The COVID-19 pandemic has directly impacted Malaysian students' decisions in applying to universities, study shows.
More Malaysian students are opting for local universities over studying abroad due to concerns arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Source: Mohd Rasfan / AFP

There is no doubt about it: the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on the international education industry. High school graduates applying to universities are dealing with an unprecedented case of having their educational milestone hamstrung by a global pandemic that isn’t dissipating anytime soon.

For Malaysian students, the pandemic has directly altered their decision-making in applying to universities. A study conducted by Cambridge International’s annual Destinations Survey found Malaysian students now prefer local colleges and universities, instead of going abroad. The UK and Australia come in second and third respectively, while interest in US universities wanes due to high COVID-19 infection rates, the study reports.

Going local: Malaysian students prefer home institutions when applying to universities

The survey examined 300 Cambridge schools from 55 countries to map how a tumultuous year has affected students’ choice on higher education. Unsurprisingly, a common thread in decisive factors echoes among learners worldwide: health concerns, financial costs, and travel restrictions. 

For Malaysian students, a significant 60% of respondents nominated local institutions as a good value-for-money educational investment. “Before the pandemic, Cambridge International AS and A Level students in Malaysia would progress to traditional destinations such as the UK, the US, Australia and Singapore,” Ben Schmidt, the Regional Director of Southeast Asia and Pacific at Cambridge International, was quoted saying in a press release accompanying the report. 

Now, the tides have turned towards local shores. Financial hardship spurred by the recent economic downturn leaves students scrambling for cost-effective alternatives to their study plans. With five universities listed in the top 500 schools worldwide according to the QS World University Rankings, opting for Malaysian institutions is a prudent move for local students to cut costs without sacrificing the quality of their education. 

Financial woes aside, safety concerns over health risks and travel restrictions contribute to students’ shifting choices. “Many students are avoiding universities in the US due to high COVID-19 rates,” says Schmidt. When the pandemic raged with cases numbering in hundreds of thousands daily, some Malaysian students in the US returned home as soon as they could to prioritise their wellbeing. 

There are the additional problems of travel restrictions and visa nightmares to contend with. Countries like Australia, China and Japan have enacted some of the harshest border policies to foreigners throughout the pandemic, leaving many new and existing students stranded abroad.

Combined with rising tuition fees for international students, many are questioning whether they’re getting their money’s worth, especially with the prospect of more virtual learning as soaring Omicron-related infections hit several countries.

STEM subjects a winner, study reports

When it comes to subject choice, the Cambridge survey notes that Malaysian students favour subjects like Engineering, Medicine, Mathematics and Law, with a smaller group preferring courses in Accounting and Finance, and Psychology. 

There’s a good reason why professional courses are in-demand locally — students won’t have to worry over degree recognition by local accreditation boards. Having a degree that is readily accepted at home increases employability prospects in different sectors. 

According to the 2019-2020 Critical Occupations List by TalentCorp Malaysia, engineering careers rank in the top 20 jobs that are skilled and highly sought-after in the country. This is a step in the right direction for Malaysia, where there is a shortage of registered engineers in propelling the nation to meet the demands of a high-tech economy.

The UK and Australia — home to 24 and 13 of the top-500 globally ranked universities respectively — take second and third place in Malaysian students’ university choice. While education on home soil might be the top choice, the response suggests that students have an increased awareness of multiple study options available to them abroad, citing wide-ranging courses and better career prospects as the main reasons, according to the press release.