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Why do your PhD in Malaysia?

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L’Huillier

Malaysia is one of the rising economies of South-East Asia and is considered as a “newly industrialised country". The Asian Development Bank continues to predict strong economic growth in 2012-2013 in Malaysia. It is one of the emerging Higher Education providers in the region with publicly-funded universities, private institutions and branches of overseas universities being part of a rich and varied educational landscape.

With its ambition to become a hub of higher education excellence in the next 10 years, Malaysia has embarked in large-scale reviews of teaching and research. The Malaysian higher education has also experienced a strong internationalisation programme and is characterised by an openness to international students.

English is the main language of instruction. Overall, around 58,000 international students are enrolled throughout Malaysia (6% of total student population), most notably from Iran, Indonesia, China, Nigeria, Yemen, Iraq and Thailand. Malaysia has ambitious targets to reach a minimum of 10 % international students enrolled in its universities. Recent figures from the government place Malaysia in the top 20 in the world for the number of international students it hosts. 130 countries in total are represented amongst the student community, making it one of the most diverse of its kind.

In the last decade, the Government, one of the main supporters of research, has invested in large-scale refurbishments of research installations, notably in chemistry, engineering and biotechnology. A number of research centres have established themselves as leaders in niche areas. Universities also have large well-equipped campuses which can be found either at the heart of Malaysia’s cities or outside for some of the newest ones.

Enhancing the number of PhD holders amongst faculty members and research staff is one of Malaysia’s greatest challenges but the country is making head way, the number having increased from 6,000 to 14,000 between 2005-2010 in public universities. This is more variable within private universities. While the Malaysian government has greatly invested in the training of Malaysian students by funding doctoral education opportunities abroad, it is now aiming to train 60,000 PhD students in Malaysia between 2010-2023 as part of its “Malaysian National Higher Education Strategic Plan Beyond 2020”. One of the ways the government is supporting this initiative is “MyBrain15”, a large scheme of postgraduate grants for Malaysian students.

Most universities are centered around Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. Many new universities can also be found in Petaling Jaya, Shah Alam and other parts of Selangor, Penang Island and Sarawak in Borneo.

University system in Malaysia

The Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) is the government department responsible for regulating higher education institutions, both public and private. The MOHE supports Malaysia’s aim to become a centre of educational excellence and to internationalise Malaysian education.

Post graduate degree programs are monitored by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency, the role of which to implement the Malaysian Qualifications Framework) to ensure the quality of standards in higher education.

Malaysia offers international students a wide array of study options: 20 public universities, 33 private universities and university-colleges and 6 foreign university branch campuses.

While public universities in Malaysia are funded by the Government, they are autonomous and they manage all aspects of their teaching, research and administration. The establishment of private universities begun when the Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996 was passed. Malaysia’s recent position in the rankings is, however, mostly attributed to its public universities. Universiti Malaya (University of Malaya) has featured in the Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities in the last two years. Other rankings such as the QS World University Rankings place it in the top 200 (top 50 in Asia). 5 out the 6 remaining Malaysian universities in the top 500 in the world are public universities (the one exception being Multimedia University).

Most doctoral students in Malaysia are training in public rather than private universities. Malaysia boasts 5 research-intensive universities which cover the full range of disciplines and feature impressive technological and scientific equipment.

Public Universities (5 of Malaysia's research-intensive universities)

  • University of Malaya (UM - Universiti Malaya)
    One of the oldest in Malaysia, it has 27,000 students and conducts research in 12 faculties (and a large number of Centres) covering a wide-range of subjects, from medicine and health to Islamic studies and education. It also hosts the European Commission-funded Asia-Europe Institute.
  • National University of Malaysia (UKM - Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia).
    Similar in size and in academic scope to UM, UKM’s research is conducted in faculties and associated research institutes.
  • University of Science, Malaysia (Universiti Sains Malaya)
    A large institution (35,000 students) where all branches of science and engineering are present, it also offers programmes in social sciences and management.
  • Putra University, Malaysia (Universiti Putra Malaysia)
    This university, established in 1971, is a specialist institution in agriculture and agronomy (in its widest sense of the term, ie also including medicine and veterinary science). It has two campuses, one in Kuala Lumpur and one in the North of the country.
  • University of Technology, Malaysia (Universiti Teknologi Malaysia)
    Specialised in technology, pure sciences and engineering, it has prestigious research facilities, notably in ship building.

Private institutions

Private universities are located throughout the country. Some welcome large proportions of international students, have bilateral agreements with overseas or have distinctive specialisation (e.g. medicine or management). These include:

  • Asia e University
  • Multimedia University (Universiti Multimedia) in Malacca and Selangor
  • University of Kuala Lumpur (Universiti Kuala Lumpur)
  • Binary University of Management and Entrepreneurship (Universiti Pengurusan dan Keusahawanan)
  • Petronas University of Technology (Universiti Teknologi Petronas)

Foreign institutions

Malaysia is becoming a destination of choice for transnational education and a growing number of universities from the UK and Australia have opened campuses there.

  • Newcastle University (Medicine)
  • Southampton
  • Nottingham University
  • Curtin University of Techonology
  • Monash University
  • Swinburne University
Malaysian PhDs

Image Credits (top-bottom): Andrew Reid Wildman; Arian Zwegers; McKay Savage; Prashant Ram.


PhD Tuition fees and miscellaneous fees

The fee structure in Malaysian public universities can be fairly complex so it is worth spending a bit of time researching the costs involved. In general, however, doctoral education in Malaysia is offered at lower costs that in the UK, USA or Australia.

Most universities will have a separate fee structure for international students. Below is a breakdown of PhD fees in Ringgit Malaya (MYR), the national currency. Fees may be presented as tuition fees/research fees/supervision fees per semester plus other fees OR by different stages of your PhD, e.g. 1st semester (which will include initial fees such as registration), subsequent semesters and final semester (which will include examination fees for example). An additional “international students” fee may be in addition to the fees or may be integrated in the “international student fees”.

Tuition fees/research fees/supervision fees will vary depending on the institution and the subject.

  • Application fee: around MYR150-180 ($50-$60)
  • Registration fee: MYR485-910
  • Tuition fees: MYR3100-6,300/semester
  • Personal bond: MYR200-2000 (This is a deposit which serves as a guarantee of completion. It is reimbursed after graduation.)
  • Exam fee: MYR1000-2000
  • Taught courses fees if compulsory modules are to be taken
  • Social pass (optional): MYR90/year
  • Health insurance (compulsory): around MYR175-350/year (normally covering personal accident and death, in-patient service and repatriation
  • Student pass (visa) application: MYR60
  • Formal visa application: varies depending on embassy in country of origin

PhD Scholarships and Financial Assistance

Government funding for international students

  • The Malaysia International Scholarship (MIS) is an initiative by the Malaysian Government to attract the best students from around the world in any selected and well-established Malaysian public and private universities. It provides a generous package of funding and is available in priorities areas: science and engineering; agriculture and fisheries; economics and Islamic finance; ICT; biotechnology; biosecurity and food safety; infrastructure and utility; health (exc. clinical subjects); and environmental studies.
  • The Malaysian Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan awards funding to nominated students from the Commonwealth countries to study at postgraduate level in Malaysia. PhD applicants must have a a very good Master degree level in the field they intended to pursue their doctoral study.
  • The Malaysian Technical Cooperation Programme Scholarship (MTCP) for Postgraduate Studies provides opportunities for students to pursue advanced academic study in Malaysia. This scholarship is a bilateral agreement between Malaysia and other countries whose promising students are expected to make a contribution when they return to their home country. Students do not have any obligation to work in Malaysia after graduation. The duration of the award is 36 months for a PhD.

University scholarships

Universities may award scholarships based on academic merit and following the recommendation of the host department/research centre. These usually include tuition fees (sometimes excluding other fees) and a stipend.

  • Universiti Sains Malaya SM – PRGS provide financial support to assist full-time research students of USM
  • Bright Sparks Scheme University of Malaya /Skim Bright Sparks Universiti Malaya (SBSUM)

Teaching and Research Assistantships

Students undertake teaching and/or research duties within their institution. You may be ask to keep office hours and to mark exam papers which will be time spent away from your PhD. However, you will also gain academic experience and may be involved directly in the research work of senior members of staff.

External funding

  • Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF)
  • Islamic Development Bank Scholarships (IDB)
  • The Khazanah Asia Scholarships (for citizens of countries of emerging economies in Asia)

Applying and Admissions

There is no centralised postgraduate application agency in Malaysia. Applications are made directly to the individual universities (or even individual Graduate Schools) using an application form or via their websites (if a form is available online). You can apply to more than one university but make sure you know what you should supply in your application as it varies from institution to institution. Some will only require a letter while others will want a complete academic history and research plan. It is common practice to submit a research proposal (or at least an abstract of your proposed research) when applying for a PhD.

A small number of institutions (e.g. Asia e University) do not require you to supply a research proposal or to identify prospective supervisors when you apply. You will then be assigned a supervisor by the institution and you will develop your thesis proposal while at the institution.

You may be required to have your certificates/diplomas verified and endorsed. This can be done in several government offices of the Department of Higher Education. Different offices deal with students from public or private institutions.

A PhD is Malaysia typically takes around 3-4 years with a minimum of 4-6 semesters (Please not that it is extremely rare to complete a PhD is less than 3 years and only a couple of universities have such regulations). Part-time PhDs are not available everywhere and international students are generally not allowed to do part-time study.

PhD programmes can start throughout the year but some universities will have two intakes a year, in July and February.

Entry Requirements

Admission into a PhD. programme generally requires a good Masters degree in a relevant discipline (cGPA of 3.00 or over) or a Masters degree AND research experience. Applicants with a first class Honours degree or equivalent in a relevant discipline are also eligible to apply directly to do a PhD (this is sometimes called “fast-track” to PhD). In disciplines such as management or business, applicants may also be asked to demonstrate readiness for graduate study through specific entry examinations (e.g. GRE or GMAT).

Language requirements

International applicants from countries where English is not the language of instruction will be required to demonstrate English proficiency by providing either a TOEFL (minimum score in the region of 60) or IELTS (minimum Band 6) certificate. Conditional offers may also be made to applicants with borderline (but below the requirement) scores. These applicants will then be required to attend and pass a university English test before full admission is granted.

In public universities, international students (except students from Indonesia and Brunei) must also obtain a pass grade in a Malay Language course to be eligible to graduate at the end of their degree.

Health requirements

Health requirements are often part of the admission process and public universities will have strict restrictions:

  • Students whose medical checks reveal conditions or test results such as AIDS, cancer or positive drug tests will not be allowed to register.
  • Students with communicable diseases such as malaria or tuberculosis will have to defer their entry until treatment has been completed in their home country.
  • Other conditions (e.g. hypertension, diabetes) will not prevent the students from registering but students will have to demonstrate that their condition will not affect their study.

PhD Structure

Doctoral studies in Malaysia are not as structured as in countries such as Singapore and consist mainly of academic research. Students will be asked to attend research methods courses in their first year but this will often be the only course requirement. PhD students may also have to give require regular seminar presentations on their PhD research as well as a research progress presentation (which may be called a “defense”) prior to final submission of the thesis.

Award of a PhD in Malaysia is most commonly based on:

  • Appropriate number of credits in research methodology courses
  • Seminar presentations throughout the PhD
  • The thesis
  • A viva voce (including a presentation) in front of a committee
  • 1-2 publication(s) in peer-reviewed journals

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