In terms of international student recruitment, COVID-19 is a great equaliser. Countries that used to host large numbers of international students – Malaysia included – are not able to do so since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as country borders are closed, and citizen movement is restricted in order to mitigate the spread of the virus within communities.

With the great reset, there has never been a better time to rethink strategies and initiatives in order to bring in more international students to Malaysia.

The first thing to do is rethink the purpose of having these international students in the country. We should look at them beyond dollars and cents, as they bring different worldviews to lecture halls and laboratories, and strengthen connections between cultures.

Next, we should rethink how these students live, work, and study in Malaysia. Are they getting the quality education experience that we have promised them in glossy brochures and education fairs? Have we taken good care of their personal and emotional well-being throughout their stay here? Since they are still experiencing stereotyping and prejudice from the society at large, what are we doing to mitigate this problem? Can we allow them to contribute to the local economy through employment opportunities within the country?

We should also rethink Malaysia’s competitive advantage as a study destination for international students. As Malaysia attracts more students from neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, the African continent, Middle East and South Asia, can we exert our unique selling point as a prime supporter for development of countries in the Global South? Should we work on developing education programmes and institutional collaborations for the Global South? Additionally, can we explore a travel bubble between these countries, given the travelling restrictions that will still be in place for the next three to five years? 

The next area that is ripe for innovation is the delivery model of our education programmes. In the pre-COVID days, students have to be physically present in our classrooms in order to obtain a Malaysian degree. Today, can they experience a hybrid Malaysian higher education experience, where they complete some parts of their education in their home countries, before coming here to complete the remainder of their studies? Should we consider a more flexible credit arrangement, where we recognise learning experience from short courses offered online not only by Malaysian universities, but also from universities from around the world?

Our academic and administrative staff should have the readiness and competencies in managing international students – both physically and online. Our international students come from cultural contexts that are different from the domestic market. Are they able to teach and serve the diverse group of students, and make them feel welcomed in Malaysia?

Our policy makers at the Ministry of Higher Education must acknowledge the need to provide more support to our universities and colleges. The closure of border is a decision made by agencies beyond the purview of the Ministry. However, it is the universities and colleges that bear the brunt of the decision. What is/are the short- to mid-term intervention undertaken by the Ministry to facilitate international student admission to universities and colleges, particularly in such trying times?

Finally, we should acknowledge the external sources affecting the movement of international students across borders. These students may be used as political tools that fuel ongoing conflict between nations. In the case of China and Australia, the Chinese government has ordered its students to pursue their studies in UK, instead of Australia. Closer to home, prospective students from Myanmar found it difficult to travel to Thailand higher education institutions, due to the civil unrest happening within the country. We call for greater advisory and consultation from our diplomatic corps in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in navigating the complexity of government-to-government relations.

Malaysia’s survivability as an international student hub hangs in the balance – and now is the time to take action. This article is a summary of discussion points from “Internationalisation – What’s next?”, a webinar organised by the Malaysian Society for Higher Education Policy and Research Development (PenDaPaT) on 24 June 2021. The authors wish to thank Guy Perring (i-Graduate), AP Dr Muhizam Mustafa (Universiti Sains Malaysia), Prof Ly Tran (Deakin University Australia), and Prof Rebecca Taylor (University of Southampton Malaysia) for their valuable contribution to the webinar. 

*Doria Abdullah is a senior lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia & Rozilini Mary Fernandez Chung is an associate professor at University of Nottingham Malaysia. Both are members 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.