Malaysia as a Global Educational Hub: A Win-Win-Win Situation

By Dr. Rahida Aini

May 2024 FEATURE
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Dr. Ojeniyi (left-most) on a conference tour.

ACCORDING TO THE Ministry of Higher Education, there were 136,497 international students enrolled in Malaysia in 2019, with 93,569 enrolled in tertiary institutions (34,556 in public universities and 59,013 in private institutions). [1] Many come from the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle Asia, and a minimal number from Europe.

The Malaysia Higher Education Blueprint 2015-2025 has set a target of 250,000 international students by the year 2025; this was despite the fact that there had been a 30% drop from 2017 to 2019. The decline was subsequently exacerbated by Covid-19 pandemic restrictions limiting school operations, lowering international student admissions and causing the closure of many private higher education institutions. [2]

The question now is; how far can Malaysia go in this post-Covid-19 educational landscape? Malaysia is already on the right track on that front; all that is required is an innovative strategy to achieve Malaysia's goal of becoming a global education hub.

How Malaysian Students Benefit

Looking back on her freshman year in university, local student Maria* said the many international students made her education experience one that was rich in cultural exchange.

“I was more of an introvert before I joined the postgraduate support group. I attended many workshops related to academic writing and research, and it was there that I made new connections,” she said.

Her cross-cultural interactions with her international friends broadened her worldview. Just conversing with them improved her English proficiency level. She also picked up better time management and a positive attitude towards producing work of high quality.

Maintaining these connections after graduation, Maria* stays in touch with her friends and lecturers from England, Sweden, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. “They had an impeccable impact on my life,” she explained. “With so many things to learn from them, I continue to ask them on topics I am curious about.”

Dr. Onubi (third from right) with his university cohorts.

How International Students Benefit

Adegoke Ojeniyi is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Computer Science, Maldives National University. He came to Malaysia from Nigeria in 2012 to pursue his PhD in Computer Science at Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM).

When asked about the difficulties he encountered while studying in Malaysia, he admitted that he was initially very homesick. He started participating in extracurricular activities and meeting people with similar interests to alleviate his homesickness. He became the pioneer President of the UUM Postgraduate Scholar Society (PGSS), a member of the UUM Toastmasters, the treasurer of the UUM Nigerian community and a publication officer at the Maybank Hall Residence, among others. Due to his academic performance, he won three research grants with his professors at UUM and was accepted as a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) between 2013 and 2016 before he graduated from UUM. He said, “my experiences changed my life, and I'm forever grateful for this realisation. Malaysia is a second home to me, and I will always do my best to ensure impartation of knowledge and skills to the younger generation".

Another student, Hillary Omatule Onubi, came in 2017 from Kogi state in Nigeria to Malaysia to pursue his PhD in Construction Management at Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM). He commented that some locals were “afraid of us because they didn't speak English". Adapting to Malay native speakers was difficult at first, but after taking a required Malay intensive course for one semester, “I could now understand a little bit of Bahasa Melayu.”

Though many graduates spend months, sometimes a year or two, to secure a good position in a university, this was not the case for Onubi. Upon his PhD graduation in 2020, he was offered a postdoctoral fellowship, which he accepted. He is currently a contract lecturer at Universiti Malaysia Perlis (UNIMAP).

For foreigners like Ojeniyi and Onubi, coming to Malaysia was (and is) one of the best decisions they had made. Their enriching educational journey in Malaysia’s higher institutions is something they treasure, as well as the industry-relevant skills and knowledge they gained, in particular, which prepared them for the global talent market.

Aside from their academic achievements, their mixture of soft skills–leadership, interpersonal and problem-solving skills, work ethics, time management, independence and commitment are qualities that most employers seek. Another aspect that makes Malaysia a place for them to remain in is the memorable moments they have created, friendships formed, social integration, and intercultural knowledge exchange.

The role of higher education institutions is to bridge the gap between the education curriculum and current and future industrial needs so that students can compete in future job markets. Bringing young people from all over the world to Malaysia and having them intermingle with locals from different backgrounds and cultures allows them to live with and learn from one another. We often talk about a growing global workforce and about the challenges of globalisation. Still, for it to take place effectively and peacefully, the university is one of the prime areas to look at that can encourage the mingling of different cultures, customs, and characteristics from different countries.

*not her real name

  • [1] Shariffah Bahyah & Siow Heng Loke (2022). Unfolding the moving-in experiences of international students at a Malaysian private tertiary institution. Asian Journal of University Education (AJUE). Vol. 18 (2), 1-13.
  • [2] ]
Dr. Rahida Aini

works as a Publication Officer at Penang Institute. She enjoys writing and strolling along Straits Quay, appreciating the beauty of Mother Earth.