Country Guide : Study in Malaysia

A country split by the South China Sea and home to an array of cultures, a diverse geography and a futuristic capital city, Malaysia is a unique place of color and multiculturalism, in both its surroundings and its citizens.

Choose to study in Malaysia and you’ll discover that the country’s natural beauty extends way beyond its ancient rainforests, national parks and glorious beaches. In the cities too, there’s plenty to keep all the senses occupied, from colorful and varied markets to the mosques, Buddhist temples and Hindu shrines that are often found side-by-side, and the profusion of annual festivals celebrating both traditional and modern aspects of Malaysian culture. One of the world’s most politically stable countries, Malaysia may be second to Singapore in terms of regional economic clout, but it also offers a much more organic lifestyle than its city-state rival. Although this means the country lacks some of the organization and clear-cut infrastructure of Singapore, it also means that citizens tend to be a little more laidback and perhaps more sociable.

One half of the country, situated on the southern tip of the peninsula below Thailand, is known as Peninsular Malaysia. This is where all of the highest ranked universities in Malaysia can be found, along with the most diverse and vibrant urban areas. The other half, Malaysian Borneo, shares an island with Indonesia and remains the quieter of the two halves, offering solitude, authenticity and jungle life.

Universities in Malaysia

Although not yet quite at the same level of Asian higher-education leaders such as China, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, Malaysia is thriving as a study destination for international students and is emerging as a strong contender thanks to heavy investment in the education sector.

A large part of Malaysia's plan for higher education expansion is in welcoming international branch campuses, which are run by universities based in other countries. Existing branch campuses include those operated by the UK’s University of Nottingham and Australia’s Monash University.

Part of Malaysia’s investment in branch campuses is the new EduCity development in Johor, at the southernmost tip of Peninsular Malaysia, just 5km north of Singapore. EduCity Iskandar is a 350-acre campus to be shared by eight international branches, four of which are already operational. The initiative will allow Malaysia to compete with the growth of transnational education globally by creating a giant, international student village to attract leading institutions and top students.

EduCity Iskandar, to be fully completed in the year 2018, will be made up of leading universities around the world, including the University of Reading, the University of Southampton and Newcastle University Medicine all hailing from the UK, the Netherlands’ Maritime Institute of Technology, Singapore’s private Raffles University and the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts from the US. Once fully completed, the site will offer a range of degrees accredited by internationally prestigious institutions, as well as shared facilities far more impressive than an individual university would be able to afford – including an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a 14,000-seat sports stadium.

But, while the growing presence of overseas universities in Malaysia is broadening the country’s higher education offering, its home-grown universities should certainly not be overlooked.

Universiti Malaya (UM)

The highest ranked and oldest of all the universities in Malaysia, Universiti Malaya (UM) is ranked 151= in the QS World University Rankings® 2014/15 and is located in central Kuala Lumpur. With a student population of over 21,000, Universiti Malaya (UM) has been steadily growing its multidisciplinary reputation, appearing in the global top 200 for 14 of the subjects covered by the QS World University rankings by Subject 2014; its computer science, engineering and education programs are all in the world’s top 100.

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM)

Located in Bangi, Selangor, approximately 35km south of Kuala Lumpur city center, the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) is ranked 259= in the world. Hosting a current student community of just over 22,600, the school boasts particularly strong programs in the fields of education, politics, engineering, law and mathematics. The Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia also has a graduate school on its main campus and a medical school located in the suburb of Cheras, with a branch campus within the capital.

Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM)

Also ranked among the world’s top 300 universities is Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM). The oldest public engineering and technology university in the country, UTM specializes in technical studies and offers a comprehensive engineering division.

Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)

Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), otherwise known as the University of Science Malaysia, is the only university in Malaysia to reach the top 50 in a subject area, ranking joint 28th in the world for its environmental studies program according to the 2014 QS World University Rankings by Subject. The school has three campuses, with its main campus in Penang, its health campus in Kelantan and its engineering campus in Nibong Tibal. The school also has plans to open a global campus in the capital.

Also featured in the QS World University Rankings are: Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM), the International Islamic University Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi MARA – UiTM. And also deserving a mention for their new positions in this year’s QS World University Rankings by Subject are Universiti Teknologi Petronas, located in Batu Gajah approximately halfway from Penang and Kuala Lumpur and owned by a subsidiary of a national oil company, and Multimedia University in Melaka, halfway between Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru.

Many private universities in Malaysia offer a ‘twinning’ or ‘2+1’ degree option. An idea that has been running in Malaysia for around 20 years, this allows students to complete part of their degree in Malaysia and part at a partner institution in another country. This option has been popular, as it offers the chance to gain a degree accredited by a prestigious university in an established higher education destination (such as the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand, France or Germany) without paying the full costs of studying abroad for the entire length of the degree.

Student cities in Malaysia

Although a key attraction of studying in Malaysia is the relatively low cost of fees and living expenses – certainly when compared to countries like the UK and US – Malaysia is much more than just a budget option for international students.

Home to one of Asia’s most exciting cities, Malaysia offers beautiful landscapes and traditional Malay culture juxtaposed with breathtaking modern architecture. Combined with the influences of indigenous groups and the external cultures of India, China and Britain, the region boasts one of the world’s most culturally diverse societies.

For those who want to make their study-abroad experience a real adventure, there’s plenty of scope to explore a diverse variety of landscapes – from orangutan sanctuaries and rainforest to beautiful beaches and islands.

While Malaysia is a very tolerant and open society, it can be rather conservative in regards to dress code. You should be aware of local norms and in order to respect these, you’ll need to stay fairly well covered when out and about, especially outside of the capital.

Kuala Lumpur

A buzzing metropolis boasting the tallest skyscrapers in Southeast Asia, Kuala Lumpur is home to many of the top universities in Malaysia, including Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia, the International Islamic University Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi MARA.

The city is a jumble of styles, with the grand 19th century buildings of Merdeka Square, holding the remnants of the British Empire’s cultural influence, now in the shadows of the contemporary high-rise architecture soaring above the city center. The Golden Triangle is Kuala Lumpur’s most famous shopping and entertainment district, boasting malls, museums, high-rise towers and five-star hotels.


On the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia, Penang is home to another of the leading universities in Malaysia, the Universiti Sains Malaysia.

As the East India Company’s first settlement on the Malay Peninsula, Penang, a formerly unpopulated, 28 square-kilometer ‘nut island’, became an important trade port. Although Penang’s power waned along with the collapse of the British Empire, its trading legacy lives on with a diverse population of entrepreneurial settlers of all origins, most notably from China. Today Penang trades in technology, having become Malaysia’s answer to ‘Silicon Valley’. The bustling capital of Georgetown, brim full of both ancient and modern trades, is where most of the thrills are, but the area also offers beachside resorts such as Batu Ferringhi and quiet fishing villages such as Teluk Bahang.

Johor Bahru

Just north of the city state of Singapore, connected via a 1038-meter-long causeway, Johor Bahru, once a shabby border town, is morphing into a hub of global education thanks to the EduCity development plan, all set to join the top local university, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

With the attention and investment the area is receiving, Johor Bahru has very recently become a lively and popular place to explore, to shop and to hang out. The weekends see Singaporeans flock to the area, though few travelling foreigners have yet to see the appeal of the cheaper and more authentic attractions and options in Johor. Change will continue for the next few years with the region set to see a steady influx of international university faculty and students, which will further promote a young and vibrant atmosphere of diversity and promise.

Malaysian Borneo

The western part of the country, attached to the island of Indonesia, comprises more than 50% of Malaysia’s area. Although not home to any ranked institutions, Malaysian Borneo offers diverse scenery perfect for adventurous, outdoorsy students.

Malaysian Borneo is divided into the states of Sarawak and Sabah, with the small enclave of Brunei in between. Both areas are covered by dense jungle, with many large rivers running through them, particularly in Sarawak. Sabah is also home to Malaysia’s highest mountain, Mt Kinabalu, standing at 4,101 meters.

Applications, fees and visas

Already the world’s 11th most popular study destination according to UNESCO figures, Malaysia has even grander ambitions, aiming to be the sixth-largest education provider by 2020 with a target of gaining 200,000 international students by this date.

Among the development initiatives introduced to achieve this is a new agency known as Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS), which will provide assistance for foreign students applying to study in Malaysia. As of 2013, students wishing to apply to private universities in Malaysia will need to apply via EMGS with a ‘one stop application’, intended to make the process more efficient and allowing students to apply for multiple courses at multiple institutions in one go. International students looking to study in Malaysia at a public university, however, will still need to apply for their desired program directly through each individual university.

Student passes and visas for Malaysia

All international students will also need a “Student Pass” and student visa. Gaining your Student Pass is simple and, once you are accepted onto a program (at an accredited university in Malaysia), the school itself will directly apply for the pass on your behalf.

Once both your acceptance and Student Pass have been approved, all students (for both private and public universities), will need to apply separately for a single-entry student visa through the Malaysian embassy or high commission in their home country. For this you will need to provide evidence of your offer of study and your Student Pass, have proof of financial stability to meet tuition and living fees, show that you are “in good health and of good character”, and confirm that you intend to live in Malaysia solely for study.

Tuition fees and living costs

Fees differ between universities in Malaysia, with the prevalence of international branch campuses and private institutions bringing the overall average up. In general however, studying in Malaysia is cheaper than many countries, with average tuition fees currently standing at approximately US$6,000 per year.

Surprisingly, the highest ranked university in the country, Universiti Malaya (UM), as a public institution, has an average which is again much lower, standing at just US$1,700 per year for international undergraduates.

Although the prices of programs at Malaysia’s international branch campuses tend to be higher, they are still much cheaper than their international counterparts, while offering the same prestige. For example, if you were to take a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Monash University’s Malaysian branch campus it would cost US$8,650 a year, while at the original Monash University in Australia the price would be double, currently US$17,000 a year.

Living costs in Malaysia are equally appealing, with averages standing at US$6,000 a year (or US$500 a month). While this is relatively low compared to many destinations, it is of course still important to plan your budget as early as possible, especially as your visa application will require proof of available funds.

You will also need to bear in mind that international students are unable to work during term time (the only permitted time students can work is during school holidays of more than seven days, for no more than 20 hours a week). This means that earning your tuition and living expenses as you go is not an option.

Scholarships and grants are a common way for students to find funding to study in Malaysia. Individual universities in Malaysia will often offer scholarships or fellowships to international as well as domestic students, and information on these is available on their websites.

The Malaysian government also offers funds for international students, one such fund being the Malaysian Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan (CSFP), available to both undergraduate and postgraduate students with a 2:1 degree or higher.