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MALAYSIA needs to up its higher education game to attract more international students as inflation looms over foreign student arrivals.

One way to do this is for higher education institutions (HEIs) to carry out digital transformation as a key strategy for business recovery and sustainable growth beyond the crisis, Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities (Mapcu) president Datuk Parmjit Singh offered.

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Beyond ensuring operational sustainability, HEIs are motivated by the opportunity to transform teaching, learning and assessment by leveraging technology, he told StarEdu.

Growing student interest has led HEIs, he said, to introduce more online versions of selected programmes as permanent offerings within the limits prescribed by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA).

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Varsities, he added, are also actively using methods to enhance the use of analytics, particularly in marketing and in measuring student satisfaction.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced HEIs to move away from conventional promotional and enrolment approaches and to reinvent themselves and become highly innovative in their student recruitment strategies, he noted.

Parmjit: Universities have been selectively introducing online versions of some existing programmes as permanent offerings due to growing interest among students.Parmjit: Universities have been selectively introducing online versions of some existing programmes as permanent offerings due to growing interest among students.

“The use of digital and social media marketing, online engagement including virtual open days, virtual counselling and regular virtual engagement sessions with students and recruitment partners were effective in enabling HEIs to continue to secure international student enrolments even while borders were shut,” he shared.

Parmjit, who is also Asia Pacific University of Technology & Innovation (APU) chief executive officer, said there has been an increase in student interest in digital and technology-related programmes between 2019 and 2022.

Reaching out

Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) chief executive officer Mohd Radzlan Jalaludin said the body has been constantly updating itself and its marketing methods to attract international students.

EMGS, under the purview of the Higher Education Ministry, has a technology strategy in place and it is part of the reason Malaysia continues to see more students enrolling in HEIs here, he added.

Among its ongoing initiatives to improve the overall student experience of studying here are the “Discover Education Malaysia” portal meant to assist both international and local students and their parents in selecting the most suitable course and HEI; the up-to-date Student Application and Registration System (STARS) and the Multinational Academic Recognition System (MARS).

EMGS has also been digitising the visa application process for international students to enter and study in Malaysia via the eVisa system, said Mohd Radzlan.

Digital efforts aside, there are many other factors that serve to attract international students to Malaysia, he added.

“Malaysia has so much to offer as a progressive and modern country with a vibrant community and friendly people of diverse backgrounds.

“English is also widely spoken. We have many world-class education providers that are listed in top global rankings yet it is so affordable to study here,” he said, sharing how these factors have contributed to rising international student enrolment numbers this year – particularly for the Masters and PhD courses (see graph) – compared to previous years.

Mohd Radzlan: EMGS has a technology strategy in place and it is part of the reason Malaysia continues to see more students enrolling in its higher learning institutions.Mohd Radzlan: EMGS has a technology strategy in place and it is part of the reason Malaysia continues to see more students enrolling in its higher learning institutions.

Mohd Radzlan said that the number of applications for Masters courses showed nearly a 50% increase while PhD programmes saw an increase of almost 13% compared to the same period in 2021.

The latest figures show that international students continue to see Malaysia as a choice location for high quality overseas study, he said.

The government is also working on attracting more students to our shores, said Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Dr Noraini Ahmad.

She said the ministry has been in discussions with various bodies, including the Immigration Department, Home Ministry and the National Security Council (MKN).

“These discussions are intended to facilitate the admission of international students in accordance with our Standard Operating Procedure (SOP).

“The SOP for the admission of international students to Malaysia was completed in October last year and it is constantly being updated, taking into account the latest regulations and instructions from the government,” she told Parliament in March.

More recently, she said that although there was a slight dip in international application numbers due to the pandemic, there was a positive increase of 32% in 2021.

Kuala Lumpur was ranked the second in the 2018 and 2019 editions of the QS Top Universities ‘Most Affordable City for Students’,” she said in June. The city received another boost when it was ranked 28th in the world and sixth in Asia in the recent QS Best Student Cities Ranking 2023.

Retaining students

While Malaysia strives to be a regional education hub for international students, the “push factors” that are causing our youths to opt for an overseas education must be studied and addressed at the national level, Parmjit said.

“Despite the rising costs of studying overseas and the weak ringgit, students who have a strong desire to study abroad and who have the means to do so will still go overseas no matter what is done to try to retain them.

“Higher costs may not affect them as students going abroad traditionally come from the top income bracket.

“However, other factors such as concerns for health and safety in overseas travel may have resulted in some students deciding to remain in the country and at least start their educational journeys with local private universities.

“If we can identify the reasons why they want to leave, we can retain more students and boost our higher education sector.

”Getting an international education locally

Branch campuses of foreign varsities are seeing more students opting to study in Malaysia

"Demand from international students is improving based on the volume of enquiries from direct and indirect channels. Both international and local students looked forward to returning to campus to attend face-to-face teaching, which commenced in June. This is also increasingly important to enhance the student experience with opportunities to capitalise on a vibrant campus environment with many student-focused activities offered at the University of Nottingham Malaysia (UNM). Our partners who send students abroad have shared that demand is increasing to the 2019 figures. We continue to focus on what matters to students, which is to ensure a high quality of teaching and learning, providing them with opportunities for self-development outside the classroom through our range of clubs and societies, and ensuring they have a wonderful residential experience on our 125-acre campus. Equally important is making sure that our graduates continue to be highly employable. We offer a rich student experience. There are many opportunities for students to participate in competitions and sports-related activities, including events which have international collaboration through our campuses in the United Kingdom and China, as well as partner universities. Furthermore, students have mobility opportunities within our network of Universitas21 partner universities and the University of Nottingham in the UK and China."

UNM director of student recruitment and marketing Jagdish Singh Malhi

"Before the pandemic, Monash had already embraced the use of educational technologies. Our students and staff were already digitally skilled. This placed us in a better position to pivot to online learning and teaching due to the lockdowns. Many institutions saw the impact on their student numbers as did we. However, at Monash, the impact on student numbers was not as dramatic and we believe being ahead of the game with the use of technologies in learning and teaching played a significant role in this. We do expect our student intake to grow in accordance with our yearly target projections. The cost of living and studying in Malaysia is more affordable than studying in other universities in western countries. Malaysia is well located for students from other South-East Asian regions to be able to travel back and forth to their homes without long distances. So students can study and get an internationally ranked degree from a global university while remaining in the region. Monash University Malaysia offers a culturally rich environment. The experiences here provide students with opportunities to develop a global outlook, which is very much sought after by employers, especially multinational companies. We focus on providing students with a variety of learning and teaching experiences, including practice-based, collaborative, inter-disciplinary and workplace learning."

Monash University Malaysia vice president (Education) Prof Beverley Webster

"Heriot-Watt University has a history of 200 years with campuses in the UK, Dubai and Malaysia. Our curriculum is the same wherever you study. We offer a flexible campus transfer programme through our Go Global programme, which allows students to move to other campuses seamlessly to continue their studies, as long as their programmes of study are offered at their campuses of choice. Through proper planning, you can gain significant savings and even transfer back to Malaysia if you don’t want to be abroad anymore. While parents would love to support their children in studying overseas, they are acutely alert to rising costs and the unfavourable currency exchange when it comes to the ringgit. I encourage parents to plan carefully, explore transfer abroad options and take advantage of foreign branch campuses to keep their children’s dreams of studying abroad open. Starting at our UK branch campus in Malaysia for a year could bring significant savings of about RM150,000 in tuition fees and living costs. So if you did two years in Malaysia, you would save at the very minimum RM300,000.''

Heriot-Watt University Malaysia (HWUM) provost and chief executive officer Prof Mushtak Al-Atabi

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