Alejandro Ortiz, Research & Advisory Services, WES
Malaysia became a mainstream international higher education player in the late 1990’s after the government introduced a series of policy shifts aimed at liberalizing its higher education system. As a result of these reforms private education boomed, expanding from 6 private universities and 3 foreign branch campuses in 2001 to more than 400 private higher education institutions and 9 foreign branch campuses in 2013.
The Malaysian demand for higher education has also been reflected in recent years by the volume of students going abroad. From 2001 to 2012, the number of Malaysians studying internationally increased by 40%; however, this growth has not been evenly distributed.
According to UNESCO , 1 in 2 Malaysian students are studying in either Australia or the U.K., while only 1 in 10 pursues study in the U.S. Among other factors, Australia – which attracted approximately 17,000 Malaysian students in 2012 – and the U.K. – which attracted close to 13,000 in the same year – may be favored because of historical ties  in the case of the U.K., and strong trade relations  and geographic proximity in the case of Australia.
The number of Malaysian students in the U.S. peaked in the late 1980’s at more than 20,000 students. Today, a third of that number study at U.S. institutions of higher education (6,822′) up from a recent low of 5,000 students in 2007, according to IIE data .
A major contributing factor to the slowdown in the number of Malaysians studying in the U.S. has been a government policy that has supported transnational education (TNE), which has expanded options for ‘glocal ’ students—those with aspirations for a foreign education but lacking the financial means to study abroad. The Malaysian government modified its policies in the late 1990’s to allow local private institutions  to award degrees offered through collaborative or twinning arrangements with foreign universities. This has resulted in an increasing number of local students with foreign degrees  earned either entirely at home or partly at home and partly overseas.
A previous WES report  on TNE shows that Malaysia-based students studying for foreign degree programs from U.K. providers are almost four times as numerous as those actually studying abroad in the U.K., ranking Malaysia as the largest market for U.K.  TNE provision. Despite the fact that the U.S. is the leading country for international branch campuses , it has barely any presence in the Malaysian market – fewer than 10 U.S. higher education institutions  have a transnational degree program in Malaysia, which helps explain the popularity of the UK over the U.S. as a study location, with many students transferring to the foreign awarding institution after their first or second year of Malaysia-based studies.
Malaysia continues to be an attractive but complex market. American institutions interested in attracting Malaysian students should consider diversifying their engagement strategy from traditional recruitment to a more innovative approach including academic and program partnerships. American higher education institutions need to adapt to a major shift in student profiles  and to update their engagement strategies with Malaysian higher education institutions.
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