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EL Asia Pacific: Breaking down the numbers

Claudia Civinini untangles some contradictory claims about international education in Malaysia

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), Malaysia is a success story for British transnational education. In 2014–15 it was the country with the biggest number of students enrolled in accredited UK institutions overseas.

There are a number of UK universities with campuses in Malaysia, including the University of Nottingham, Newcastle University, the University of Reading, the University of Southampton and Heriot-Watt University. Figures show that students are primarily enrolled in undergraduate programmes – 71,925, compared to a total of 6,640 in postgraduate taught or research degrees.

Looking at international students, earlier this year a number of news outlets reported that Malaysia had been ranked the ninth-preferred destination in the most recent Unesco figures. It seems the information originated from a press release by Malaysian Press Agency Bernama in April 2016, which reported the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education as making this claim. Most reports highlighted this as an improvement from 2014, when the media reported that Malaysia had been ranked twelfth.

As we couldn’t find the original figures, we contacted the Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS) directly. According to the UIS website, Malaysia was ranked eighth – but as a source country, not a destination – for internationally mobile students. The latest UIS data (2014) shows that about 56,260 students from Malaysia pursued their higher education abroad. At the same time, 35,592 international students enrolled in Malaysian universities. As a result, Malaysia was the 26th most popular destination for globally mobile students. Also according to the UIS website, in 2011 there were 63,625 international students enrolled in both private and public universities in Malaysia. The latest data from Unesco, it follows, doesn’t really show an improvement – actually quite the opposite.

We contacted both Bernama and the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education for a comment, but received no reply by the time we went to press.

Here is an overview of data from UIS which shows where international students in Malaysia come from, what they study and why they chose Malaysia.

How many international students? According to UIS, in 2014 there were 35,592 international students enrolled in public and private higher education institution in Malaysia, excluding exchange students. Figures from the Malaysian Ministry of Education indicate that in the same year there were 27,619 students enrolled in public higher education institutions.

Where do they come from? The ten most important source countries, which provided 60 per cent of students in 2014, were (in order): Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Yemen, Sri Lanka and Libya.          

What do they study? UIS data from 2012 (the most recent) shows that 60 per cent of international students enrolled in Malaysian higher education institutions chose three broad fields of education: social sciences, business and law; engineering, manufacturing and construction; humanities and arts. Science was fourth in order of preference with 16 per cent of students, whereas education was only favoured by 4 per cent.

Why is Malaysia attractive? According to a report by the Unesco Institute for Statistics, Higher Education in Asia: Expanding Out, Expanding Up – The Rise of Graduate Education and University Research, there are five prominent factors to consider.

One is cultural comfort, as Malaysia provides a friendly environment for students from a Muslim background. Another is cost, with it being relatively cheap compared to traditional destinations such as the US and the UK. Quality of life is also important, as the country is widely regarded as a comfortable place to live and study. Another reason is the language of instruction, as most courses, especially at postgraduate level, are offered in English – which, the report notes, gives Malaysia an advantage over Thailand, where most undergraduate classes are offered in Thai.

In the latest QS rankings, four major universities jumped up the rankings, the most impressive being Universiti Putra Malaysia, which was ranked 331 in 2015 and is now 270. University Malaya was 146 and now is 133 – 27th in Asia. The only university going down was Universiti Sains Malaysia, from 289 to 330.

See www.uis.unesco.org/Education/Pages/international-student-flow-viz.aspx for more information