Studying abroad a distant dream with low ringgit, higher cost

Looi Sue-Chern

Many dream of going to a top university like Harvard but with the ringgit at an all-time low, the tuition fees prove impossible. – EPA pic, July 14, 2017.

MALAYSIAN parents who once hoped to send their children abroad for their tertiary education are now forced to consider local or alternative options, as they take into account the weakening ringgit and ever-increasing cost of living.

According to the recent HSBC Value of Education 2017 survey, fewer Malaysian parents are considering sending their child to overseas universities compared with just three years ago.

The survey – a global consumer research study on parents’ attitude and behaviour towards their children’s education – noted that 51% of respondents said they would want to send their children abroad, a drop from the 88% recorded in a similar survey by HSBC in 2014.

The survey, which was conducted in February and published on June 28, interviewed 8,481 parents in Australia, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, Taiwan, United Arab Emirates, the UK and US.

The drop in the number of Malaysian parents hoping to send their children abroad for university has largely been blamed on the depreciated ringgit, which has depreciated almost 23% against the US dollar from 2014, making it costlier to live and study abroad.

A weakened global economy and rising cost of living at home are other factors.

Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) chairman Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim said apart from tuition fees which can go up to hundreds of thousands of ringgit, parents also have to set aside money for living costs for children studying abroad.

“The economy was also not doing so well in the last two or three years. We also read reports of lay-offs, and retrenchments,” she told The Malaysian Insight.

According to, the ringgit was at RM3.28 and RM3.50 against the US dollar on December 31, 2013 and 2014 respectively.

The ringgit then weakened to RM4.29 on December 31, 2015, and dived to RM4.48 on December 29 last year. The currency had only slightly improved recently, with the rate going at RM4.30 against the US dollar now, but far from returning to what it was in 2014.

Invest more in local universities, scholarships

Parents and educationists said the current global climate, which has shut the door for many foreign universities, should mean a greater emphasis by the government on building up the local educational institutions.

Bukit Bendera MP Zairil Khir Johari said it “might not be the smartest thing” for Putrajaya to cut funding for higher education now, when cost of living was rising and there was a need to maintain educational competitiveness with the rest of the world.

“Unfortunately, they have done it two years in a row. The budget cuts to universities means (they) are forced to find other means to generate revenue.

“Eventually, the cost will be passed down to students. Secondly, the significant cutting of scholarships will also make higher education even less accessible to many Malaysian families, and this will in turn affect the competitiveness of our labour force,” Zairil, who is DAP’s parliamentary spokesperson for education, told The Malaysian Insight.

In Budget 2017, the government allocated RM52.4 billion for education, down from 2016’s RM54.74 billion. Previously, the budget for education increased from RM52.7 billion in 2013 to RM56.63 on 2015.

The projected spending for higher education is RM12.13 billion, an almost 20% cut from 2016’s RM13.38 billion. Out of 20 public universities, 10 have their budget slashed from 10% to more than 30%, with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and Universiti Putra Malaysia suffering the biggest cuts.

Bukit Bendera MP Zairil Khir Johari says the government should invest in local education instead of cutting funding for universities. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, July 14, 2017.

Azimah from PAGE said fewer parents were hopeful of sending their children abroad as it is now harder to secure scholarships after the government, private sponsors and foundations have cut down on overseas scholarships over the years.

“We know that the government has been slashing its budget here and there due to reduced oil revenue, but some private foundations are also cutting down their overseas scholarships.

“Many are instead offering scholarships and loans for students to study locally. So, the responsibility to send students overseas has now shifted back to parents,” she said.

Last year, the government reportedly saved RM240 million after slashing 744 overseas scholarships under the Public Service Department (JPA). In the recalibrated budget announced in January last year, the government cut the JPA scholarship budget to RM1.65 billion.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Azalina Othman Said in a parliamentary written reply in March 2016 that a single student studying overseas on scholarship cost the government between RM38,115 and MR277,515 a year, while one studying locally only cost between RM10,350 and RM12,690.

Malaysian Education and Intellect Club executive secretary Mohd Nor Izzat Mohd Johari said the government should be investing more into raising the quality of local universities, which he said has improved over the years and should be presented as a viable alternative to obtaining foreign education.

“I believe the quality of the local universities is improving.

“Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with studying locally. Whether we do well or not depends on us, not where we study.” – July 14, 2017.

Sign up or sign in here to comment.