Incoming foreign students face woes in Malaysia

A group of foreign students arrested by the Malaysian Putrajaya Immigration Department in a raid conducted in 2012. The students had allegedly been studying at a college in Kuala Lumpur which was not registered with Malaysia's Ministry for Higher Lea
A group of foreign students arrested by the Malaysian Putrajaya Immigration Department in a raid conducted in 2012. The students had allegedly been studying at a college in Kuala Lumpur which was not registered with Malaysia's Ministry for Higher Learning. The owner of the institution and members of its' teaching staff were all also foreigners. Officials said that the black sheep in the education sector could usually be traced to a few private institutions eager to collect student fees and thus had no qualms accepting questionable students. -- FILE PHOTO: HARIAN METRO

Malaysia’s plan to become a major education hub in Asia has hit a snag – a well-meaning move to make all applications for international student visas go through one agency has led to multiple complaints of long delays and higher costs.

The Education Ministry’s Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) started processing the visas from February this year.

Previously, the universities and colleges themselves handled such things as verifying student qualifications, getting them to go for medical check-ups at local clinics and to get health insurance coverage, ensuring they have sufficient funds, and applying to the immigration department for the visas.

Malaysia has some 95,000 foreign students today, but many of those who are incoming are unhappy and their complaints have appeared on social media. This has led Deputy Education Minister P. Kamalanathan to promise to improve things.

Malaysia, which has more than two dozen private colleges and universities, and 20 public universities, wants to double its international student population to 200,000 by 2020.

The move to bring in the EMGS came about after years of suspicion that some of these foreigners came to Malaysia to do anything but study.

These racial stereotypes are sometimes splashed in newspaper headlines. Africans, according to the unflattering stereotypes, are in Malaysia to commit crime and sell drugs, while young women from China are here to work as club hostesses. The Arabs and Iranians supposedly fly in to await the first chance to emigrate to Australia via Indonesia. Or they just want to stay in a safe Muslim country while their own countries face political and economic strife.

While some of the claims were true, officials said that the black sheep could usually be traced to a few private institutions eager to collect student fees and thus had no qualms accepting questionable students. These institutions did not care whether their students turned up for classes as long as they paid their fees.

The Education Ministry thought that having the EMGS would help improve the system.

But having one agency handle everything has brought about a new set of problems, ranging from long delays of up to five months to get a visa to higher registration costs for would-be students.

“EMGS/Malaysia Immigration don’t seem to realise the terrible inconvenience and anxiety they create for international students these days. This is severely tarnishing Malaysia’s image as a hub for higher education,” Lareefa commented on the Internet in response to an online report about the visa problems.

The young foreigners have to just wait in Malaysia and cannot attend classes until they receive their visas.

Worse, some are afraid to even leave their rented homes because they will not be able produce their passports should they be stopped at a police roadblock. They claim the police usually do not accept the temporary documents issued by the ministry or private institutions in lieu of their passports.

Said Rashi, a 19-year old student from Oman: “I can’t travel home despite the one-month semester break.”

He told The Star paper: “I am also constantly at risk of getting detained by police.”

In September, the EMGS blamed the visa delay on some private colleges and universities which, it said, submitted incomplete documents from their students.

The president of the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities, Dr Parmjit Singh, denied this.

“The institutions have been processing the visa applications for years, long before the EMGS came about. The agency has to take responsibility for the delay. which is turning away our foreign students,” he was quoted by The Star newspaper as saying.

He said there was an overall 30 to 40 per cent drop in foreign student intake as news about the delays spread among students.

The other major grouse is that the EMGS charges some RM1,800 (S$694) for the visa processing, compared to just a few hundred ringgit charged by universities and colleges.EMGS denied that all the institutions charged low processing fees. Several institutions and their agents charge “far in excess” of what EMGS charges, said its chief executive officer Mohd Yazid Abdul Hamid in an email response to criticisms from an opposition MP.

The Deputy Education Minister told students who have problems with their visas to email them.

He said the ministry had in place a two-year moratorium on licences given out to institutions to admit foreign students in order to weed out rogue colleges.

“Don’t think that we have not been doing anything for these two years. We are ironing out all these issues to make sure that when the ministry starts issuing licences again in 2015, this problem will have been resolved.”reme@sph.com.sg