It has been 16 months since Malaysia closed its borders to the world. At the current point of writing, the country has undergone extended periods of lockdown, where various socioeconomic sectors - higher education included - were forced to a halt in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within the community.

As borders remain closed, talented individuals - international students, international scholars, and domestic students - are unable to move across countries for academic and research activities. Such circulation of talent is essential not only for knowledge development of the Malaysian society, but also for the country’s economy, as education exports generates jobs, foreign exchanges, and businesses for local communities.

By December 2020, a total of 93,478 international students were enrolled in Malaysian higher education institutions. Out of this figure, 60% of the students were hosted by the private higher education sector, while public universities hosted 40% of them.

The figure is a stark contrast to figures recorded in 2019. By October 2019, Malaysia hosted 136,497 international students, with 43% of them at private universities and colleges, and 57% at public universities.

The contributions of these students go beyond financial values. They enhance diversity of the overall Malaysian higher education system, introducing domestic students and staff to different world views and culture. They also strengthen the system through research, publications, and international networks with their country of origin.

Assuming that the Malaysian borders are still closed for international travel, what does the future hold for Malaysia, a country ranked 12th for international students by UNESCO? What impact will border closure have on private universities and colleges who depend on student fee for survival? Most importantly, what should we do in the short- and medium term in order to weather the current pandemic?

While the US, Australia and Malaysia are still closing their doors to international students, several major host countries, such as the UK and Germany have allowed international students to commence their studies in respective countries physically. Universities and colleges are also exploring virtual mobility programmes to maintain international student ‘flow’ for their institutions. Are our policies makers ready and able to see these challenges and make innovative and sustainable policies?

Other universities have allowed individuals to take microcredit courses online, which enables international students to transfer credit at a later date. Some universities and colleges have even explored a fully online study option - in the form of online and distance learning (ODL) programmes – so that students can still obtain an international degree, without leaving their home countries. There are also major concerns surrounding the implementation of immigration policies in relation to international student and staff, which requires critical scrutiny and review in light of current developments.

COVID-19 pandemic should not distract us from addressing the critical issue of international student recruitment by our universities and colleges, consequently the financial sustainability of the system as a whole, in particular for the private higher education sector.

While there may be no quick fix to some of the challenges, it is certainly high time that the ministries involved – Ministry of Education, Ministry of Higher Education, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Human Resources – consolidate efforts with our universities and colleges to find solutions to some of the more critical concerns. 

The Malaysian Society for Higher Education Policy & Research Development or PenDaPaT will be organising a discourse series to discuss issues concerning international student recruitment on 24 June 2021 (Thursday), 1.45 pm - 3.30 pm via zoom platform. In this event, invited local and international speakers will convene to identify recommendations which will be forwarded to the Ministry of Higher Education after the event.

** Doria Abdullah is a senior lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and Rozilini Mary Fernandez Chung is an associate professor at University of Nottingham Malaysia. Both are member of the Malaysian Society for Higher Education Policy & Research Development or PenDaPaT.

**The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.