Malaysian universities experience a sharp intake in international enrolment for PhD programmes
Malaysia's rising reputation as a top educational hub in Asia, alongside affordable tuition fees and living costs, has made it a popular study destination among international students. Source: Mohd Rasfan / AFP

Affordable fees. Reasonable cost of living. A quality education. With all three boxes checked, perhaps it is no surprise that Malaysian universities are experiencing a surge in international student applications for doctorate programmes despite periodic lockdowns — known as the Movement Control Order (MCO) in the country — since 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to Education Malaysia Services (EMGS), 2021 saw a total of 11,161 international applicants for the Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) programme in public and private institutions. Compared to 2020, the application numbers have almost doubled, with only 6,348 applications received in that year. 

“Over the recent years, Malaysia has become the education hub of choice for international students seeking higher education,” read EMGS’ statement. “It is interesting to know that a relatively large number of international students are currently pursuing PhD in Malaysia.” 

Why are international students choosing Malaysian universities for their PhDs? 

Malaysian universities experience a sharp intake in international enrolment for PhD programmes

Malaysia has set a target to attract 250,000 international students by 2025, as outlined in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025. Source: Mohd Rasfan / AFP

One possible draw factor for international students to study in Malaysia is the range of courses offered in Malaysian institutions, which include subjects in the humanities and social sciences, law, and general programmes, notes EMGS. 

Among Southeast Asian tertiary education institutions, Malaysian universities fare well in global rankings. Five are ranked among the top 200 universities in the world according to the 2022 QS World University Rankings. The University of Malaya, considered the most prestigious public institution in the country, is listed among the top 50 2022 Best Global Universities in Asia by the US News and World Report. 

According to data retrieved from EMGS, the uptick in foreign applicants between January to September 2021 predominantly come from Chinese students, who vastly outnumber other applicants from other countries by the thousands. Driven by an expanding middle class, China has become one of the world’s largest sources of international students, with over 700,000 students studying abroad in 2019 according to the country’s Ministry of Education. 

At the height of the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, Chinese students began considering other educational options closer to home, including universities in Malaysia and Singapore due to travel restrictions and Beijing’s souring diplomatic relations with Western countries, South China Morning Post reports. 

The sharp increase in the number of international postgraduate applications in Malaysian universities is a strong indicator of its growing reputation as an educational hub. The tuition fees and cost of living are significantly lower than in Western countries such as Australia and the UK. A Phd programme in the social sciences and humanities at a Malaysian public university starts from 7,000 US dollars for international students; English is also widely spoken as a second language, which eliminates the need to study local languages for academic study. 

The cost of living in Malaysia can also be appealing for students. The average cost for an international student for food, travel, and accommodation is approximately 14,400 Ringgit (~US$3,440-US$4,600) annually. On top of that, the country is ranked 23rd on the Global Peace Index, making it one of the safest study abroad destinations in the world. 

The influx of foreign students into the country will pave the way for the country to hit its 250,000 international student enrolment target by 2025, which was outlined in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 set by the Ministry of Education. However, the country is facing stiff competition with neighbouring countries as international borders have started to reopen. 

“We are losing to other countries in the region,” Elajsolan Mohan, President of the National Association of Private Educational Institutions (Napei) in Malaysia, was reported saying by The Star, referring to Australia’s study visa flexibility to include extended post-study work rights as a means of attracting international students to its shores.