being able to speak English and Chinese gives you an edge in the international business world, which redounds to Malaysia’s benefit.

UUM has been aggressively recruiting international faculty. In fact, our two visitors were accompanied by one of our own UP faculty members, who is now a visiting professor there, teaching multimedia technology.

UUM also has a policy of hiring faculty whose PhD comes from a university other than UUM. As one visitor put it, he tells his students who have taken their bachelor’s and master’s at UUM: “I don’t want to see your face here for a PhD.  Get it elsewhere.” The idea is to get exposure to a different environment, even overseas if needed.

 

Nationalism

I see some of the experiences of Japan and China being repeated now in Malaysia. Both Japan and China are also extremely nationalistic, even to the point of being xenophobic or antiforeigner. Yet, both countries saw the importance of opening up to the world, of sending scholars to the West to study, but for them to come back and use their new knowledge for their home country.

Japan is often cited as a country that clings on to the use of Japanese, but many people are unaware that the Japanese language is full of borrowed terms from the West, made “Japanese” by giving it a Japanese pronunciation and having it written in hiragana script.

Listening to our Malaysian visitors, I thought of how the Philippines was once a center for international education.  We trained our neighbors in agriculture, engineering, the health sciences and they returned to their home countries to excel, advancing their fields to overtake us. I’m thinking of Thailand’s agriculture as an example.

Today, the Philippines still attracts international students but we lose to our neighbors, including Malaysia, because our housing facilities are dismal and our rules of student visas are notoriously complicated.

We still have international students, although now in far smaller numbers. I visited UP Diliman’s International Center the other week and found quite a few students from Cambodia, Laos and some African countries, doing engineering.  There are all kinds of niches we still have for international education: UP Population Institute, for example, practically started the field of demography for Bhutan.

Several private universities are hubs for Iranian students doing the health sciences. Recently I had an inquiry from a Pakistani friend who got his architecture degree many years back from the University of Santo Tomas, and now wants to send his daughter to UP, also for architecture. He’s planning well ahead… she still has a few years to go before college.

We provide good education, and our international graduates will excel, again perhaps leading their countries to overtake the Philippines. The reason why we lag behind is that while we are good, we tend to swing between two extremes.  One extreme is the “West is best” mentality, so we go overseas and think everything there is good. Many with the “West is best” mentality will not come home because the Philippines will never be good enough for them.

On the other extreme—and this is found in academic institutions—we have become too proud, too arrogant, thinking we have nothing to learn from the outside, from the world. Internationalization is, understandably, seen as a threat, but if we are truly confident about ourselves as a nation, we should be ready to engage the world, on our terms.

I’d like to think that at 106 years old, UP should by now have the wisdom to learn from younger universities, in our region and in the world.

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TAGS: Alfredo Pascual, Chinese, ethnic Malay, Malaysian university, Master in Islamic Finance and Banking, Master of Business Administration, MBA, National University of Singapore, Universiti Utara Malaysia, up diliman, UP President, UP’s 106th Foundation Day, UUM
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