Acumen Leadership in Conversation— Cecilia Pereira-Yates: The Malaysian Market: “It’s not just a commercial relationship”

Before joining Acumen, Cecilia was a Managing Director for GB8 International Education and Partnerships Specialist, a company she founded in 2012.  Cecilia’s  experience and expertise of over 26 years is in the areas of international student recruitment, transnational education, international partnerships and cultural awareness training.

Some of her key consultancy projects included the setting up of regional offices in Southeast Asia for a number of universities in key target countries, specifically Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia. A strong advocate of the parent voice, Cecilia set up a parent group in April 2020 to support parents and sponsors navigate the challenges surrounding studying overseas during the pandemic. Cecilia helped design effective student recruitment and conversion plans which focused on parent engagement as they are the key influencers in the student decision-making process.  

Cecilia joined the Acumen UK team in June 2022 as Director of Client Success.

Let’s recap the Malaysian market. What happened in 2022?

Covid halted the opportunity to study abroad for many Malaysians. The pandemic limited the opportunity to travel and study overseas, thus resulting in a higher demand for in-country provision. The closed borders forced many students to undertake their studies online, in order to obtain an overseas qualification. So after two years of being in a very restrictive environment, the appetite to want to study overseas definitely increased and we saw some key changes. I think that particularly from the parent’s perspective matters such as health,  safety and security became much more important in the decision-making process as a result of the pandemic.

The country opened its borders in April 2022 and that enabled in-country recruitment activities to begin, allowing for more in-person events to take place. The demand for international education was buoyant with the UK being a prime student destination. This is primarily because of the early opening of the UK borders as compared to Australia and New Zealand. 

And what were the main struggles or complications you’ve heard clients and those in the industry talk about last year?

One of the complications was around student visa renewals and applications for student visas. There was a large backlog with students sometimes feeling frustrated with the time it took for universities to give out their visa documentation. 

Another big issue that was heightened in 2022 was the lack of suitable accommodation. This was especially so for those students who had families accompanying them. Postgraduate students, especially those undertaking their PhDs were likely to arrive in the UK with their family, thus securing suitable family accommodation proved to be extremely challenging. 

Some international borders were slow to open and this resulted in many students being unable to travel to their preferred study destinations. This heightened the use of virtual learning, and for many, this in itself was a struggle. Access to conducive learning environments and technology was a struggle for many.

What new concerns face higher education in 2023?

For most  Malaysians and international students, opportunities for graduate level employment post education continues to be critical. It is a key decision making factor when choosing to study overseas.  It is about the return on investment. For many undergraduate students, parents are key decision makers. The investment to study overseas is extremely high and therefore, they will want to see a positive outcome from this investment. The experience of working and living overseas will add to the student’s CV when they then return to Malaysia.

The global economic uncertainty (fluctuating interest rates, inflation and foreign exchange) will impact on the affordability of undertaking international higher education opportunities.  Additionally, as Malaysia is a regional education hub, it may equally be impacted by the global economic uncertainty.

Will the higher education market in Malaysia be affected by rising inflation and a looming recession?

The higher education landscape in Malaysia is varied and is home to many public and private institutions. Affordability amongst Malaysians will no doubt have an impact on the local higher education provision. Students are already having to stretch their budgets as allowances and scholarships lessen. Of course there are segments of society which remain unaffected by rising inflation and therefore are able to afford studying at premium institutions locally or opt for international higher education provision. 

Decision makers will start to compare destinations and evaluate what the overall study experience is, what the value of education and the return on investment is going to be. Price will always be a factor for a large proportion of people, however, I do believe the demand for overseas education will still remain strong, certainly in the medium term. In the immediate term, parents and financial sponsors may have some hesitation because of economic uncertainties however for many, an overseas qualification is a priority. Importantly,  they would have prepared and planned for this investment a lot earlier in the child’s life cycle and be quite resilient in the face of global economic fluctuations.

What trends can we expect to emerge or continue in 2023?

The strong interest in undergraduate programs will continue especially in the STEM and fintech/ digital economy subject areas. Students will also be keen to opt for programmes which include internship opportunities. Although this increases the duration of study overseas, it is seen as an attractive option for employability post graduation. 

The demand for TNE programmes offered in Malaysia will grow especially if there is an extreme economic slowdown. This is  because there might be an economic impact on affordability for a larger population in Malaysia (middle income group), who would then need to look at shortening the length of time spent overseas. Interest for articulation programmes which enable spending a larger proportion of the course studied in-country is likely to increase.

Do you have a message or any thoughts that you want to share with market leaders etc?

The student experience and return on investment are key factors that cannot be underestimated. Parents and financial sponsors pay a great deal of attention to the quality of the student experience and the key output from the financial investment is employment post graduation.  Having a diverse student community that is inclusive and accepting of all cultures is vital in helping to create a positive student experience. Equally, creating opportunities that will help enhance employability options for students is so important. 

Relationships matter and as such, it is important that we are visible in all aspects of international student recruitment and partnerships. The pandemic restricted many in person activities but now as we return to normality, it is timely for us to invigorate stakeholder relationships. 

What positives have you found in the marketplace?

Agents continue to play a positive role in the market. There are many trustworthy agents in Malaysia who give really good service to students. Some were very visible and supportive to students especially during the pandemic and they adapted their services to suit the needs of the students during that period. 

There are some really good quality  local in-country provisions which can enable plenty of opportunities for TNE. Collaboration in terms of dual degrees, articulation and research partnerships  especially in niche subject areas continue to grow. The conducive regulatory and business environment enables institutions looking to grow their partnership activities.

And finally, can you share any areas of improvement needed within the business?

Being responsive to the needs of the customer is so important in this fast moving environment. Students, parents, agents, sponsors all require prompt answers to their questions. Therefore we need to adapt and utilise social media platforms where possible. For example, students engage better on WhatsApp compared to emails. They prefer texting to answering phone calls. As a business, we need to ensure we are engaging in the right manner with our customers. 

We need to really develop and enhance our relationships in the market.  It is very important to build trust with key stakeholders and be visible. Being culturally aware can really help in navigating the sometimes very nuanced market. 

Check out more from Acumen leadership in conversation for more reflections, insights, and predictions for 2023.