COVID-19 has dealt the education sector a painful blow but it is not a knockout punch as far as Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS) is concerned.
Set up in 2012 as a company limited by guarantee under the Higher Education Ministry, the official gateway for international students is looking to make the country a thriving education hub again.
Refusing to use the pandemic as an excuse not to forge ahead, EMGS chief executive officer (CEO) Mohd Radzlan Jalaludin said it is a challenge every country is facing.
While acknowledging that it has been a struggle, he assured industry players that the ministry and EMGS are working hard to help facilitate their operations.
Last month, Higher Education Minister Datuk Dr Noraini Ahmad had said that an 84.1% drop in foreign student enrolment is expected this year, with a loss amounting to RM6.9bil.
At least 49% of private higher education institutions (IPTS) have been operating at a loss for the past three years, and the losses are further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, it was recently reported.
A national taskforce, comprising various agencies including the ministry; Home Affairs Ministry; Malaysian Qualifications Agency; Royal Malaysia Police; Economic Planning Unit; Human Resources Ministry; Finance Ministry; Ministry of International Trade and Industry; Malaysian Investment Development Authority; Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry; IPTS and EMGS, has been established to look into key issues affecting the sector’s sustainability and growth as a significant contributor to the Malaysian economy and talent development.
But not all varsities, Mohd Radzlan said, are in dire straits.
There are 437 IPTS in the country and only half of them have a licence to enrol international students.
“We are trying to help by branding Malaysia as a higher education hub and promoting courses that are attractive to the international community.”
Since March, Zoom engagements were held with IPTS focused on the international market.
“We got each to do a presentation so that we know how to promote them individually.”
While existing international students are allowed back, the entry of the new cohort and their dependents is on hold until further notice.
“With this pandemic, bringing new international students in is a challenge.
“The Higher Education Ministry and EMGS are doing our best to assist them but our priority is the health and safety of Malaysians and all those in the country.”
Mohd Radzlan talks to StarEdu about the path ahead.
Which countries are we looking at to achieve the government’s 2025 target of attracting 250,000 international students here?
We have students coming from everywhere but the majority of our international students are from China. This is followed by Indonesia, Bangladesh and Yemen. We are focusing on China because of the huge population there. We are looking to get more Chinese students to do their postgraduate studies here. Some 900,000 Chinese students leave to study abroad yearly. Between 60% and 70% of them go to the US and UK but with the current socio-economic and political situation, Malaysia is in a good position to tap into that market because of our strategic geographical location, political stability, affordability and multi-culturalism. The Chinese will feel at home here because food is not a problem and Mandarin is widely spoken.
How confident are you in meeting that target?
Very confident. Since early this year, we have been more focused. We know which market holds the most potential for us and which universities are more attractive to international students. Our marketing department has been segregated according to regions and we have developed different strategies for the different countries. While we will continue with education fairs, we are also engaging directly with schools and universities abroad so that they know of us and can send their students here. Recently we had a meeting with a group of Indonesian students who, on their own initiative, held a virtual fair so that they can get their friends to join them here.
International students have complained of visa problems because documents issued by EMGS are not recognised by the enforcement authorities. What’s being done to address that?
The Higher Education Ministry deputy secretary-general is our new chairman and last month, the Immigration Department director-general was appointed a board member of EMGS. If such issues arise again, it can easily be resolved. We don’t want our international students to be treated like illegal immigrants. If they break the law then yes – it doesn’t matter whether you are a student or tourist, we must take action. Otherwise, we will treat you well because you are our guest.
How are our public varsities doing?
We have five Malaysian public research universities in the top 200 of the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) World University Rankings 2021. The popularity and trust in our public varsities are high, especially among foreign governments looking to fund their citizens’ education. The high level of trust is because IPTAs are backed by the Malaysian government which must ensure that the teaching methods, facilities and lecturers, are of quality.
Have countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam overtaken us as the region’s education hub?
That’s the perception of some but I think those who say so are just trying to demotivate us and make us lose confidence in Malaysia but it’s not right at all. We are receiving a lot of enquiries daily from international students. Existing students are eager to come back while new applications have been increasing since May. In March and April, the number of new applicants dropped but that was because of the pandemic. The numbers are getting back to the pre-pandemic days. Even if the number of Covid-19 cases suddenly spike, at least now we know what to do. Instead of locking down the whole country, we know how to contain it to certain areas because of the experience that we have. So things are picking up. People are ready to go back to the universities. The final hurdle is opening up the borders. Getting international students to come is not a problem because they see how well we are managing the pandemic. They know Malaysia is safe. While we view competition from our neighbours positively, we know our strengths are unique. No matter which country you come from, you will feel at home in Malaysia because we have so many different cultures and cuisines here, there are modern amenities everywhere and English usage is high. Besides our tertiary programmes, Malaysia is also very popular for short courses which do not require a student pass. Our English short courses are much sought-after and the language is widely spoken here so students have the support system to practise their new skills. If you go elsewhere, you may learn the language but whom are you going to communicate with outside of class?
How did a lawyer-politician like yourself end up in education?
The Higher Education Ministry has given me the task of upgrading EMGS and bringing in more international students so that’s my focus now. Though I have no experience in this field, the passion drives me because I believe education can change lives. I know what to do and how to do it to bring us forward. We are on par with international universities but we have to improve. I applied for the position of CEO through the proper channel. In my 13 years as a lawyer and politician, I have learnt to manage many different personalities. I’m applying this skill to my role because I now deal with everyone from academicians to ambassadors.
What has been your biggest challenge?
The main thing I’ve learnt is to always be ready. Don’t wait to make changes or you will be left behind. I came into office on Jan 20. Barely two months on, the movement control order was enforced – that was my biggest challenge because everything had to be done differently. We had to figure out how to process urgent student documents virtually. All our plans for the year had to be revisited. It’s like having to press the reset button although I had only just been appointed. Before Covid-19, my philosophy was: “To bring people in, we have to go out.” I’ve been proven wrong. In May, we kicked off our first virtual fair and the response was really good. The number of visitors was much higher than our previous physical fairs. Even with the pandemic, students know they still have to study, so a virtual fair is the only place they can get all the relevant information. Students in different countries, states and even provinces, have different interests so the content of our virtual fairs were very targeted. For example, halal food management and Islamic studies are popular among students from Xi’an, China. We’ve already organised virtual fairs tailored to different countries including Pakistan, Maldives and India. No doubt virtual fairs are here to stay because we’ve seen how effective they are but when we can travel again, we will do so. Some students still prefer face-to-face interactions – they want to meet the representatives of the institutions they are interested in. For example, our virtual fair for the Pakistan market was a success but there are still those who want the physical interaction because it builds trust. But whatever we spend on, we have to make sure the returns are worth it.
What’s your personal KPI?
We have to improve. EMGS was formed to promote Malaysia and to process student visas – that’s our core business. What else can we do to better promote the country? Can we cut the processing time of visas from 14 to seven days? My KPI will be to have more engagement with stakeholders, build trust with the international community and speed up the visa process. On top of these, I want to introduce services that can enhance Malaysia’s image as a friendly, welcoming nation. We can arrange for transportation, telco services and accommodation for our international students so when they get off the plane, they don’t have to worry. It can be scary travelling to a new country especially when you are only 18. I am 40 and even I was a little disorientated when I visited Japan recently. I want parents to feel assured that their children are well cared for the minute they arrive here. Our aim is not to make a profit but to show the international community that we take good care of all our students. We want to show them the meaning of “Malaysian hospitality”. This is not about EMGS – it is about the country’s image and brand. By the time the borders reopen, we should have these procedures in place.