PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Thousands of foreign students are waiting to enter Malaysia to continue their studies and despite the border closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of new applications is showing an upward trend since May.
A check with Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) showed that a total of 6,088 out of 14,949 students have applied from January to July this year to enrol in degree programmes. The majority are from China.
Associate Professor Grace Lee Hooi Yean said the admission of foreign students could help in the recovery of the higher education sector and rejuvenate the economy.
The earnings, said the Economic Department head from Monash University Malaysia, might be spent on research and education to benefit our future talents.
"International students contribute to Malaysia's scientific and technical research, and bring international perspectives into the Malaysian classrooms.
"It makes learning more dynamic; this is more valuable. It helps to prepare our graduates to be global citizens and lead to longer term business relationships and economic benefits," she said, adding that a growing international student community would have positive spillover effects on other industries.
Universiti Sains Malaysia School of Social Sciences senior lecturer Dr Abdul Rais Abdul Latiff said the increase in international applications was good for the country's foreign exchange.
The benefits of growth, he said, were multifold.
"It shows that Malaysia's quality of higher education is good. Having more international students will also lead to our students improving their English proficiency," he said.
Dr Abdul Rais added that international students would bring different approaches to lesson discussions, which will help our students to learn and think differently.
EMGS chief executive officer Mohd Radzlan Jalaludin said the country was back on track to achieving the government's 2025 target of attracting 250,000 international students here.
Set up in 2012 as a company limited by guarantee under the Higher Education Ministry, EMGS, as the official gateway for international students, was looking to make the country a thriving education hub again.
Mr Mohd Radzlan said new applications had steadily increased since May. He said the number of new international student applications for January and February was higher compared to the same period last year.
"In January and February this year, we saw a 8.9 per cent and 16.8 per cent increase compared to the first two months of 2019.
"But in March and April, the numbers dropped because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now we are back on track again as the number has increased since May."
He said international students know that Malaysia was handling the pandemic well and that the country was safe.
"They want to come and are just waiting for the reopening of the borders," he said.
Mr Mohd Radzlan added that the Malaysian hospitality, English being widely spoken, and the availability of a variety of food choices made the country a popular choice for international students.
National Association of Private Educational Institutions (Napei) president Assoc Prof Elajsolan Mohan said the growth in the number of international applications was encouraging.
"The pandemic is not putting off international students from coming here to pursue their higher education," he said.
The total contribution of the private education sector towards the GDP was about RM40billion (S$13.08 billion) last year. Of this, about RM17 billion came from international students.
"Based on the above trend, the total figure is projected to increase to RM80billion by 2030. The sooner the borders reopen, the faster we will be able to get more international students.
"We don't want a situation where they've registered but they don't turn up and opt to study in other countries where borders were already open," said Assoc Prof Elajsolan.
Universiti Putra Malaysia deputy vice-chancellor (Academic and International) Prof M. Iqbal Saripan said the university had a large number of international students applying for its undergraduate and postgraduate courses just before the movement control order began in March.
"We have some 3,000 applications for our postgraduate programmes and 500 for our undergraduate studies.
"Their main courses of choice are business and engineering but whether they will accept the offer and register in October is something we can't confirm due to the global pandemic," he said.
Sunway Education Group chief executive officer Elizabeth Lee said interest in their courses had been picking up from both international and Malaysian students.
With such unprecedented times impacting each country differently, she said: "It could mean international students may not be able to come to us or they may do so in abundance, seeing that Malaysia is managing the situation well and it was safer to be here than elsewhere."
Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman president Prof Dr Ewe Hong Tat said the university noticed more enquiries from international students.
Heriot-Watt University Malaysia head of marketing and student recruitment Jessica Lam said they had seen a 2 per cent increase in their July intake and expected to see more growth in the September intake for their Foundation in Business and Science programmes.
"As long as the government remains flexible in allowing international students to be enrolled wherever their location may be, and allow them to enter the country in stages, we foresee a positive outlook in continuing to increase international student numbers at our university," she added.
To encourage and assist students keen on studying here, private institutions have introduced measures to ease their financial burden.
These include partially or fully waiving remaining course fees, as well as setting up funds for needy students, Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities president Dr Parmjit Singh said.
"During this ongoing pandemic, institutions are ensuring that student welfare was taken care of.
"The aim is to address the needs of those in acute need of help because as non-government funded entities, there is a limit of how much an institution can offer," he said, adding that Covid-19 had drastically affected the sustainability of all institutions.
Most, he said, tried to assist students as much as possible.
Datuk Parmjit, who is also APIIT Education Group chief executive officer, said his university had approved close to 80 per cent of applications for their Covid-19 hardship fund.
"It was not limited to waivers of fees as we also assisted students with cash assistance," he said.
Pakistani student Laila (not her real name), 19, is waiting for her visa approval letter from EMGS although she has already enrolled at a private university to pursue a degree in accounting and finance.
One of the main reasons she chose Malaysia was due to the country's success in managing the pandemic.
Another Pakistani student who only wanted to be known as Hamza, 17, said Malaysia was his preferred choice as the tuition and accommodation fees were affordable.
On July 29, EMGS announced that new international students can register to come but entry to Malaysia is on hold until further notice.
Existing international students, however, can return.