Blueprint for higher education hub | Daily News

Blueprint for higher education hub

According to the Ministry of Higher Education, Sri Lanka aims to be an international hub of excellence for higher education by 2020.

Before we progress further, let us try to define the term “education hub.” A hub involves attracting a large number of students, providers and research centres for cross-border education, training and research. A higher education hub can include different combinations of domestic and international institutions, branch campuses, and foreign partnerships, within the designated region.

There are many reasons why a government opts for a higher education hub: (1) to internationalise and modernise its educational system, (2) build a skilled workforce, (3) attract foreign investment, and (4) increase education competitiveness.

In the West, this term is not widely used. Instead they use such terms as ‘cross-border education’, ‘trans-national education’, ‘off-shore education’, and ‘the global student mobility market’.


This writer believes that it would be more practical to re-phrase the vision as “one of the preferred destinations for higher education” by 2025. Aspiring to become an international education hub is a good thought and a challenging vision. But it takes a lot of time for the preparation and implementation of a practical and workable strategic plan to make the vision a reality. Even the countries like Singapore and Malaysia with all their dedication took over a decade each to arrive at reasonable progress.

Of course, we do have a number of advantages to offer to become a preferred destination for higher education. Those include our strategic location, our cultural diversity, and a relatively stable socio-economic environment.

Also, we have reasonably good infrastructure offering good amenities and facilities. We are a middle-income economy where English is widely spoken in urban areas. Our standard of living is more affordable than in many advanced countries. And above all, ours is a peaceful country without warfare or riots.

Southeast Asia

Growing global interdependence within higher education has been recognized for decades, usually seen as “international education” and having its primary manifestations in student and faculty exchanges between countries. Over the last two decades, especially after the General Agreement on Trade in Services - which all members of the World Trade Organisation are signatories to - came into effect, higher education began to be recognised as a tradable commodity, and the amount of “globalized education” started increasing.

With a strong intention to enhance the competitiveness of their higher education systems, governments across the world, and especially those in Asia, have engaged in the quest to achieve different forms of hub status such as hubs for higher education, talent and information technology.

By late ‘90s, some developing countries in Southeast Asia understood the importance and effect of the highly competitive knowledge-based economies speeding up in the developed world. To face the challenge, they began to place particular emphasis on enhancing the quality of higher education for their citizens. They knew that high-quality talent will support their standing in the globalizing economy.

They also realised that it could take a long time for higher education requirements to be fulfilled if only local universities are relied upon.

Instead, the best solution left for them was to open up the education market and allowing leading non-local institutions to offer programs or run offshore campuses.

Thus, they invited foreign universities to set up local campuses and provide more higher education programmes. At the same time, they also encouraged overseas universities to offer different kinds of higher education programs to meet the pressing demands of their countries, given that the publicly funded universities still maintain a stringent quota of control over student enrolments. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Hong Kong are success stories.

In Singapore, at the planning stage, the Government carefully identified major gaps and crucial disciplinary areas that Singapore lacks and also will need for future economic development.

Thereafter, invited the world-renowned universities in those fields to set up local programs or campuses. For example, international business and finance, creative arts and culture, and liberal arts education, have been strengthened through partnering and co-branding with leading global institutions.

The Singapore government has played the role of “market generator,” not only in setting out the strategic direction, but also by proactively orchestrating developments in transnational higher education to meet its national agenda.

No easy task

If Sri Lanka wants to create a higher education hub, first of all, our universities need to make a thorough survey about the gaps in their curricula and their existing capacities in order to redesign their systems to lure foreign students. This requires the development of a multi-faceted strategy to implement radical changes within the university system to suit the international market.

It's no easy task. There will be many obstacles and challenges to overcome, including language barrier, social and cultural differences and conflicts, knowledgeable staff etc.

If Sri Lanka wishes to reach the level of those in Singapore, China, Hong Kong and South Korea, higher education institutions must focus on the “quadruple helix” – the “cooperation of academia, industry, the government and the people” to help spur the country’s quantum leap.

This writer believes that we could learn a number of lessons from the Malaysian experience of how proceed and progress with this difficult task.

Among the rapidly developing countries, Malaysia has emerged as a top study destination for students all around the world. Malaysia had a total of over 150,000 international students enrolled in 2015. By the year 2020, the Government intends to increase that number to 200,000.

For those wondering what makes Malaysia a viable study destination, let’s look at the key factors.

Four stages

We can identify four stages of Malaysian Higher Education Hub policy:

Stage 1 (1990): Towards the end of the 1980s Malaysian Government realised that over 75,000 Malaysian higher education students were studying overseas. This caused a huge financial and also human capital or ‘brain drain’ outflows. The Government was concerned and decided to take action.

Thus, the Malaysia education hub concept was initially conceived in terms of primarily developing a local education market to better cater for domestic needs and also as a strategy to reverse education internationalisation.

As the first step, the Government drafted the new educational requirements of the First Industrial Master-plan.

Stage 2 (1996) : The Government promoted not only the privatisation and marketisation of its higher education in landmark policy initiatives (including the National Council of Higher Education Act and the Private Higher Education Institutions Act), but also a vigorous internationalisation strategy which followed mainly focused on the ‘twinning’ arrangement between local private colleges and university colleges on one hand, and on the other foreign universities, also mainly from the UK and Australia.

Thus, these higher education policy initiatives of 1996 represent the second key stage in the emergence of the Malaysian education hub model.

Malaysian government decided to allow the private higher education sector to lead the way at this stage in making higher education, technical training and professional education more accessible to the population in terms of national human resource or manpower projections.

Stage 3 (2001): The 9/11 incident was the impetus for Malaysia to go beyond extending its domestic market and link its higher education policy focus to the real prospect of reversing the earlier export model. With the US and other western countries less accessible to Muslim students from the Middle East and elsewhere, Malaysia became a more attractive option for such students. In this way, around 2003 and 2004 there was renewed interest in Malaysia in the idea of attracting international and especially postgraduate students to come to Malaysia to study.

Indonesian and Chinese as well as Middle Eastern students have thus come to represent the main sources of overseas students in Malaysia. It was in this period that Singapore was also particularly active in promoting its own version of an education hub policy – but from a quite different trajectory of interest.

Stage 4 (2010): The Malaysian government announced that higher education would become a National Key Economic Area with a critical role to play in the Malaysia’s 2020 plan to strive for developed country status.

This would translate into an estimated US $ 138 billion annual gain to the national economy in terms of a projected US $ 6900 per student each year. With this policy projection linked directly to a longer-term Education hub model, such an announcement represents a culmination of various stages in the development model first conceived in the 1990s.

In April 2015, the Malaysian Ministry of Higher of education released a 10-year strategy plan, the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025. The Blueprint discusses the strategy and goals and deduces the plan to three main aspects referred to as the three B’s: (1) Bakat(talent): Higher education is to nurture domestic talent and be of a quality that attracts international students from the region; (2) Benchmarking to global standards: Malaysia’s goal is to be in the top one-third of nations in the world for education, (3) Balance: Malaysia’s university graduates are to be equipped not only with skills and knowledge, but a moral, “spiritual” context in which to put them to use.

Malaysia offers two other advantages to students:

Affordable higher education

The affordable cost of quality higher education is one of many good reasons why international students choose Malaysia. For example, a student can acquire a UK engineering degree (three years) in Malaysia through a 3+0 franchised degree programme at less than half of the cost of the host university in the UK.

High quality of life at a low cost

Another pull factor for international students is the balance between a high quality and affordable way of life. According to the HSBC report, the average cost of living in Malaysia for international students is about 25 per cent less than UK.


The fact is, there’s still a long way to go for Sri Lanka to be globally prominent as a hub for higher education. Priority number 1 is a Higher Education Sector Blueprint. It should include the provision of a robust action plan to address the challenges of the higher education sector to make Sri Lanka a leading education hub at the international level.

The Blueprint should be inclusive, up-to-date in terms of current developments (national and international) realistic and most importantly, can be implemented effectively. Needless to say, the participation of public and stakeholders are vital in the preparation of the document. 

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