More Malaysians are studying locally instead of abroad, and for good reasons, say experts

AS the cost of studying abroad becomes increasingly prohibitive, more local students are considering completing their education within Malaysia.

However, this shift is not merely a compromise; experts say Malaysia has established itself as a promising contender in tertiary education, particularly by offering affordable yet high-quality programmes in the Asian region with its universities gaining recognition in global varsity rankings.

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In the latest Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings by Subject 2024 –released on April 10 – the country charted a 22% improvement rate. Among the country’s ranked programmes, 84 improved and 38 were ranked for the first time.

According to National Association of Private Educational Institutions (Napei) secretary-general Dr Teh Choon Jin, there has been a steady increase in the enrolment of local students in Malaysia in fields such as engineering, computer science, information technology (IT), accounting and finance.

“These fields align with the nation’s economic priority of becoming a high-technology hub, as outlined in initiatives like the New Industrial Master Plan 2030,” he told StarEdu, adding that sectors such as e-commerce, healthcare, biotechnology, tourism and hospitality are also gaining traction.

He also noted Malaysian universities’ emphasis on cultivating industry-relevant skills and practical experience, significantly boosting students’ job prospects upon graduation.

“Many local institutions integrate internship programmes into their syllabi, providing students with real-world work experience and facilitating a smooth transition into the workforce.

“While completing internships in local companies, Malaysian students can adapt to the Malaysian work culture, making their transition into the working world smoother upon graduation,” he said.


Amid the devaluation of the Malaysian ringgit, he said Malaysian students can find reassurance in the fact that choosing to pursue their education locally does not diminish their opportunities for personal and professional growth.

“The quality of education offered by Malaysian institutions is strong, meeting rigorous international standards and ensuring students are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to compete globally.

“Notably, these institutions hold accreditations, rankings and reputations that rival those of universities abroad,” he said.

Looking ahead, Teh said projections indicate continued growth in careers in technology, digitalisation and innovation over the next three years.

“The pervasive adoption of technology is reshaping the job landscape, leading to the emergence of new roles while rendering others obsolete.

“However, there is growing recognition of the value of distinctly human traits in the workforce. Thus, we anticipate growth in job roles emphasising skills such as interpersonal communication, empathy, creativity and problem-solving.

“These roles span diverse sectors, including customer service, sales and marketing, hospitality, culinary arts and healthcare,” he said.

STEAM-ing demand

Agreeing, University of Reading Malaysia provost and chief executive officer Prof Wing Lam said certain vital workplace skills such as cooperation, creativity and adaptability remain beyond the reach of computers.

This, he said, is where fields in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) are advantageous, and students who choose to pursue any of these disciplines locally see it too.

“Graduates who can combine their technical skills with collaborative, leadership, creative problem-solving and customer-facing skills will be highly sought after in the job market,” he said, adding that those with this ability are the ones that would rise up the management ranks the fastest.

He also said taking up courses related to the arts, such as communications, digital media, marketing and advertising, can develop skills which are aligned with the needs of companies operating in a digital economy.

The fields of business, finance and accounting, he said, remain perennially popular among Malaysians due to excellent employability, strong industry demand for professionals in audit and tax, and ample opportunities to work abroad.


“We are seeing strong interest in programmes that include modules in digital business, business analytics and artificial intelligence (AI), reflecting current business trends and the demand to fill talent gaps,” he said, adding that there has also been an increase in enrolment in the field of law in Malaysia.

“In the past, Malaysians would traditionally have studied for a Bachelor of Laws in the United Kingdom, but now options exist for them to complete the full degree in Malaysia.

“More importantly, due to increasing digitisation, employers are seeking graduates with skills in digital business, data analytics, fintech, cybersecurity and AI,” he said.

He added that graduates do not necessarily need to be technical experts in these areas; rather, companies seek professionals who can practically apply these skills to solve problems in their respective industry domains.

“For example, finance professionals who know how to automate and digitise manual processes to enhance productivity and improve customer experience.

“Or lawyers who are sufficiently versed in cybersecurity to draft contracts relating to digital businesses,” he said.

Lam also projected a strong growth in digital entrepreneurship, where students are not only considering working for a corporation, but also starting their own businesses either as their main job or a side hustle.

Heriot-Watt University Malaysia (HWUM) head of student recruitment and admissions Jason Chan said students, particularly from the middle-income (M40) group, may opt for locally-based programmes as they offer cost-effective benefits with lower tuition fees and the opportunity to live at home.

“HWUM anticipates an increase in enrolment for our local programmes that mirror the academic offerings of our UK counterparts and offer international academic standards without the financial burden of studying abroad.

“These programmes encompass a diverse range of disciplines, such as engineering and physical sciences, energy studies, geoscience, as well as the Schools of Social Science, Mathematics, and Computer Science.

“Despite the devaluation of the Malaysian ringgit, students can be assured that studying locally does not mean missing out on opportunities abroad,” he said.


Student placement centre JM Education Group opined that the increase in students studying locally could increase skilled and professional labour, especially in the healthcare sector, and contribute to economic growth and development.

The UK, United States and Australia, said its general manager Irene Loo, were usually preferred by Malaysians to study healthcare-related courses because of the strong linkage of universities in these countries with governments and healthcare providers around the world.

“Assessing the quality of Malaysian healthcare education vis-à-vis that of the UK, US and Australia involves a multifaceted analysis, but much like universities abroad, local universities are already en route to producing more high-quality graduates in this field.

“Though there is the issue of limited seats for particular healthcare-related courses, Malaysia has good medical programmes in various universities which are recognised worldwide.“This is important to note as we want to not only retain talented graduates, but also enhance Malaysia’s professional landscape,” she said.

Solution to brain drain

Meanwhile, Dr Janitha Nadarajah from the Sunway University School of American Education said the trajectory of students opting to study locally rather than abroad could also potentially mitigate brain drain.

“Students who complete their studies locally may be more inclined to seek job opportunities within Malaysia rather than abroad.

“When studying locally becomes a more financially viable option, it becomes more appealing for students to remain in the country after graduation.

“Consequently, the local job market may see an increase in skilled professionals, which can help mitigate brain drain by retaining talent within Malaysia, but this may also mean increased competition for job opportunities,” she said.


While a temporary weakening of the ringgit may offer short-term advantages such as these, she said it is still crucial to address underlying issues such as underpayment and underemployment of skilled graduates.

“These issues persist despite the currency devaluation and can deter Malaysian graduates from staying in the country to seek employment.

“To effectively mitigate brain drain, measures must be taken to rectify these challenges.

“Improving job prospects by supporting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), ensuring fair compensation for skilled graduates, and enhancing career development opportunities are essential steps,” she said.

Echoing her sentiments, Chan said the uptick in local enrolment could potentially mitigate the immediate outflow of graduates seeking opportunities overseas, but it does not address the issue of long-term brain drain comprehensively.

“The challenge lies in reattracting these students back to Malaysia after their international experiences.

“Without this reintegration, the region risks losing the competitive edge that comes from graduates who have gained diverse perspectives and skills abroad,” he said.

HWUM’s Go Global programme, he said, is designed to counteract this by fostering a multicultural learning environment, where students from campuses in Dubai and the UK study alongside those in Malaysia, thereby enriching the educational experience and preparing students for global competitiveness.

High expenditures abroad

Prior to the plunge in the value of the Malaysian currency, countries in Europe and North America were the preferred destinations for local students to continue their tertiary education abroad, but continuing to do so now means forking out a hefty sum for tuition, according to research conducted last year by Wise, a UK-based foreign exchange financial services provider.

Wise’s study, which involved nearly 60,000 Malaysian students studying overseas, rounded up the top 20 most expensive countries to study in, including the five counttries where Malaysian students incurred the highest expenses (see infographic).


The study revealed that Malaysian students invested the most in education in the US, averaging RM130,470 per year.

New Zealand – the second most expensive country for Malaysian students – showed a total educational cost of RM100,206 per academic year.

Australia, Canada and the UK were also identified as countries where Malaysian students spent the most money, with annual costs ranging between RM65,665 and RM77,221, according to Wise’s internal data.

Meanwhile, Janitha said Sunway’s American Degree Transfer Programme has seen a decline in student enrolment for pursuing an education in the US, not only due to its high exchange rates, but also because of safety concerns.

“In recent years, there have been various safety concerns in the US, including gun violence and incidents targeting minority groups.

“These concerns can discourage students and their families from choosing the US as a destination for higher education,” she said, adding that the political climate, immigration policies, and the availability of scholarships and financial aid also play a role in shaping international student enrolment trends in the US.

Despite these issues, she said Sunway’s School of American Education provides several alternatives for students to obtain an American degree at a more reasonable cost and save on pre-university studies by entering the programme directly after their Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM) or International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGSCE) exams.

"The School of American Education partners with Arizona State University, providing students the opportunity to finish their American Degree at Sunway,” she said, adding that the Department of Liberal Arts and Science also offers a more affordable route for students to complete an American Degree at Sunway University, with the possibility of finishing their final year at Arizona State University.

INTI International University and Colleges vice president of sales and marketing Bryan Kong said the ringgit’s decline has led to an increase in enquiries for options to study locally from students in the M40 and, surprisingly, T20 income groups.


“Currently, students are showing a keen level of interest in business and IT-related programmes, which allow them to upskill and meet the thriving demands of the local job market.

“In general, student decisions depend on their income group. Affluent students planning to study abroad will likely continue to do so.

“These students still show interest in INTI’s overseas transfer programmes or franchise programmes as we maintain affordable tuition fees and provide various scholarships and bursaries.

“For example, the INTI Journey campaign allows students to complete their foundation and A-Level programmes at no cost when they progress to their INTI degree programme of choice at any of our campuses in Malaysia,” he said.

Our first choice

'Malaysian students at local universities receive various forms of financial aid from sources such as the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN), the Public Service Department (JPA) and our home states, to support our education and ease our financial strain. While studying abroad can further broaden my horizons, I prefer studying locally for its cost-effectiveness. The depreciation of the Malaysian ringgit has increased living expenses, forcing students to budget carefully and sometimes take up part-time work to cover costs and ensure our education isn’t compromised, relieving our parents of financial burden.' – Leong Weng Sam, 21

'I would recommend students to pursue their tertiary education in Malaysia. Studying locally incurs lower costs, such as accommodation, transportation and overall living expenses, compared to studying overseas. I’m pursuing corporate communications locally. It is crucial to ensure your passion and skills align with your chosen course, which is the case for me. A degree in corporate communications will prepare me for the corporate world, and it is more practical to build connections and communication skills locally than spending on an expensive overseas education.' – Daniel Fadzlan Abdullah, 21

'The devaluation of the Malaysian ringgit has led me to carefully consider my future education pathway. I dream of studying abroad to immerse myself in different languages and cultures. However, maturing means considering financial constraints, which is why I have chosen to study locally. I love my country and feel most at ease in the embrace of my hometown. Hearing my father’s stories about his student experience at Universiti Malaya has increased my confidence in the capabilities of Malaysia’s lecturers. I hope to pursue law in the future and am excited to contribute to my country’s system of justice.'– Vanessa Yap, 18

All three youth participants featured here are The Star's BRATs Young Journalist Programme participants.

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