Overseas applications to Malaysian universities surge

Country should strive to be more than a student hub, says second-term minister

February 7, 2023
Best universities in Malaysia

International appetite for study in Malaysia has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, with the country exceeding a self-imposed target of 50,000 applications last year.

More than 51,000 foreigners registered for places in Malaysia’s universities and colleges in 2022, up from about 40,000 in 2021 and 30,000 in 2020.

Eighty-five per cent were interested in degree-level study and over 50 per cent in higher degrees, with international applications for PhDs almost doubling in two years while hunger for master’s level courses almost tripled.

Applications were shared almost equally between private and public universities, defying a long-term trend of private institutions attracting more than twice as many foreign students as their public counterparts. China easily dominated applications, accounting for 43 per cent of the total – up from 29 per cent in 2020.

Chinese applications have grown consistently during the pandemic, unlike those from Malaysia’s two other major markets for international education – Indonesia and Bangladesh – both of which tapered off in 2021 before recovering strongly in 2022. Applications from China more than doubled in 2021 and rose another 14 per cent in 2022, despite the country’s extended Covid lockdowns.

The figures from Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS), the government’s promotional arm for international education, align with other indicators that Chinese students are looking closer to home for educational opportunities since the coronavirus outbreak.

EMGS chief executive Mohd Radzlan bin Jalaludin said the figures constituted a “milestone” for Malaysia as it pushed towards its ambitious 2025 target of 250,000 foreign tertiary students, outlined in a 2015 higher education blueprint.

Wan Chang Da, an adjunct professor with the National Higher Education Research Institute at the University of Science Malaysia, was not surprised at the growth from China. He said that since 2019, Malaysian universities – public universities in particular – had relied extensively on agents to help reorient their international student recruitment strategies towards China.

Professor Wan said new higher education minister Mohamed Khaled Nordin, who was appointed to the role in December after previously holding the post between 2008 and 2013, had urged universities to diversify their international student intakes.

During a new year’s presentation at the University of Technology Malaysia, Mr Khaled also said Malaysia should strive to be more than a student hub and assert its credentials as a “centre of universal knowledge” to strengthen its higher education sector and attract more foreign skilled talent.

James Chin, professor of Asian studies at the University of Tasmania, said Malaysian universities were keen to build international student and staff numbers to enhance their reputation and rankings performance.

He said Chinese students were attracted to Malaysia by its relatively “lax” admission requirements. Indonesian students, on the other hand, were often academics “trying to upgrade their qualifications” in a higher education system they considered superior to their own.

Bangladesh, which overtook Indonesia last year in terms of study applications, had a “huge” population of around a million people living in Malaysia as foreign workers.

Professor Chin said Malaysia’s public universities dominated overseas postgraduate enrolments, so it was not surprising that the rebound had favoured public institutions. “The overwhelming majority of the international students in public universities will either be on fee waivers or very low fees,” he added.

He said PhD fees stood at about 30,000 Malaysian ringgit (£5,800) which was “remarkably cheap” by international standards.


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