IN the recently-released fifth edition of the QS Best Student Cities ranking, Kuala Lumpur placed 41st among 125 cities while retaining its top position as the world’s most affordable student city.
The table, released by global higher education analysts QS Quacquarelli Symonds, compilers of the QS World University Rankings, ranked cities based on their performance in the six composite indicators of Desirability, Rankings, Student Mix, Employer Activity, Affordability and, for the first time, Student View.
While 41 is KL’s highest-ever position in this ranking, there are eight regional cities ahead of it that are competing to attract quality foreign students.
KL scores impressively on QS’s Affordability metric, and cost of living for students is a major pull factor for the city, as pursuing a tertiary education continues to increase cost-wise in most parts of the world. This, in turn, means that many students will end up looking for the place that offers the best value.
Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) chief executive officer Mohd Yazid Abd Hamid said “the price one pays is of incredible value for a cosmopolitan lifestyle” in comparison to other cities in the region, let alone those in Australia, Europe and North America.
“There’s also the wonderful local and international cuisine, leisure and entertainment options,” he said.
“The city is not just a centre for commerce and trade, it is also a hub for culture, entertainment and education.”
Multimedia University (MMU) president Professor Datuk Dr Ahmad Rafi Mohamed Eshaq said that the Klang Valley has the highest concentration of international students furthering their studies in Malaysia.
“Approximately 90 per cent of international students in private higher education institutions are studying in and around KL,” he said.
“This is perhaps due to the vibrancy of the city and good transportation access within the city and in certain major suburbs.”
One pull factor, for students from Islamic nations, is that of Islam being the religion practised by the majority of the local population.
This accounts for why students from countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are attracted to come here.
Nattabi Halimah Abubakar, a graduate student from Uganda, said she chose to come because of this reason.
“My application was based on the availability of a scholarship, and the one I obtained from the Islamic Development Bank listed Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) was one of the institutions I could apply to,” she said.
Another UKM graduate student, Mohammad Zakariya Salameh Al-Kaseasbeh from Jordan, said Malaysia felt like a second home to him as a Muslim.
Other reasons offered by Nattabi for making Malaysia her education destination included the use of English as medium of instruction and an advanced education system that is technology-driven.
Mohd Yazid said that because English is spoken and understood in most parts of the country, communication is hardly a challenge.
Mohammad Zakariya said that in addition to the low cost of living, the universities have a good reputation and the people are friendly, including the lecturers.
Said Mohd Yazid: “We offer quality education and diverse institutions and programmes that are globally recognised. Students can opt for a local or international certification from 10 international branch campuses in the country as well as twinning programmes and joint degree programmes.”
Monique Dyannisa Albertus, from Indonesia, did her first degree in UKM and is now continuing with her Masters.
Her main reasons for choosing KL were because of the cultural similarities with her home country as well as the proximity.
“The location is central and also strategic regionally,” she said.
Mohd Yazid said that KL’s connectivity and access to other parts of Malaysia and the rest of Asia makes it convenient for travel, including budget travel.
VISA PROCESS OBSTACLE
Edwin Tay, co-founder and CEO of easyuni.com, the region’s largest online student recruiter, said that the biggest obstacle in attracting more foreign students is the student visa process.
“Much can be done to improve the speed and ease of getting a student visa,” he said.
“While it is necessary to have a good vetting system in place to filter out unwanted elements, this should not come at the expense of those who are keen to further their studies here.
“Some applicants may be put off by the lengthy process which can still be better streamlined for speedier approvals of genuine students.
“It is great that the authorities have already acknowledged the need to improve in this area. We can learn from other countries such as Australia on how they manage their filtering process.”
Sunway Education Group and Sunway University senior executive director Dr Elizabeth Lee said that besides improving on current processes such as the issuing of the Visa Approval Letter and renewal of students’ visa, there should also be speedier approval of new courses and programmes by the authorities as this comes down to competition with the rest of the world.
Tay also felt the need for further consolidation of the industry.
“Currently, there are still many institutions of higher learning in Malaysia that are not fulfilling their potential,” he said.
“Perhaps the authorities can encourage more progress in this area by giving more incentive for consolidation or even using the Private Equity Fund Manager to be the catalyst for consolidation.”
Tay added that while the Klang Valley is the most popular education destination for foreign students in Malaysia, thanks to the infrastructure and cultural activities available, there is still the perception that security remains a problem due to the prevalence of criminal activities.
He felt that what KL needed to continue improving on is quality of life, which emerged as below-average according to QS’s Desirability metric.
Here, KL ranks 74th which, though an improvement of nine places, is still a factor that can work against the city considering many more competitors that can boast better quality of life for their student population.
Safety, or the lack of, is one of the deterrent aspects cited, along with corruption and pollution.
Both students and educators who were interviewed previously on this issue have mentioned incidents of muggings and snatch thefts that served to sour the overall educational experience of foreign students based here.
Lim Ming Hsiang, Heriot-Watt University Malaysia marketing and student recruitment head, said that such crimes have led to the perception of an unsafe environment.
Ahmad Rafi said that one of the major concerns parents have when sending their children to large cities around the world is that of safety.
“This is one aspect the authorities need to address in order to attract more international students here,” he said.
“In certain locations, especially those with larger student populations, efforts have already been made to increase police presence and this has proven to be quite successful in assuring international students on safety.”
Lim would like to see more Malaysians adopt a friendlier attitude towards foreigners, especially non-Caucasian ones.
“The majority of foreign students are from the Middle East, Africa, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, China and around Southeast Asia. Thus, we tend to group the lot with foreign workers and the police are always very suspicious of them and constantly harass them for their identification,” he said.
“Currently, foreign students whose student visas have been approved are issued an i-Kad from the Immigration Department, but the police and some authorities still insist on checking the students’ passports which are not carried around for security reasons.”
Lim hoped that foreign students will be able to enjoy better understanding from the local community, especially those around tertiary institutions.
“They are here to study and earn their higher qualification which in turn, affirms Malaysia’s education system, so just be friendly and do not stigmatise foreign students based on their appearance.”
Mohd Yazid said that by and large, challenges faced by foreign students are few and short-term.
“Malaysians are hospitable, even students who may feel home-sick will very soon find themselves assimilated with the local culture, people and way of life,” he said, adding that the country, including KL the capital, is safe.
“Students and their parents can still have peace of mind. Community stereotyping however, does exist, and students from certain countries may be mistaken for foreign workers.”
He suggested that tertiary institutions get their international students more involved in local community development, as such activities would foster positive engagements between the local community and the international students.
“It will also enhance the feeling of belonging on the part of the student,” he said.
Lee said that the government can provide financial aid to support institutions organising in-bound summer exchange programmes, tours, training or voluntary projects.
“A good example of such an education initiative is the New Colombo Plan by the Australian government,” she said.
BUILDING AN ECOSYSTEM
Ahmad Rafi called for more collaborative efforts by institutions in the Klang Valley to bring international students together.
“Currently, the efforts of assimilating the students into the local environment and culture is within the institutions themselves,” he said.
“However, there is opportunity to have more collaborative efforts in this area, to allow students from different countries to have more positive and faster orientation to their study life in Malaysia and feel less homesick.”
Lim said he would like the local authorities, especially those in townships where many universities and colleges are based, to work more closely with the tertiary institutions in brainstorming ideas on infrastructure, logistics and facilities.
To this, Ahmad Rafi said that MMU shared the same views with its landowner and the local authorities such as the city council (Sepang Municipal Council) and Cyberjaya Police Station who would work with education institutions in the vicinity.
“We work well with the authorities who constructively take our feedback as they adopt various intelligent technologies to ensure efficient public service within a safe city living,” he said.
Lee said that upgrading the education hub into an ecosystem would enhance the lives of the academic and surrounding communities, as in Oxford and Cambridge.
“Sunway Resort City is a fully-integrated township which is kept safe with auxiliary police personnel who patrol Bandar Sunway around the clock,” she said.
“State-of-the-art CCTVs are placed around the city and mobile units are contributed by Sunway to assist with the efforts of safeguarding the community that stays, eats, works and plays in the township.
“Free shuttle buses provide transportation within the community while elevated canopy walks provide a safe connection for pedestrians. Such amenities should be replicated in other parts of the Klang Valley for KL to be the choice destination for quality international students.”
Lim added that he would like to see more retailers giving special discounts to foreign students.
“Have better discounts for all students, for that matter, especially from public transportation providers, retailers and eateries,” she said.
“In Britain, most retailers and eateries have various discounts, rebates and promotions for students, especially if the town or city is home to one or more universities,” he said.
“Many towns and cities overseas have special guides such as brochures and booklets provided by the local municipal council and placed at universities, airports, eateries and malls to highlight student-friendly areas, retailers and eateries, as well as services.”
Lee added that “improving on free public WiFi services is also important as we move into the digital age where it is a norm for everyone to be connected.”
MORE INTELLECTUAL EVENTS
Mohd Yazid also called on local Universities to collaborate with more universities abroad, especially those from Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, to offer short-term programmes that can run between one week and three months.
“These courses can be academic or non-academic, and geared towards the appreciation of arts, culture and heritage.
“Such programmes can attract students from developed jurisdictions and add to the cultural diversity of our international student community.”
Lee said that educational institutions should host more international events where world-renowned experts come together to share their views, experience and expertise, providing a platform to enrich the greater community through conferences and public lectures such as Sunway University’s Jeffrey Cheah Distinguished Speakers Series.
“In such instances, it would be good if the local and federal government provide their support.”
Lee said the authorities should keep a keen eye on our neighbouring competitors so as to be able to “benchmark according to their good policies and also learn from their mistakes”.
Mohd Yazid said that KL can improve its ranking position among larger Best Student Cities if all the players involved work towards expanding the international student community in terms of both numbers and nationalities.
“Towards this end, mobility or exchange programmes have already been prioritised by the Ministry of Higher Education for this year,” he said.
“The aim is to attract students travelling abroad from North America, Australia, Europe and New Zealand. To facilitate this effort, EMGS will be participating in four international educators events this year to promote inter-institution engagement and collaboration.”
Mohd Yazid added that for most international students, employment opportunities also contribute to their desire to choose an education destination.
“If we have a strategy to retain and absorb the best international students into our workforce, that will significantly contribute to our popularity as an education hub,” he said.
THE UKM WAY
UKM vice-chancellor Professor Datuk Seri Dr Noor Azlan Ghazali said that 10 per cent of the university’s students are from 27 countries worldwide.
He attributed this diverse international student population to Malaysia being recognised as a hub for higher education.
“There are at least two effective ways to reach quality students from abroad and attract them to come,” he said.
“One is for the institution to have strong website content with opportunities for interaction. This is very helpful in engaging with prospective students as the website never closes, and also does not cost much to operate and maintain.
“The other is for the institution to engage with prominent partners worldwide that can provide funding as well as opportunities that will attract excellent students.
“Our partnership with the World Bank in the form of the UKM-World Bank Research Intern Pilot Program is a good example of how an institution can increase its international profile, enhance its image and raise its reputation for the benefit of its students, both current and potential.”