Visa woes stunting Malaysia's dream of being higher education hub

PETALING JAYA (Jan 23): Malaysia has been a preferred destination for many international students, ranking as the 11th most preferred study destination by UNESCO.


However, the tertiary education industry players fear that soon inefficiency and bureaucracy over immigration procedures will cause Malaysia’s aim to be a global education hub to become unattainable. 


One industry association estimates that its members alone are losing some 1,000 potential students from foreign countries annually. Considering the large number of foreign students that are seeking to study in Malaysia, the losses would run into millions of ringgit.


Many private colleges are putting the blame on Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS), a private company under the purview of the Education Ministry that was set up to be a one-stop centre to streamline and process foreign student visas.


Private colleges that have large numbers of foreign students are particularly in trouble as they stand to suffer huge losses in revenue as foreign students are switching to other countries when their Malaysian student visa applications are getting caught in delays. 


While most of the well-established private tertiary institutions of higher learning have some number of foreign students, LimKokWing University, Asia Pacific University and Lincoln University College have been known to bank on their foreign student enrolment. 


Insiders in the private education industry complain that EMGS is taking more than the promised two weeks to get the visas approved. The process sometimes takes three to six months, they say. 


One private college official who spoke to said they have their hands full answering queries from potential students from overseas over the status of their student visa applications. Put off by the uncertainty over their student visas, many such students are choosing other education destinations, he said.


Associate Professor Elajsolan Mohan, the President of the National Association of Private Educational Institutions (NAPEI) said at the end of the day the private colleges are a business entity.


“One of the requirements for somebody to set up an education institution is for it to be a private limited company. Once it is a company, the business element comes in and our investors need to be comfortable to invest,” he said.


Officials of NAPEI and the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges and Universities, the two associations that represent private institutions of higher learning, were fed up with what they describe as EMGS’s inefficiency and filed for a judicial review last April against the Registrar-General of Private Higher Educational Institutions and the minister of education as a result of the conditions imposed on them via EMGS.


Elajsolan said that the association’s members were losing many foreign students, as many as 1,000 annually, to neighbouring countries as college placement agents that are employed by institutions in these countries feel that it is better to direct the students to other countries rather than deal with the inefficiencies here.


“If they know that it is going to take three months to send a student to this country and they will not be getting the money and on top of that they have to deal with problems such as when the student will be accepted, the agents think they might as well take the students to other countries,” he said.  


Ironically, in their previous meetings with ministry officials, NAPEI and MAPCU had advocated for a one-stop centre to be set up in collaboration with the government as this could encourage more students to enrol in the private education institutions.


“We were very happy, as it would enable international students to come in very freely,” said Elajsolan. “But the devil was in the details. We did not know that it was going to be costing so much money and that it is going to be outsourced to somebody else.”


Foreign students have to pay RM1,800 in fees to EMGS compared with RM400 previously. The centre had also had to fend off accusations that its staff members were incompetent, and that the delays were due to bureaucracy and mismanagement.


NAPEI also was under the impression that EMGS will be within the ministry as their marketing division until a circular stated otherwise.


“Our understanding was this was the ministry which wanted to coordinate the whole thing and they were going to run the entire operation. Of course, maybe you want to make it more efficient, you want to privatise it, go ahead. But then everything started slowing down,” said Elajsolan. EMGS Chief Executive Officer Yazid Hamid admits that there were teething problems in the beginning but claims that much has improved.


In its client charter, EMGS promises to deliver student visas in 14 working days, taking seven days to clear the paperwork and another seven days for the Immigration Department to grant the visa. However, Yazid claimed that the Immigration Department did not have enough manpower to deal with the applications.


“The delays were because of the processing time for JIM (the Immigration Department) to issue the approval letter. If we send 200 applications a day, within seven days we should be getting 200 letters back. What we had initially was we were not getting that volume. So, we had a continuous backlog initially. This has since improved,” he said. was unable to obtain comments from the relevant immigration officials for this report despite numerous attempts.


Yazid explained that EMGS has now set up an in-house centre for immigration officials to process foreign student visas at its premises. With the newly completed space for the in-house Immigration team that will issue student passes, Yazid does not expect any more problems.


While waiting for the in-house Immigration team to be up and running, EMGS had placed some of their staff members there to help the department’s officers with data entry and the first level screening.


Yazid also makes regular visits to the Immigration department to ensure that applications through EMGS are processed within the given time.


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