Malaysia to act as ‘stepping stone’ for Australia-bound students?

With Australia unlikely to allow foreign students in until next year, the possibility of them taking classes on Malaysian affiliate campuses is being explored

August 7, 2020
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Source: iStock

Foreign students unable to enter Australia could undergo extended transit in Malaysia under plans being developed by the University of Wollongong (UOW).  

International education executive Kath McCollim said that Wollongong was looking into whether its Malaysian campuses could serve as a “stepping stone” for overseas students “who may still have destination Australia in mind”.

“We are looking at…the opportunities to potentially start people’s education in Malaysia and [then] finish in Australia,” Ms McCollim told a webinar organised by the Asean Australia Education Dialogue.

The option may not be restricted to students enrolled at Wollongong if the university’s Malaysia operations prove “of value” to other Australian institutions. “Under these unprecedented circumstances [it is] ultimately about the needs of students,” Ms McCollim said.

Malaysia is reopening its borders to international students long before they can expect to gain admission to Australia. Yazrina Yahya, deputy director of the Higher Education Leadership Academy in Malaysia’s higher education ministry, said that foreign students were already able to enter her country – subject to immigration “processes” – and all higher education institutions were expected to be fully open by October.

Meanwhile, pilot plans to fly hundreds of students into Australia have been shelved after a resurgence of the coronavirus in Melbourne. Some university leaders doubt that their foreign students will be allowed back in to the country before early next year – and even then, only in small numbers.

Wollongong is one of four Australian universities with extensive operations in Malaysia. Ms McCollim, also executive director of business transformation with UOW’s Global Enterprises arm, said that the stepping-stone proposal would be discussed with other New South Wales-based institutions.

“It’s not a blanket solution but would suit some students,” she said. “Some would probably prefer to stay in their own countries and be online until the borders lift. Other students would see a benefit in being able to have the face-to-face experience.

“The challenge is going to be very clear communication around articulation arrangements, visa requirements [and] post-study work rights. But if we get it right it could be a great opportunity for a cohort of students that are really ready to engage.”

Bernadine Caruana, who recently concluded a posting as education and science counsellor at Australia’s High Commission in Malaysia, said that education providers must “use the assets at our disposal”. Branch campuses in Malaysia and elsewhere in Southeast Asia “allow flexibility”, she told the forum.

“The thing is to continue learning as much as possible and to try and reduce the number of days, weeks or months that students aren’t learning.”

But Andrew Walker, head of Monash University’s Malaysia campus, flagged “significant regulatory uncertainties” around the stepping-stone proposal. “The Malaysian government is currently only letting existing students enter, not new students, and we are seeing a trickle of students coming in,” he observed.

“We don’t yet know when they’re going to start opening up for new students, whether they’re going to allow us to host students from third-party universities – frankly, I think that’s a step too far.”

Professor Walker said that there were also questions over students’ preparedness to undergo quarantine to earn places on campuses where social distancing was still being enforced. Meanwhile, Malaysia was “quite rightly looking at Victoria” in assessing the risks of allowing foreigners in.

“This can turn on a dime,” he said. “Universities are wisely planning for all sorts of scenarios.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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