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A Glance At The Malaysian Education System

by on March 16, 2015 | Higher Education in Malaysia, The National Education System

Introduction to the Malaysian Education Structure

Children in Malaysia begin their education as early as at the age of four at pre-schools although this is not compulsory. Primary education starts when the child reaches the age of six on the first day of January of the current school year. Presently, only the six years of primary education is compulsory while the five years of secondary education will be made compulsory by 2015. The government provides free education for six years at primary level and five years at secondary level. At the end of this secondary education, students sit for the public common examination, Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM).

Students who want to pursue higher education after the secondary level need to have the required academic grades and be able to fund their education. School leavers with SPM qualifications can opt to obtain a pre-university qualification (such as the sixth form, matriculation programmes and GCE 'A' levels) or study for a certificate or diploma at higher educational institutions. The time needed to complete a pre-university programme depends on the type of programme - students usually take a year to complete a matriculation programme or STAM and one-and-a-half to two years for STPM and A-levels.

At higher education phase, study opportunities include certificate, diploma, undergraduate, as well as postgraduate studies. Undergraduate studies consist of bachelor degrees and professional qualifications while postgraduate studies offer master degrees and PhDs. Generally, higher education at the diploma level is for school leavers with a secondary school certificate such as SPM (usually age 17 onwards) while bachelor degrees require post-secondary qualifications such as STPM or GCE A Levels or other equivalent pre-university qualifications (usually age 19 onwards).

Malaysia welcomes international students for all levels of education. Since the mid 1990s, international students have been coming to Malaysia to pursue their tertiary education at Malaysia's higher educational institutions. Today, Malaysia is ranked the 11th most popular destination in the world for international education at tertiary level.

Education Governing Authorities

Generally, the Malaysian education structure can be divided into pre-tertiary and tertiary education levels. Previously, there were two governing authorities in education: the pre-tertiary education sector (from pre-school to secondary education and teacher education) was placed under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education (MOE), while the higher education sector came under the Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE). In May 2013, the two ministries were merged as one entity and named the Ministry of Education Malaysia (or Kementerian Pendidikan Malaysia in Malay).

Organisational Structure of the Ministry of Education

The pre-tertiary phase of MOE comprises the following:

  • The Policy and Educational Development Sector
  • The Education Operations Sector
  • The Teacher Professional Development Sector
  • The Education Development Sector
  • The Education Management Sector
  • Matriculation Division
  • State Education Departments
  • Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka
  • Malaysian Examination Council

The higher education phase comprises the following departments and sectors:

  • The Department of Higher Education
    • Public Higher Education Management Sector
    • Private Higher Education Management Sector
  • The Department of Polytechnics Education
  • The Department of Community College Education
  • The Higher Education Management Sector
  • The Higher Education Development Sector
  • Malaysian Qualifications Agency
  • National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN)
  • National Professor Council
  • Higher Education Leadership Academy

Levels of Education

Similar to many developed country in the world, Malaysia adopts a system of 6+5+2 years of formal education. The following section provides details of the various levels of the national education system.

Levels of Education
Pre-school and kindergarten education for children age 4 to 6
Primary education from age 6+ to 11+ (Standard 1 to 6 for six years)
Secondary education from age 12+ to 16+ (Form 1 to 5 for five years)
  • Lower secondary from age 12+ to 14+ (Form 1 to 3)
  • Upper secondary from age 15+ to 16+ (Form 4 to 5) with the option to choose either
    • academic secondary education; or
    • technical secondary education; or
    • vocational education; or
    • religious secondary education

Post-secondary education or pre-university from age 17+ (for one to two years)

  • Form 6, STPM (for one-and-a-half years); or
  • Matriculation certificate (for one year); or
  • STAM (for one year)

Higher Education

  • Certificate and diploma education from age 17+ onwards
  • Teacher education at Teacher Training Institutes from age 17+ onwards
  • Bachelor's degree from age 18+ or 19+ (for three to five years)
  • Postgraduate studies [master's degree or PhD studies after acquiring a bachelor's degree] (for one to five years)

Categories of Educational Institutions

The Malaysian education system has been shaped to reflect the needs and identity of a multicultural society. There are at least eight broad categories of educational institutions (which include both government or public-funded institutions and private institutions) to meet the needs of its people and the international community.

At Pre-tertiary Level

There are six categories of schools:

Categories of Schools
  • Government and private sector kindergartens (that follow the national pre-school curriculum)
  • Government schools or public funded national schools (that follow the Malaysian national curriculum and national examination)
  • Government-aided schools or national-type primary schools (that follow the Malaysian national curriculum and national examination), which include:
    • Chinese national-type primary schools (where the medium of instruction is Chinese)
    • Tamil national-type primary schools (where the medium of instruction is Tamil)
  • Private-funded schools (that follow the Malaysian national curriculum and national examination)
  • Independent Chinese secondary schools (that teach a 6-year curriculum developed by Dong Jiao Zong and prepare students for a standardised examination known as the United Examination Certificate at the end of Year 6 of secondary school; the medium of instruction is Chinese)
  • Foreign system schools such as international schools and expatriate schools.
Note: There are numerous foreign system schools in Malaysia that use foreign curricula as its medium of instruction. International schools follow an international curriculum and use English as its medium of instruction while expatriate schools follow the national education system of other countries and use their respective national language as the medium of instruction)

At Higher Education Level

There are two categories of higher education institutions:

  • Government-funded public universities, polytechnics, community colleges and public colleges
  • Private higher educational institutions (i.e. institutions not funded by the government) which include:
    • non-university status institutions such as private colleges
    • university status institutions such as private universities and university colleges
    • foreign university branch campuses e.g. Monash University Malaysia and The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus (English is the medium of instruction at most private higher educational institutions.)

Education Legislations

The legal regulatory frameworks that govern the provision of education in Malaysia include :

  • The Education Act 1996
  • The Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996
  • The National Council on Higher Education Institution Act 1996
  • The Malaysian Qualifications Agency Act 2007 (replacing the previous Act namely, the National Accreditation Act Board 1996 which has been repealed)
  • The Universities and University Colleges (Amendment) Act 1996
  • The National Higher Education Fund Corporation Act 1997
  • The MARA Institute of Technology (Amendment) Act 2000
  • The National Higher Education Fund Corporation (Amendment) Act 2000
  • The Private Higher Educational Institutions (Amendment) Act 2009

The Education Act 1996 covers pre-tertiary levels of education under the national education system which comprises preschool, primary, and secondary education as well as post-secondary education. The other six acts regulate the provision of higher education in Malaysia. The Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 2009 is currently under review for amendment.

Funding For Higher Education

Students studying at public universities need to pay tuition fees. However, the fees are highly subsidised by the government. Students at private institutions pay full fees.

There are many types of financial aid available for Malaysian students who pursue their higher education in the country. These include scholarships and study loans from public and private sectors. The main providers of financial aid from the government include:

The private sector and non-government organisations also provide funding in the form of scholarships, grants or study loans. Fee waiver schemes are offered by many private higher educational institutions and many study loan schemes are offered by various organisations.

Various scholarship schemes are made available to international students through:

  • The Malaysian government on G-G arrangement
  • The Ministry of Education Malaysia (Scholarship Division)
  • Government-linked companies
  • Higher educational institutions
  • Other commercial organisations

For more information on scholarships and financial aid, click here.

Medium of Instruction

At Primary Level (Public Schools)

The medium of instruction at primary schools varies according to the categories of schools.There are two categories of public-funded primary schools, namely :

  • National schools
  • National-type schools (Chinese/Tamil)

The medium of instruction in national schools is Bahasa Malaysia (the national language) with English as a compulsory subject (taught as second language) while the medium of instruction in national-type primary schools or the vernacular schools is either Chinese or Tamil with both Bahasa Malaysia and English taught as compulsory subjects. In 2003, the medium of instruction for Science and Mathematics in all primary schools was changed to English. However, since 2012, the teaching of Mathematics and Science has been reverted to Bahasa Malaysia in national schools; and Chinese and Tamil in vernacular schools.

At Secondary Level (Public Schools)

The medium of instruction in secondary schools is Bahasa Malaysia while English is taught as a second language in all schools. These two subjects are core subjects and compulsory for all students. Chinese, Tamil and Arabic (communication) are offered as additional subjects. Foreign languages such as French and other indigenous languages are also taught.

Note: The foreign system schools established in Malaysia use their own national language as the medium of instruction. International schools follow an international curriculum and use English as its medium of instruction while expatriate schools follow the national educational system of their respective countries and use their national language as the medium of instruction.

At Higher Education Level

English is used as the primary medium of instruction at most private higher educational institutions. However, most bachelor degree courses offered at public universities are taught in the national language, that is, Bahasa Malaysia, while postgraduate studies are usually conducted in English.

Academic Qualifications

Academic Qualifications at Pre-Tertiary Level

Examinations and Qualifications

The Examination Syndicate or Lembaga Peperiksaan (LP) conducts several national examinations. At the end of the six years of primary schooling, pupils are required to sit for a common public examination called the Primary School Achievement Test / Ujian Penilaian Sekolah Rendah (PSAT / UPSR). The subjects tested in UPSR include Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mathematics, and Science. Students at national-type primary schools also sit for Mandarin or Tamil.

Prior to 2014, students sit for a public examination called Penilaian Menengah Rendah (PMR) or the Lower Secondary Assessment (LSA) at the end of the third year at the lower secondary level (Form 3). Subjects tested include Bahasa Malaysia, English, Mathematics, Science, Geography, History, Living Skills, Islamic Education (for Muslim students), and Moral Education (for non-Muslim students). A number of optional subjects are also available for examination, such as Mandarin, Tamil, and Arabic. Beginning 2014, the government has decided to do away with the PMR as a public examination and it will be replaced with a school-based assessment and PT3 system.

After two years of upper secondary education, students sit for the public common examination Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia, SPM (also known as the Malaysian Certificate of Education). The SPM is the national examination taken by all Form 5 students and is equivalent to the IGSCE or O level. Compulsory subjects include Bahasa Malaysia, English, Islamic Education (for Muslim students), Moral Studies (for non-Muslim students), History, Mathematics, and Science. Elective subjects are also offered across the fields of arts and health, information and communication technology, languages and literature, technical and vocational studies, science and mathematics, social sciences and religion.

Along with Bahasa Malaysia, History will be a must-pass subject in SPM examination from 2013. English will be made a compulsory pass subject beginning 2016. Candidates who fail any of these subjects will not receive a full SPM certificate.

In addition, the Ministry of Education offers two types of free post-secondary programmes or pre-university courses for students with SPM qualifications:

  • The Sixth Form (lower and upper form for one-and–a-half years) that prepares students for the common public examination Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM)* which is equivalent to GCE A levels qualification, or Sijil Tinggi Agama Malaysia (STAM).
  • Matriculation (for one year) conducted by matriculation colleges under the Ministry of Education which award successful candidates with the matriculation certificate.

Note*: In 2012, the Ministry of Education introduced a modular system to assess the Sijil Tinggi Persekolahan Malaysia (STPM) examinations. The system is based on three semesters (for a duration of 1.5 years) where students are evaluated at the end of each one. The assessment also includes coursework and school-based projects. The content of the STPM syllabus will remain the same.

Academic Qualifications at the Higher Education Level

The qualifications awarded by all higher educational institutions in Malaysia registered under laws related to Malaysian education are governed by the Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF). The Malaysian Qualifications Act 2007 provides for the establishment of the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) whose main role is to implement MQF.

The framework specifies that a programme is required to achieve the following minimum credits before an academic qualification can be awarded by the approved higher educational institutions, e.g. certificate (60 credits), diploma (90 credits), bachelor degree (120 credits), and taught master degree (40 credits). Master and doctoral degrees obtained by research do not have credit values.

The various levels of higher education qualifications based on MQF can be defined as follows:

Malaysian Higher Education Qualifications, Education Levels and Minimum Number of Credits
Education Levels Higher Education Qualification Minimum Credit Required for the Award of Qualification
8 Doctoral No given Credit Value
7 Research master degree No given Credit value
Fully or partly
taught master degree
Postgraduate diploma 30
Postgraduate certificate 20
6 Bachelor degree 120
Graduate diploma 60
Graduate certificate 30
5 Advanced diploma 40
4 Diploma 90
3 Certificate 60
1-3 Skills certificate According to the skill and levels
Source: MQA

Providers of Higher Education

Both public and private education providers play equally important roles in the provision of higher education to both Malaysian and international students. Together, the public and private sectors provide abundant study options. Higher educational institutions offer programmes that lead to the award of certificates, diplomas as well as postgraduate qualifications.

Higher education providers in Malaysia can be grouped into two major categories:

  • Public higher educational institutions (government funded), which consist of:
    • public universities
    • polytechnics
    • community colleges
  • Private higher educational institutions, which consist of:
    • private universities and university colleges
    • foreign university branch campuses
    • private colleges

Public Higher Educational Institutions

Public universities offer mainly bachelor degrees and postgraduate programmes, with some offering programmes at diploma level. Polytechnics and community colleges offer certificate and diploma level programmes.

Public Universities, Polytechnics and Community Colleges in Malaysia

A. 20 Public Universities

  1. Universiti Malaya (UM) established on 1-1-1962
  2. Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) established in 1969
  3. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) established on 18-5-1970
  4. Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) established on 4-10-1971
  5. Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) established on 1-4-1975
  6. Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) established on 26-8-1999
  7. Universiti Islam Antarabangsa Malaysia (UIAM) established on 10-5-1983
  8. Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM) established on 16-2-1984
  9. Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) established on 24-12-1992
  10. Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) established on 24-11-1994
  11. Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris (UPSI) established on 24-2-1997
  12. Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM) established on 13-3-1998
  13. Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) established on 15-7-1999
  14. Universiti Tun Hussein Onn Malaysia (UTHM) established on 30-9-2000
  15. Universiti Teknikal Malaysia Melaka (UTeM) established on 1-12-2000
  16. Universiti Malaysia Pahang (UMP) established on 16-2-2002
  17. Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UniMAP) established on 2-5-2002
  18. Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin (UniSZA) established on 1-1-2006
  19. Universiti Malaysia Kelantan (UMK) established on 14-6-2006
  20. Universiti Pertahanan Nasional Malaysia, (UPNM) established on 10-11-2006

Note: Public universities can be divided into five research, three broad-based and 12 specialised universities. The five public universities that have been designated as research universities are Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) and Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM). USM has also been awarded Apex university status.

B. Polytechnics and Community Colleges

  • 30 polytechnics
  • 72 community colleges

C. Teacher Education Institutes

  • 27 Malaysian Institutes of Teacher Education

Private Higher Educational Institutions

Privately funded higher educational institutions comprise:

  • Private universities, which award their own qualifications at degree, diploma and foundation levels as well as 3+0 foreign university degrees and split-degree qualifications
  • University-colleges, which award their own qualifications at degree, diploma and foundation levels as well as 3+0 foreign university degrees and split-degrees qualifications
  • Foreign university branch campuses, which award their own degree, diploma and foundation studies qualifications
  • Private colleges, which award their own qualifications at diploma and certificate levels, foundation studies as well as 3+0 foreign university degrees, split degrees and tutorial support for professional qualifications

General Entry Requirements

For international and private schools, the general entry requirement for primary and secondary education levels involves interviews and entry assessments.

The general requirements for the various levels of programmes offered by private higher educational institutions are as follows:

General Entry Requirements for Pre-University / Diploma / Degree Programmes at PHEIs
Education Level General Entry Requirement
Pre-university studies SPM/IGCSE or O level with 5 credits, or its equivalent
Certificate level SPM/IGCSE or O level with 1 credit, or its equivalent
Diploma level SPM/I GCSE or O level with 3 credits, or its equivalent
Year 1 bachelor degree GCE A levels + English proficiency or its equivalent

Undergraduate courses offered by public universities are for Malaysians but the government has allocated 5% of places for international students to pursue non critical programmes.

General Entry Requirements for Bachelor's Degree Programmes at Public Universities
Education Level General Entry Requirement
Year 1 bachelor degree STPM (equivalent to GCE A levels) +English proficiency (MUET or its equivalent)

Applying to Study in Malaysia

Here is some useful information for students applying to study in Malaysia.

Applying to Higher Educational Institutions

  • For courses at public universities - bachelor degree (full-time mode) and postgraduate programmes - international students have to apply directly to the university of their choice.
  • For courses at private higher educational institutions e.g. pre-university studies, diploma, bachelor degree and postgraduate studies, students have to apply directly to the institution of their choice, which must have the approval of the Ministry of Home Affairs Malaysia to enrol international students.

National Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education – MQA

The national quality assurance agency of Malaysia is known as the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) which was established on 1 November 2007 under the Malaysian Qualifications Agency Act 2007. Its key function is to ensure that all programmes and qualifications offered by higher education providers meet the minimum standard set out by MQA.

MQA is entrusted with implementing the national framework known as the Malaysian Qualifications Framework (MQF), to accredit higher educational programmes and qualifications, supervise and regulate the quality and standard of higher education providers, establish and maintain the Malaysian Qualifications Register, and provide for related matters.

The implementation of MQF means that there will be a unified system to interlink all the qualifications awarded in Malaysia (which includes higher education qualifications and Malaysian Skills Certificates - SKM Level 1 to 5) and serve as a reference point for all Malaysian national qualifications.

MQF is an instrument that develops and classifies qualifications based on a set of criteria that has been approved nationally and is at par with international good practices at the level of learning attained by the learners. This includes learning outcomes achieved and a credit system which is based on the learner's academic load. All the qualifications in the framework are based upon four classifications, which are: (1) learning outcomes; (2) credit; (3) objectives; and (4) field of study.

MQF consists of eight levels of qualifications in four sectors of education. The four sectors of education are the:

  • skills sector
  • vocational and technical sector
  • life-long learning sector and
  • higher education (university) sector

The eight levels of higher education qualifications are:

Levels of Higher Education Qualifications
Levels 1 to 3 These are the levels for skills certificates awarded by the skills sector; vocational and technical certificates awarded by the Vocational & Technical Sector; and certificates (Level 3) awarded by the Higher Education sector.
Levels 4 and 5 These levels are for diplomas and advanced diplomas (general degree) awarded by the Technical and Vocational Sector, Skills Sector and Higher Education Sector.
Level 6 to 8 Level 6 is for the first tertiary qualification, i.e. bachelor's degree with honours while Level 7 is for master degrees and Level 8 for PhD / doctoral degrees. Under the lifelong learning category, there are graduate certificates and diplomas and postgraduate certificates and diplomas.

Rating of HEI

Currently there are two official rating systems for higher education institutions introduced by MOE:

  • For private colleges : MOE launched a rating system for private colleges in 2011, aptly known as the Malaysia Quality Evaluation System (MYQUEST) which is carried out by the Department of Higher Education, MOE.
  • For public and private universities as well as university colleges in Malaysia, the Rating System for Higher Education Institutions (SETARA) is carried out by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA). For more information, please refer to and


Education plays an important role for Malaysia in building a resilient nation, encouraging the creation of a just society, and maintaining sustainable economic growth. It is also through education that a country can develop global competitiveness, build a K-economy, and maintain sustainable environmental development.

Under the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025, the education system will focus on making changes to structural elements that are in line with international best practices of high- performing education systems. In preparing students for the demands of the future, structural adjustments across each phase of education will be made and resources maximised to provide the very best to Malaysians of all levels.

To realise the aim of becoming a centre of educational excellence, the government has allocated more than 20% of the national budget for education and training. Among the nation's goals are to: ensure that 40% of the 17-24 years age group will have tertiary education; provide primary school education for all children; ensure that 60% of public university lecturers possess PhD qualifications; and have 150,000 international students studying at higher educational institutions by 2015. Currently, Malaysia is already a popular destination for international students with a world ranking of 11th place in terms of the enrolment of international students.


  • Study in Malaysia Handbook (8th International Education)
  • Education Guide Malaysia (13th Edition)
  • Malaysian Education Statistics, 2013, MOE
Study in Malaysia Handbook 9th Ed.Source: Study in Malaysia Handbook 9th Ed. - Chapter 1

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