IN February, His Majesty King Salman Abdulaziz Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia was gracious to accept two honorary doctorates from the University of Malaya (UM) and the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM).
It was momentous and a privileged occasion, considering King Salman spent two of his three nights in Malaysia gracing our universities.
On behalf of the Malaysian government, I also signed a memorandum of understanding on education matters with my Saudi Arabian counterpart during this state visit.
Over the last few months, MoUs with Senegal and Turkey were completed. The MoUs are significant as they are aimed at facilitating greater cooperation in higher education, including student mobility for entry into our higher education institutions.
I feel proud because these events indicate recognition and acceptance of the quality of Malaysia’s higher education system in the global arena.
These positive developments undoubtedly serve towards strengthening Malaysia’s drive to be a global education destination by 2025.
STUDENT MOBILITY IS GROWING WORLWIDE
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), more than five million students were expected to leave their home countries in pursuit of higher education in 2015.
Of this number, approximately 53 per cent were from Asia, 25 per cent from Europe and eight per cent from Africa. And, this is a rising trend.
In Malaysia, as of Dec 31, 2016, there were 172,886 international students in our higher education institutions, private and international schools, and language centres. In higher education alone, there are 132,710 international students.
Under our Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education), we are aiming to attract 250,000 international students by 2025.
Various factors around the world today, including a challenging global economy and changes in geopolitical trends in the United States and Europe, mean that international students are looking to pursue higher education outside of traditional destinations, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
I believe this is an opportune time for Malaysia to further promote and capitalise on its strengths in higher education to attract more international students.
MAKING THE MOST OF OUR ADVANTAGES
A 2014 Unesco report titled “Higher Education Asia: Expanding Up, Expanding Out” highlighted five key reasons for international students to choose Malaysia as their educational destination — cultural comfort, cost, value for money, language of instruction and quality of life.
The report also stated that “Malaysia provides a friendly environment for Muslim students”. I would add that Malaysians are very understanding and respectful due to Malaysia’s multiracial and multireligious composition.
Higher education costs in Malaysia are also cheaper compared with traditional destination countries and that “the quality of Malaysian higher education is seen to be good, yielding a growing perception that higher education in Malaysia represents value for money”.
According to the QS Best Student Cities 2017 survey, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital city, was voted as the world’s most affordable city for students (for the third time in five years).
Education quality in Malaysia is recognised as being on the rise, too. In the recent QS World University Rankings by Subject 2017, Malaysian universities have gained rankings among the global top 50 for 11 subjects (up from three in 2016).
The subjects included mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering, hospitality and tourism, theology, and development studies. Additionally, 52 subjects taught in our universities have also acquired placing among the top 100 in the world.
Beginning this year, public universities will allocate five per cent of places in their medical, pharmacy, and dentistry programmes to international students.
This is a great opportunity as these courses are delivered by top-notch faculty and specialists.
For instance, UM’s medical faculty is ranked 31st in the world for its academic reputation, putting it on a par with Duke University and ahead of University of Pennsylvania. Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) are ranked 49th and 52nd, respectively.
Malaysia is also home to more than 10 top international university branch campuses, including Monash and Nottingham (which are in the world’s top 100), as well as the Asia School of Business (ASB) in collaboration with MIT Sloan Management School. This means that international students have a good range of quality choices in their chosen fields.
The ministry is also focusing on increasing intake at postgraduate levels — Master’s, PhD and even Post-Doctoral. As it stands now, about 23 per cent of all international students in our universities are pursuing postgraduate degrees.
This indicates adequate and competent research opportunities for current and potential international students.
BETTER POLICIES AND PROCEDURES
Over the past few years, the government, as a whole, has been working to improve international student management. Now, student visas are issued for the duration of the programme (as opposed to yearly) and visa applications can be made online and tracked in real-time. We have also introduced more family-friendly regulations for international students.
BENEFITS THE ECONOMY, TOO
According to Universities UK, it is estimated that international students contribute £10.8 billion (RM60.8 billion) to the UK’s export earnings, of which £5.4 billion is spent off-campus on goods and services.
In Malaysia, international students currently contribute approximately RM5.9 billion a year to the economy. The ministry estimates this to rise to RM15.6 billion by 2020.
This said, our intention is not to attract international students for purely economic gain. It goes without saying that they contribute so much more in regard to cultural exposure, competitiveness and networking that will benefit our students and community.
Malaysia is undoubtedly a very attractive education destination for international students.
Nevertheless, I believe we can become a more student-friendly country.
In traditional higher education destinations such as the UK, international students are accepted as part of the local community, its social and economic fabric. This translates into many student-friendly services and opportunities, from internships with industry and non-governmental organisations to volunteerism, and part-time jobs.
As more international students come to view Malaysia as a choice destination, we Malaysians will have the opportunity to widen our own perspectives, and to learn about different nations, peoples and cultures.
A greater awareness will lead to a better experience for all. We must remember that these are young students, and studying abroad is a life-defining experience, filled with excitement, anxiety and opportunity.
With receptiveness of this global era and an adaptable mindset to the opportunities brought about by speedy technological evolution, Malaysia has all the elements to soar as a global education hub.
Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh is the higher education minister