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Experiencing Malaysia: New foreign students can now enter the country to pursue their studies and experience local culture. - File photo

SINCE Jan 1, our borders have been opened to new and existing foreign students – many of whom have been eagerly waiting to make their journey back to Malaysia to resume their studies on campus, be it virtually or face-to-face.

The entry of these students, especially new ones, has also been much anticipated to revive the higher education industry, especially the private sector which experienced an estimated 84.1% drop in foreign student enrolment and losses amounting to RM6.9bil last year, according to Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Dr Noraini Ahmad.

With foreign students allowed back subject to National Security Council, Immigration Department and National Disaster Management Agency guidelines, higher education providers are hoping that the sector can finally start to pick up again after campuses were left almost deserted by the pandemic.

Welcoming the students, Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) which will manage their entry, received some 30,000 new applications for courses in local higher education institutions from January to December last year.

“That’s not too bad considering the Covid-19 situation, ” its chief executive officer Mohd Radzlan Jalaludin told StarEdu.

He said EMGS was still targetting to achieve 250,000 students by 2025.

“The year of 2020 was full of hurdles and challenges for us. The pandemic had not only restricted our movements, but also our effort to reach our goals. Many people were affected globally.

“As for EMGS, we will strive harder to promote Malaysia as the preferred global education hub.

“It is time to revive the higher education industry and make our higher education institutions stand as tall as other top universities in the world, ” he said.

Urging higher education institutions to go all out to recruit more foreign students to further their education here, he said EMGS is committed to helping promote their courses globally.

While lauding the government’s decision to allow students back, the National Association of Private Educational Institutions, however, are not too optimistic that foreign students will take up the offer to return to Malaysia right now.

Its president Assoc Prof Elajsolan Mohan said the number of returning students is small.

“Even the larger institutions are only seeing a trickle of existing students come back.

“Existing students who were back in their own respective countries when Malaysia went into lockdown in March last year were allowed back (in September) last year.

“They have been coming back to Malaysia in stages over the past few months, based on the Covid-19 situation in their home country: the opening of borders and the availability of flights, ” he said.

According to the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu), newly registered foreign students have been allowed to enter Malaysia since Sept 11.

Mapcu president Datuk Dr Parmjit Singh had estimated that about 13,000 students from the private higher education institutions left Malaysia for their home countries last year. And as of four months ago, just over 1,000 of these students returned to Malaysia.

Earlier, EMGS had announced that new foreign students could register to come but entry to Malaysia would be on hold until further notice. Existing international students, however, can return.

Mohan said parents are fearful of sending their children to Malaysia “in view of the alarming number of daily Covid-19 cases.”

As a result, most private higher education institutions are not putting in any “extraordinary effort” to prepare for the students’ return, despite eagerly awaiting the government’s announcement.

“We are receiving fewer applications from foreign students compared to the pre-pandemic days.

“The new student applications are processed by EMGS and while the Immigration Department is not issuing any visa approval letters since Covid-19 hit last year, these students have been given letters of approval to study online.

“So they have been following lessons remotely in their home countries, ” he said, adding that parents prefer to have their children continue their studies online.

“We are only expecting the new students to come in at the end of February or early March because they need to complete various administrative processes including their visa application.

“However, we do not foresee an influx of new students because many who will be coming in for the first time will want to monitor the situation here before making any decision, ” he said.

Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Dr Noraini Ahmad said the decision for both new and existing students to return to campus was to allow them to participate in teaching and learning activities using a hybrid model.

It also gives them access to the necessary equipment and facilities to continue their studies effectively. This decision also allows those on internships or clinical training to resume their courses, she said in a statement.

She also stressed that the Higher Education Leadership Academy (Akept) and Malaysian Qualification Agency (MQA) must “spread its wings overseas” and come up with appropriate programmes to attract more international students.

“Akept as an expert in the development of higher education talent leadership needs to be more creative to promote the expertise it possesses to be recognised internationally.

“Similarly, MQA can highlight its Accreditation for Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) beyond national borders, ” she said on Jan 7.

She expressed hope that the move to allow foreign students back into the country will help increase revenue for the higher education sector.

“The global economic slowdown last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the sustainability of private higher learning institutes. I hope that 2021 and post-Covid-19 will be a turning point for these institutes.”

To prevent the spread of Covid-19, foreign students will be under quarantine at specified centres before being allowed back at their respective accommodation, on or off campus.

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