Changing international student mobility patterns an advantage

THE last decade has seen a dramatic increase across the globe in the number of students seeking an international study experience.

Indeed, the latest available statistics from UNESCO indicate that there were over 5.3 million international students in 2017, up from just 2 million in the year 2000 (UNESCO, 2019). More than half of them were enrolled in just six countries: the United States of America (USA), the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, France, Germany and the Russian Federation.

Not surprisingly, this large cross-border movement of students has prompted governments across the globe to develop their own study destinations, including the establishment of an international student hub within Malaysia.

Under the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education), Malaysia aims to attract 200,000 international students this year, with the number rising to 250,000 students by 2025.

This is projected to generate RM15.6bil this year in foreign currency. To date, there has been some success, with 127,583 international students last year studying within Malaysia, with their country of origin being mainly from Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, and Nigeria.

The Covid-19 situation, and the associated closure of borders across the globe, has however frustrated the prospect of achieving this year’s target.

There is the possibility of a silver lining for the growth of Malaysia’s international student market, once the immediate threat of the pandemic has passed and borders reopen.

Indeed, there is growing evidence to suggest that prospective international students are changing their travel plans in light of the global pandemic, and that this may work to Malaysia’s advantage.

A recent British Council study of some 8,500 prospective mainland Chinese students, where the USA has a dominant 35% market share, found that 22% were likely or very likely to cancel and a significant 39% are now undecided on their study abroad plans.

Given that the USA has been badly impacted by the pandemic, there is every possibility that Malaysia, as an affordable English speaking destination, could pick up market share from our modest 2% share in this market.

This perspective aligns with on-the-ground analysis from JM Education Group assistant general manager Abbie Lim who commented that: “In the context of the Covid-19 situation, parents everywhere are considering safety first and then affordability when selecting a study destination. USA and European destinations have taken a reputational hit in terms of safety and yet efforts to address affordability issues arising from the global economic downturn have not been impactful.”

Recent survey results released by a Dutch-based global study of 850 international students on their perceptions of Covid-19 broadly agree with these findings.

The sample included respondents from some of Malaysia’s other most significant international student markets: Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Forty percent indicated that they were changing their study plans.

There are indications in this study that a driver of changing study destination was a desire to secure more competitive tuition pricing, with 68% reporting that their parents’ savings would decrease because of the economic impacts of the pandemic.

As an affordable study destination, with an established reputation in these markets, Malaysia’s market position should strengthen.

This is particularly the case within Pakistan and Nigeria, where Malaysia shares market leadership with Australia, UK, and USA within an oligopolistic market structure.

As the economic situation makes these destinations less affordable, Malaysia should be strongly positioned to gain students given our established reputation as an educational hub in these emerging markets.

Given that recent QS research indicates that the average enrolment journey is 10 months, there is no time to waste.

There is a narrow window of opportunity for Malaysian institutions, both public and private, to collaborate in penetrating these markets and drive international student enrolments for 2021.

Fortunately, not only is the market opportunity there, but we have also never been better placed in terms of offering a credible alternative to the traditional education hubs of UK, USA, and Australia.

In addition to the public universities, there is a choice of foreign branch campuses of Australian, China, and UK universities located within Malaysia.

In addition, we have recently seen the emergence of hybrid institutions which is foreign-owned, affordable, and yet offers seamless transition to overseas study, with students enjoying significantly lower fees than foreign branch campuses.

Such hybrid institutions are more able to engage in knowledge transfer adapted to local conditions, producing graduates with a more international outlook.

While the global economic recession may see the overall number of international student numbers contract, now is the time to synergise public, private and government internationalisation activities to ensure that we are able to leverage this extraordinary moment to our market advantage, grow both market share and overall inbound student numbers.

If the Malaysian higher education sector is able to capitalise on our strengths this could make a significant contribution to the nation’s economic growth through the multiplier effect that each international student brings.


Deputy Vice Chancellor (Engagement),

UOW Malaysia KDU

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