Visa woes stunting aspiration to be higher education hub

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PETALING JAYA: Malaysia has been a destination of choice for many international students. In fact, it is ranked the 11th most preferred destination for higher learning by Unesco.

However, tertiary education players fear that inefficiency and bureaucracy in immigration procedures will affect Malaysia’s aim to be a global education hub.

One industry association estimates that its members alone are losing some 1,000 potential students from foreign countries annually. Considering the large number of foreigners who are looking 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 a large number of foreign students are particularly affected as they stand to suffer huge losses in revenue if the students switch to another country when the approval for their Malaysian student visas is delayed.

While most of the well-established private tertiary institutions of higher learning have a 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 two weeks it promised to get the visas approved. The process can sometimes take three to six months, they say.

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

Associate Professor Elajsolan Mohan, the president of the National Association of Private Educational Institutions (Napei) said that at the end of the day, the private colleges are business entities.

“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 added.

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

Elajsolan said the association’s members are 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 places rather than deal with the inefficiencies here.

“If they know 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 feel 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 so that it would encourage more students to enrol in 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 cost so much money and that it was going to be outsourced to somebody else.”

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

Napei was also under the impression that EMGS would 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 said that much has improved. In its client charter, EMGS promises to deliver student visas within 14 working days, taking seven days to clear the paperwork and another seven days for the Immigration Department to grant the visa.

However, according to Yazid, the Immigration Department did not have enough manpower to deal with the applications. “The delays were because of the processing time for JIM [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.

fz.com was unable to obtain comments from immigration officials for this report despite numerous attempts.

Yazid said 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 has placed some of their staff there to help the department’s officers with data entry and first level screening.

Yazid also makes regular visits to the Immigration Department to ensure applications through EMGS are processed within the stipulated time.

For more stories, go to www.fz.com, the website for freedom of expression and fairness in articulation.

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on January 24, 2014.