"My dream is to create a really distinguished business school,” says Prof Datuk Seri Dr Md Zabid Abdul Rashid, President and Vice Chancellor of Universiti Tun Abdul Razak (UNIRAZAK). “A school that creates value for Malaysians with postgraduate qualifications and can raise their game as individuals in the global marketplace.”
Dr Md Zabid is thinking of a school in the tradition of the Harvard Business School or Kellogg or Wharton, or even the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad but with distinctive Malaysian qualities that make such a school valuable to the country’s higher-education industry. It’s a noble vision that recognises human beings as a national asset but Dr Md Zabid is acutely conscious of the reality and he wants to talk about it.
“The truth is we are unable to provide great salaries to people with postgrad qualifications because the industry has not really put a high value on it. That’s why many Malaysians hesitate to invest in quality postgrad education. They feel they are not likely to be rewarded for it. Worse, when they approach employers, some HR people can’t even differentiate postgrad degrees between the many kinds of business schools.”
An MBA from a top international business school can cost anything from RM100,000 to RM300,000 depending on where you go and your lifestyle. That’s a hefty investment by any measure, which a young Malaysian cannot recoup at the workplace unless he or she inherites a large business or is able to create an instantly successful one. “When you return, can you get a job that pays a salary worthy of your investment? There are very few jobs in Malaysia that will,” says Dr Md Zabid.
It’s this scenario that spurred the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education to start MyBrain15, an incentive programme to encourage postgrad education. Its targets have been realistically lowered over time. “Given the high cost between choosing a postgrad degree or buying a home, what do you think a Malaysian executive would do? Meanwhile, Malaysia has acute shortage of people with specialised education in many fields of study. There is a gap in local talent due to the reliance on foreign talent and services in many sectors.”
That’s why Dr Md Zabid is raising the bar for Unirazak’s programmes. By linking degrees to certifications from professional bodies, newly minted graduates will arrive at the workplace strengthened by an additional commercially valuable layer. For example, Unirazak MBAs will be linked with the Chartered Institute of Management of the UK. The new MBAs can be certified as chartered managers, making them attractive in the job market. Other programmes like taxation, insurance and Islamic finance are also linked with relevant professional bodies.
Unirazak is the only Malaysian university that embeds a professional certification into its degrees. “We want to produce graduates that the industry wants and who are ready for the market,” says Dr Md Zabid. “We want to create value, enhance their incomes and their roles in the industry.” The other dimension is raising every student’s exposure by way of internships, attachments, roundtables and classroom teaching by practitioners. “This has a direct beneficial impact on the student,” says Dr Md Zabid. “This exposure is what changes mindsets.”
Historically, our legacy is British where traditionally a bachelor’s degree is where your education terminates. In the old days, a professor at a British university might only have a bachelor’s degree but would have vast experience and numerous publications that are counted as a body of knowledge. Today, however, the American view is more influential – that a bachelor’s degree is the beginning, a very basic platform upon which further degrees or qualifications are earned and become essential to your career or speciality. So a PhD would be necessary but not a sufficient condition to be a professor. The thinking has shifted, even in the UK, and worldwide, where postgraduate qualifications are seen as the consolidation of experience, specialist knowledge and strategic thinking of an individual.
That’s why there is a demand for postgraduate degrees and there are many schools offering them. An estimated one million Malaysians are in tertiary education right now. About 10 per cent are in master’s programme and five per cent are in doctoral programmes. In the university sector, about 20,000 are holders of a master’s degree. Over 100,000 Malaysians have some kind of postgrad qualifications and the highest concentration is an MBA.
“Malaysians use three pathways to postgraduate degrees,” says Dr Md Zabid. “Local, foreign and, of course, the easy pathway, buying a degree. While we quietly snigger and say it’s not counted, note that these degrees appear on name cards and on job applications. Some HR people can’t tell the difference.”
Typically, easy postgrad degrees are acquired by paying fees, doing a limited number of courses, reading case studies and accepting the maturity and experience of the individual. “The result is varying degrees of quality, or the absence of quality, but the tragic part is when an employer can’t really make a distinction between degrees,” says Dr Md Zabid. “There are an estimated 100 MBA providers here. It’s hard to differentiate between a high quality MBA and one that is less competitive. So it’s wise to choose your postgrad school carefully and ensure that it has good alumni networking.”
"We want to produce graduates that the industry wants and who are ready for the market.
We want to create value, enhance their incomes and their roles in industry."
And sometimes, there is a worrying disconnection. “I find Malaysians with a basic degree in one field and a postgrad degree in a field that doesn’t lend career value,” says Dr Md Zabid. “It appears no one has counselled them. We keep hearing that Malaysians with a basic degree in shariah have poor career prospects but send them for an MBA and they will become very valuable to the Islamic finance and banking sector.”
Altogether, it would seem that Malaysia needs a major mindset change. “My big concern is that we are viewed as a country that does not create value for postgrads,” says Dr Md Zabid. “Thailand has a better reputation. India, even more so. Institutions like the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad and the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad have changed the landscape for Asian postgrad education in business.”
Still, all of this is meaningful only when the local industry appreciates the role of a postgraduate education and is willing to invest in it. “I’m tired of hearing the industry saying that once they’ve educated an employee, that employee will run off to the competitor,” says Dr Md Zabid. “Surely that can be managed. In Malaysia we have many businessmen who know how to do business well but won’t do R&D. They buy expensive houses (worth millions of RM) but won’t invest in product quality or development. Sometimes, even their products get banned in later years. It frustrates me that there are many luxury cars on the road but businessmen are not willing to invest in postgrad education. We have to ask ourselves if we believe in our own people.”
Few industry players have significant research and development (R&D) centres – it’s one of the reasons postgrads are not of great value to the private sector and typically find better prospects in the public sector. “This means the government has a role to play, to give incentives for private R&D,” says Dr Md Zabid. “Right now, some rely on government R&D.”
At the end of the day, what everyone wants is a well-rounded graduate. And what exactly might that be? “One who has critical and analytical thinking with communication skills and who is really useful in the industry,” concludes Dr Md Zabid.