‘Solve visa issues to attract students here’

MALAYSIA aims to be a talent hub for countries in the Global South but long-standing visa issues, unless addressed, could hamper the target of having 250,000 quality students making us a destination of choice.

Many systemic issues, particularly those involving international students, still plague the country’s higher education sector, said Vice Chancellor’s’ Council for Private Universities (VCCPU) chairman Prof Mushtak Al-Atabi.

Securing a visa and the challenges of opening bank accounts, working part-time to fund their studies and gaining employment upon graduation, are some of the problems that need to be addressed.

“Despite it being cheaper to study here, getting a student visa in Malaysia is even more difficult than in Australia or the United Kingdom, which is what makes us an unattractive destination for parents looking to send their children abroad,” he said at the VCCPU and Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) roundtable on June 6.

The event was held to discuss the country’s tertiary education landscape for international students.

While the visa application process for new students has improved, National Association of Private Educational Institutions (Napei) secretary-general Dr Teh Choon Jin said problems exist for postgraduate international students who want their dependents to accompany them here, he told StarEdu.

For example, Teh said, international students wanting to bring their families along can only do so after they have entered the country and secured a student pass endorsement on their passports.

This process, said Teh, takes about a month.

“Only then can the students apply for a social pass so that their families can enter Malaysia.

“Once they are here, the students will then have to apply for a dependent pass,” he said, adding that the process cannot be done while the dependents are still in their home countries.

Teh said a long list of documents also needs to be prepared and endorsed by the students’ respective embassies or high commissions.

“The delay in getting the dependent pass approval on time within the social visa validity period often results in the dependents having to leave the country as the social pass cannot be extended with a special pass,” he said, adding that international students must apply for a new student pass or visa when changing programmes or progressing from one level to another, such as from a diploma to a bachelor’s degree.

Teh said students who are progressing from a language centre to an institution of higher learning are required to leave the country to apply for a student pass or visa before they can re-enter Malaysia.

Similarly, students who are in the diploma programme but are transferring to a similar programme in another institution must leave the country to apply for a student pass or visa.

This requirement, he said, may cause inconvenience to students and should be reviewed.

The renewal process for student passes and visas is also too rigid; right now, students are not sure whether they can extend their visas if they decide to continue their studies, he said.

“Students also tell us that they fear being stopped by the authorities for not carrying their passports with them when they are outside their accommodation as they were told that they need to have the document with them at all times,” he said.

UCSI Group Strategic Office vice-president Sheikh Fahmy Sheikh Mohamed said students might end up looking elsewhere to study if they get frustrated with the long wait for the visa, which can take up to six months. “We must also be aware that more emerging nations are working hard to be education hubs in their own right,” he said, adding that countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are enhancing their educational offerings.

“Many famous universities have international branch campuses in these nations.

“And while Malaysian universities have done well in global rankings, universities in other emerging nations are also catching up,” he said.

EMGS chief executive officer Novie Tajuddin said the principal body that manages the movement of international students in Malaysia, including facilitating visa processing, has a charter to complete processing applications in 14 days.

Delays, he explained, could happen at the Immigration Department as incomplete documents cannot be processed.

“If documents are complete, normally there won’t be any issue,” he added.

To continue attracting international students, Malaysia needs to stay competitive, said Teh.

To achieve the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education) target of getting 250,000 international students here by 2025 and to make the country a hub of educational excellence, all stakeholders must be student-centric and empathetic to students, and should work hand in hand to facilitate the growth of international students in Malaysia, he said.

“Currently, there are no clear policies that allow international students to be eligible for post-study work visas upon completion of their studies here.

“We should allow international students to be granted post-study work visas for an initial two-year period, after which employers may decide to extend the employment of these graduates under work visas.

“The UK and Australia provide two years of post-study visa opportunities. Australian post-study work visas to international students are an automatic entitlement.

“This will make Malaysia a more attractive destination for students from emerging economies where a vast majority and rapidly growing number of international students originate from,” Teh added.

Prof Mushtak said certain conditions can be imposed on students before allowing them to work here similar to what is being done in the United States.

In the US, international students studying there may apply to the country’s Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) to work outside the campus on grounds of “severe economic hardship based on unforeseen circumstances”.

Eye on target

While our neighbouring countries are now attracting more international students, Novie believes Malaysia can still do the same.

“I think we still have the upper hand compared to Vietnam and Cambodia, especially based on the stats. Chinese students still choose to come to Malaysia compared to the others.”

In fact, the top three student nationalities in Malaysia are from China, Bangladesh and Indonesia, he said, adding that the EMGS received 6,776; 2,482; and 852 applications from those countries, respectively.

Overall, the number of applications to study in Malaysia is on the rise, from 10,453 in 2020 to 18,848 in 2023 (see infographics), with business administration courses having the most number of applications from international students.

EMGS has also targeted to attract more students from Africa and Asia, he added.

In May, Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Mohammad Yusof Apdal said the ministry was closely monitoring the intake of international students into local tertiary institutions through the EMGS.

There were currently seven incentives to attract more students from abroad to the country, including easing visa application and approval processes with the cooperation of the Home Ministry and the Immigration Department, he told the Dewan Rakyat.

Describing the target to have 250,000 international students on our shores by 2025 as “very ambitious”, Prof Mushtak said even at our peak in 2018, there were only about 131,000 international students here.

The number, he said, dropped to around 97,000 in 2021, possibly due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

During his New Year Message to ministry staff in January, Higher Education Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Khaled Nordin stressed the need to strengthen Malaysia’s role as the lynchpin that attracts students, researchers and talents from around the globe.

He announced that Kuala Lumpur would be made Malaysia’s capital for the country’s best talents, and Malaysia would evolve into a talent hub for countries in the Global South.

The Global Malaysia Outreach agenda would be revived so that the country can be a talent and knowledge hub and centre of universal knowledge. The focus on internationalisation, however, would not be on quantity, but on quality.

“I want the best students, not just the most students.

“The higher education sector is a fortress for Malaysia’s competitiveness, not a place for ego boosting.

“Although we had a head start, countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore, which were almost on par with us 30 years ago, are now way ahead of us,” he said.Out of the many countries I researched to move to for my higher studies, Malaysia always seemed like the right choice, mainly as it is known for its reputable and high-quality education that is recognised globally. If you like the idea of sharing your culture and learning about others’ backgrounds like I do, Malaysia is definitely the right place as it is a multicultural country rich in different ethnicities and religions. Lastly, I would like to add that universities in Malaysia offer affordable tuition fees, along with many scholarship programmes that elevate learning opportunities for all foreign students. Regarding my visa, I have not had any issues with it. Always remember to renew your student pass every year to continue with your studies.

– Shehan De Silva, Sri LankaMalaysia is my top study destination choice because it is closer to my home in Indonesia and it has a good reputation globally for education. At Sunway University, I get to make friends with people from different countries who are also searching for quality education overseas. I have learnt many languages and cultures from them so when I enter into the hospitality industry in the future, I would not be overwhelmed as I have already been prepared since university. Malaysia is also equipped with good transportation and the university here is also fitted with world-class facilities to assist in my lectures and practicals.

– Pauline Claudia Hutabarat, IndonesiaI chose to study in Malaysia because of its multicultural communities and also it being a predominantly Muslim country. The people here are also known to be very friendly, which has been a great help with my studies. While it has been good studying here for the past year, it was not easy for me to get my visa. I needed to prepare so many documents and in the end, the e-Visa Approval Letter was delayed because I did not submit all my documents fast enough.

– Ahmed Hamza, Pakistan

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