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The True Cost of Being an International Student from Malaysia

Updated: Jul 6, 2023

How many SPM graduates do you know that have their sights set abroad? With brain drain growing at an average of 6% every year, there's an estimate of two million Malaysians currently living and working overseas. Through widely available education fairs, secondary school students are often encouraged to take their first step on their journey as international students. I’m sure we’ve all been exposed to the wondrous advantages that studying abroad can offer, so let’s look at some of the realities that many international students face as they take the leap across the pond.

Financial Risks

“Tbh, international fees are daylight robbery.”

- Malaysian international student, US 2021 graduate

Most parents of international students see studying abroad as a profitable investment in their child’s future. However, it’s no secret that international tuition fees can cost an arm and a leg, which begs the question: Is studying abroad actually worth it?

At the end of the day, this question can only be answered by each student and their personal circumstances. Due to the exchange rate and subsidies for domestic students, there is a rather significant gap between local and international tuition fees. In fact, Canada’s national statistical office has revealed that the average international undergraduate student will pay around 430% more than Canadian students this year. Back in Malaysia, government subsidies also reduce the cost for local students in public universities. As of 2022, the difference between domestic and international undergraduate tuition is roughly six times in both countries.

The Price of Time

A week before Canadian universities’ primary intake in September 2022, the immigration department announced the extension of distance learning measures which allowed students to study online without affecting their post-graduation work permit eligibility. Alongside other criteria, the notice stated that the department’s efforts to respond to humanitarian crises and update technology to meet demands were the cause of major visa processing delays.

The severity of the issue has been highlighted by institutions that have reported that up to 50% of their international students had yet to receive their study permits. These students were faced with two options:

  1. start the semester remotely and learn to adjust to a different time zone with no guarantee of entry to the country

  2. defer their studies and wait until next year

As usual processing times might not be applicable when there are excessive backlogs, future students are advised to prepare their study permit applications as early as possible, especially if applying to the US or Canada.

Mental Health Declines

Experiencing pressure from the high cost of tuition and accommodations and expectations of academic achievement, international students tend to struggle to maintain a healthy study-life balance. A study of an American university’s international student population revealed that 45% of international students suffered from depression while 25% had anxiety. Adapting to a different culture of foreign food, behaviours, and even beliefs can be jarring; when coupled with bouts of discrimination, it could become unbearable.

Thankfully, Western countries in general seem to emphasise the importance of mental health with the availability of student support. Besides reaching out to international student services, students could try accessing their university’s counselling services or mental health support through existing insurance plans.

As Malaysian students are looking for greener pastures abroad, there are certain costs that well-designed university prospectuses don’t mention. A simple fact is that there will always be more opportunities for domestic students, not only in terms of financial aid and scholarships but also preferences in the job market. Malaysian international students have to work twice as hard to get an edge and catch up with the locals in terms of connections and work experience. Without understanding and working towards mitigating the risks, studying abroad could easily be a high-risk, low-return investment. Though university life as an international student can indeed be a life-changing experience, being well prepared for it makes that change an abundantly positive one.

Written by: Isabel Ng

CM Journalist 21/22


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