Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: The Englishization of Higher Education in Asia and Migratory Flows of International Students

Jan 26, 2010

Taking up the case of Malaysia as a regional hub for higher education, this essay explores how the "Englishization" of higher education in Malaysia has affected the flow of movement of students from Asia and other regions of the world to their destinations of study. Attention is drawn to Malaysia's multi-ethnicity and the ways in which Malaysia's multilingual and multicultural staff in the education industry serve as cultural intermediaries. The implications of their role in influencing the flow of overseas students are examined. It is in such structural contexts that issues of ethics involving transnational migration of students should be considered.

English-medium Private Higher Education in Malaysia

An innovative type of private higher education was invented in Malaysia in 1983 and, interestingly, as a byproduct of Malaysia's ethnic relations. In the 1970s, the Malaysian government initiated various measures of preferential treatment for bumiputeras, which aimed to redress the economic imbalance between ethnic groups, especially between Malays and ethnic Chinese, that had been imposed by the British colonial administration (Bumiputera, literally "son of the soil," mainly refers to indigenous Malays as opposed to immigrant-origin Chinese and Indians.). Affirmative action for Malays was also applied to scholarships for study abroad. This meant tremendous financial burdens for non-Malay parents especially after British universities, a main destination for Malaysian students, imposed tuition fees upon overseas students in 1980.

Non-Malays found themselves in a situation in which they needed to come up with a way for their children to be able to obtain a degree at an affordable cost. To begin, they adopted an idea from a practice in the United States, where graduates of a two-year community college transfer credits to continue their education in a four-year university. Malaysia's non-Malay educational entrepreneurs applied it internationally, inventing a system whereby students did two years at a Malaysian private college and then through "credit transfer" could enter the third year of U.S. universities. They then went on to initiate "twinning programs" ("1+2" and "2+1") with British and Australian universities in the late 1980s.

As a consequence, Malaysia has come to have some 100 private colleges and private university-colleges, which have partnership programs with universities in Australia, Britain, the United States, and other English-speaking countries. A student can study at a Malaysian college for the first two years, acquire the necessary credits and then advance to the partner program of an overseas university for the final year's work ("2+1" formula). A student in the end obtains a degree from a British or Australian university, for example. A student can even complete a whole course of study and be granted a full British or Australian degree while in Malaysia through a 3+0 program.

Private higher education has become a significant money-making venture both for Malaysians and Westerners. Malaysia's commercial companies, in many cases developers, played an important role in fostering the development of private higher education as a business activity under the banners of community service, improvement of corporate image, and economic benefit. In terms of global academic capitalism, we see that economic interests on the part of Australian, British, American, and other overseas universities to export their education also played an important role in developing the Malaysian model of private higher education. These countries regarded Malaysia as a major market for education export.

Malaysia as a Regional Hub in Education

Malaysia thus emerged as a destination for English-medium higher education for overseas students as well. In the early years of the last decade, the overwhelming majority of foreign students came from China and Indonesia. As conditions in Indonesia began deteriorating in 1998, there was an outflow of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese into Malaysian colleges. Until recently, China remained the most important source of incoming students. With China joining the WTO, there was a perceived need for its students to be trained in many relevant areas in English to cope with globalization.

Here are some selling points that Malaysian colleges emphasized when promoting their programs in China: By going to Malaysia, students will not be getting a Malaysian degree but a Western degree from Britain, the United States, or Australia; tuition fees and cost of living are much lower than in the West; Malaysian visas are easier to obtain; Malaysia is an English-speaking country. In addition, Chinese is also widely understood; because Malaysia is a multicultural society, students can expose themselves to different cultures; Malaysia can be used as a stepping stone on the way to truly English-speaking countries such as the United States, Britain, and Australia.

The preceding discussion suggests that the Englishization of higher education in Malaysia has shaped international flows of students. Previous studies of international students have assumed a dichotomous relationship between countries sending students and countries receiving them. This dichotomy often takes the form of non-English-speaking countries versus English speaking countries. It may be said that establishment of a midpoint way station or hub in the flow of students de-territorializes English-medium higher education in the postcolonial world. Previously, it was assumed that students simply go to the country of study and then return to their own.

There is an alternative pattern whereby one first goes to a hub, then goes on to another destination or serial destinations. For some Asian students going abroad, Australia was also seen as a way station on the path to the United States, with its strict immigration policies. Not a few Chinese students had this route in mind: China to Malaysia, then to Australia, and then on to America. As Australian immigration rules tightened in the late 1990s, New Zealand began to garner some attention as an alternative. For students, the path is fluid and is continually undergoing adjustments. The emergence of Malaysia as a relatively accessible locale of English-medium higher education in Asia offers overseas students a comfortable place of sojourn while making up their minds about their next destination in the Anglo-American world. Malaysia as transit point has come to represent itself as an "alternative English-speaking country."

Cultural Intermediaries as Key Players in Global Flows

When considering transnational migration, it is important to extend one's inquiries into the middle level of analysis rather than simply focusing on the individual and his or her right to move. When an individual (which is at the micro-level) seeks to acquire an education in English, it is important to understand the process by which this individual, making strategic moves on a global playing board, goes about making a life for himself or herself that is mediated through his or her links to various types of organizations and systems (middle level). In other words, it is important to pay close attention to the social channels that connect the individual to the society.

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu applies the term "new intellectuals" to those who act as intermediaries in transmitting ideas and symbols previously monopolized by intellectuals to wider sections of the population. In Consumer Culture and Postmodernism Mike Featherstone, taking a cue from Bourdieu, focuses attention on cultural intermediaries who act as "transmitters, intermediaries for the new intellectual popularization." The role of such cultural intermediaries in modern societies, he says, is steadily gaining in importance.

Cultural intermediaries are key players in global flows. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai puts it thus: "The new global cultural economy has to be understood as a complex, overlapping, disjunctive order, which cannot any longer be understood in terms of center-periphery models." It is the role of cultural intermediaries to connect any disjuncture in global flows.

Being multilingual and multicultural, Malaysia's ethnic Chinese have played the important role of cultural intermediaries in facilitating connective channels among Malaysia, China, and Anglophone countries, thereby promoting increased inflows of students from China to Malaysia. Bearing the legacies of British colonialism, Malaysia's ethnic Chinese are in better positions to serve as cultural intermediaries. They are at home with the nuances both of Anglo institutional culture and Chinese commercial culture. As a result, we can observe various types of increasing links between mainland Chinese and Malaysian Chinese (for example, in businesses such as travel agencies and apartment-brokers catering to China students).

The ethnicity factor in the creation of transnational networks is not limited to the case of the Chinese. Another interesting example was seen in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Malaysia was quick to announce itself as an alternative destination for Middle Eastern students who had planned to go to the United States for study but then found the way blocked. Malaysia's government and private sectors organized recruitment of Middle Eastern students to come to Malaysia. In a case such as this, Malaysia represents itself as a Muslim country. The religious aspect of Malay ethnicity is emphasized for Middle Eastern students. Indeed, there has been a steady increase of Muslim students coming to study at Malaysia's private higher education institutions. They are not just from the Middle East but also from Africa, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. For Muslim students, Malays who are Muslims serve as cultural intermediaries.

Concluding Thoughts

The Malaysian case of English-medium higher education represents what may be called a postcolonial pattern of English-mediated globalization. In this example, the role of a large and varied cast of local actors is especially important. It is no longer tenable, as has been argued by proponents of linguistic imperialism, to posit in a simplistic manner a dependency relationship between English-speaking countries like Australia, Britain, or the United States comprising the center and countries such as China occupying the periphery as non-English-speaking countries.

The question that must be asked is this: Does Malaysia's current situation represent symbolic autonomy, or does it simply indicate that the Asian education industry has become a mere sub-contractor for Australia, Britain, and the United States, and that Malaysia has strengthened its semi-peripheral position vis-à-vis English-speaking countries at the center?

It is these structural contexts in which I propose to examine some ethical questions regarding transnational migration of students, both at the individual level of how students choose to become educational migrants and at the collective level of how intermediate institutions encourage the migratory flows of international students.

One ethical issue concerns the further commercialization and popularization of English-medium higher education. Indeed, Asia has become one main arena where British, American, Australian, and other varieties of English exist side by side, each one of which is closely linked with its respective cultural industries and public institutions. All of this interaction, fueled by economic motivations, is unleashing intense competitive forces in the region. English is an extremely profitable export commodity for any country which uses it as a native or second language.

There are two conventional ways of looking at the globalization and commercialization of English-medium higher education. One is to regard educational migrants as passive victims of linguistic imperialism. Central to this view is the linguistic imperialism thesis put forward most typically by language specialist Robert Phillipson. The other is to take note of rational choices that an individual actor makes in deciding his or her life course. Here students are active agents of pragmatism who consider educational migration as a key that has the potential to open many doors for their career and enable upward mobility.

The discussion in this essay points to a third perspective, which is to highlight the socially constructed nature of an individual's rational choices for transnational educational migration. As has been seen in the cases of Chinese and Middle Eastern students, routes to favored destinations of study are often blocked by respective countries' immigration or security policies. The right of students to move across national boundaries depends on the entry conditions of receiving countries. Nonetheless, the ideal of moving beyond national boundaries for higher education is constructed and emphasized in the global educational market, where, out of economic motives, a variety of intermediaries give positive meaning to English and Anglo-American university degrees. Transnational educational mobility is not merely presented as an ideal; rather, an alternative means to realize it are explored and provided by these local actors.

Earlier versions of portions of this paper have appeared in Yoshino, Kosaku, "Englishization of higher education in Asia: a sociological enquiry," in Kwok-kan Tam (ed.), Englishization in Asia: Language and Cultural Issues, Hong Kong: Open University of Hong Kong Press, 2009.

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