UK-Malaysia relations in focus: TNE, TVET & Trade

Published 28/03/2024

The UK and Malaysia are “well-placed” to tackle respective challenges together and areas such as TNE, TVET, as well as alumni relations as key areas of collaboration, the UK high commissioner to Malaysia has told The PIE in an exclusive interview.

Ailsa Terry, appointed to the role in in August 2023, sat down to explain priority areas for collaboration between the UK and Malaysia, as well as the wider ASEAN region, and where future opportunities lie.

When The PIE meets Terry, she is fresh off the stage from giving a speech to colleagues gathered at a UK-Malaysia higher education roundtable as part of British Council’s East Asia Education Week held in Kuala Lumpur.

Seven months into the role, she has spent much of that time visiting stakeholders and partners in almost every state in Malaysia. Despite English being widely spoken in Malaysia, it seems important to Terry to converse with colleagues in the local language, and she spent nine months before the role getting acquainted with Bahasa Malaysia and undertaking various language exams.

Terry speaks fondly of her initial few months in the position – from being pleasantly surprised by the taste of Durian to playing Congkak with the Queen of Malaysia.


Education is a priority area in Terry’s role, working not only to promote UK education in Malaysia, but to promote collaboration between the countries’ universities.

With much success in this area relying on government frameworks, Terry works to facilitate ministerial relationships, through various structures such as the UK Malaysia Joint Committee Education Working Group.

“The UK and Malaysia both strongly believe that education is the foundation for success”

“I think the UK and Malaysia both strongly believe that education is the foundation for success in terms of economic growth, wellbeing, social inclusion. You can’t really do any of these things without the right education,” she says.

Navigating the political landscape of both Malaysia and the UK can be tricky, she admits, but the priorities of both are “very well aligned” in many ways, and the countries are well-placed to tackle many of their respective challenges together.

Technical and vocational education and training is also a shared challenge. It’s a developing area that is expected to be somewhat of a game changer in how Malaysia produces skilled talent. That’s why the UK is keen to do more to tailor its offer to support the Malaysian governments plans and economic ambitions, Terry tells The PIE.

One way is through a recent UK-ASEAN skills mission in January 2024, a follow-up to a series of bilateral engagement in the education and TVET sector. This includes a successful conclusion of the UK’s five-year Skills for Prosperity Programme promoting TVET, social inclusivity and gender equality in the Malaysian workforce.

But it’s not just government that has a say. Keeping an ear to the ground when it comes to what demand is from Malaysians is key, explains Terry.

When it comes to TNE opportunities, the Malaysian government is fairly focused on STEM, as is the UK government, with good reason. But Terry insists that students must be awarded flexibility in the types of courses being offered in a UK education at home in Malaysia.

Another interesting “crosscurrent” Terry has noticed is the increasing demand for online delivery post-pandemic, coupled with large cohorts of students seeking more face-to-face interactions.

“We’ve got to be quite agile in meeting both of those requirements,” she tells The PIE.

And with demand for more variety in course length, Terry’s team is working to encourage UK universities to offer more shorter, bite-size courses in both countries.

“Some of them are doing it already, but I think it’s probably going to be the key to success in the years ahead in Malaysia is to be more flexible in how we can offer those qualifications.”

Opportunities for the future

When it comes to Malaysian students seeking an education abroad in the UK, Terry is keen to remind colleagues that post-study work rights are an important part of the UK’s offer.

“It’s also what our competitors are offering now. If we were to lose that, it would have a negative impact,” says Terry when asked about the Migration Advisory Committee’s eagerly awaited review into the UK’s Graduate Route.

One significant opportunity for UK-Malaysia relations will be the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, set to remove tariffs across various sectors, giving the UK a free trade agreement with Malaysia for the first time, highlighted Terry.

Pending ratification, the agreement will come into force in the final quarter of 2024.

“I do think that will have a positive impact on the education sector. I certainly hope it will in terms of increasing overall trade and investment and encouraging more of that interaction.”

Meanwhile, Malaysia has begun preparations for its role as 2025 ASEAN presidency.

The UK has been dialogue partner to the ASEAN presidency since 2021 and thanks to the “uniquely close” relationship between the UK and Malaysia, Terry hopes this will provide further opportunities.

Elsewhere, in collaboration with British Council, Terry is increasingly seeing the value of tuning in to the “untapped network” that is alumni.

The British Council recently launched its UK Alumni Network which Terry expects to see huge value in when it comes to making the most of the talented students that have experienced a UK education, as well as more events focused on UK Women Alumni, in collaboration with external stakeholders and British Council.

The importance of educational ties for solving tomorrow’s issues

All of this work has a broader significance, notes Terry.

“We are in an incredibly challenging context, the most challenging that I can remember since starting my career,” she says, noting the increasing use of phrases such as ‘permacrisis’ in her conversations with colleagues, particularly back home in the UK.

“To tackle all of that really will take all of our diversity and all of our skills. Especially when you think about the climate crisis, we have to, as humanity, really use of all our skills and our best minds to tackle that challenge and education is so relevant there.”

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