How Malaysian students make decisions on tertiary studies

Majority of Malaysian students want to find a job or continue their studies at postgraduate level after graduation.

What motivates Malaysian students to go to university and what factors are important to them when making decisions on their application to attend a university?

The key findings from the Malaysian Domestic Student survey by QS Enrolment Solutions released recently presented that a career focus, wanting to progress to postgraduate studies and personal interests were key motivations for prospective students from this country to continue their tertiary education.

The survey, the first of its kind, aims to understand the decision-making criteria that Malaysian students consider when deciding which university to enrol in.

Conducted between November last year and March this year, the inaugural survey had the participation of five universities, with more than 800 individual respondents.

QS Enrolment Solutions managing director Andy Nicol said the report did not just cover the results of the surveys, but outlined recommendations to help Malaysian institutions.

“In an increasingly competitive market, it is crucial that institutions listen to the views of prospective students carefully, particularly in terms of how universities can increase perceptions and ratings of student satisfaction.

“The report can help universities adapt to the changing expectations students and harness the opportunities presented by the shifting higher education market.”

Besides its Domestic Student Survey, QS Enrolment Solutions had also conducted International Student Surveys for more than seven years now. Its sixth International Student Survey had the participation of 75,000 prospective students from 191 countries, giving insights to the interests and behaviours of students.


According to the report, the key motivation for Malaysian students wanting to go to university was reflective to what many prospective students plan to do after they graduate, namely finding a job or studying at the postgraduate level. They were also motivated solely by their passion for the subject matter.

Twenty-nine per cent claimed that the main reason they wanted to go to university was because they were looking for a pathway to further study, while 28 per cent thought that a degree was necessary to compete in the workforce. At the same time, 23 per cent were motivated by their own personal interest.

Looking at the order in which these students made decision gave an indication of the typical route most of them take when filing a university application.

The report said the first thing prospective students decided on was the wider field or area of study before moving on to look at their specific choice of course. Some made these decisions simultaneously. The final stage of the process was deciding on which university they would apply to.

The most important factor for students when choosing a course was the teaching quality. It was what they thought about at the start of the application process, scrutinising and comparing institutions in great detail.

With this being the main consideration, it would also influence their choice of university, reiterating the need for universities to have a wide range of courses for students to choose from.


Nicol said teaching quality and technology were two of the key considerations when measuring the student experience.

However, based on other research that QS Enrolment Solutions conducted on what constituted a “good” student experience was “a highly subjective exercise” that to define it “will vary considerably, depending on the students’ life-stage, background and subject interest”.

Nevertheless, he said: “The student experience, which has always been important, is emerging as a critical area of differentiation and a key measure of success for universities around the world.”

However, Malaysian students relied heavily on numerical indicators, such as university rankings (61 per cent) or percentage scores in the form of graduate employment rates (64 per cent) as a means to judge teaching quality.

The same goes for assessing student experience at the university they are considering to study. The most widely used tool by our students to judge student experience is rankings and ratings (81 per cent) followed by the institution website (76 per cent) and word of mouth from people they know (74 per cent).

The report said this sat in contrast to prospective international students, who focused less on rankings or numeric scores and instead focused on technology and teaching staff as the primary indicators of teaching quality at a given institution.

The largest indicator (68 per cent) for Malaysian students when assessing the teaching quality was that the institution had received recognition of its teaching quality via a countrywide measurement scheme.

According to the report, while Malaysia Qualifications Agency (MQA) had proven useful in helping prospective students compare various aspects about individual courses and universities, it didn’t go as far as to compare institutions based solely on the quality of their teachings.

It was suggested, given the importance of this aspect to prospective domestic students that it could be worth expanding the scope of the MQA to enable it to compare institutions on teaching quality alone. Suggestion from the report was that for MQA to distil this broad subject into a series of easily digestible figures to help prospective students in their decision-making.

Another important indicator of teaching quality was a high graduate employment rate (64 per cent). As future career considerations took place right at the start of the application process for prospective students, so it made sense that they would focus on graduate employment rates as an indicator of teaching quality


Whilst teaching staff wasn’t one of the biggest indicators of teaching quality to Malaysian

students, it was worth looking at the survey on how they defined a “good” teacher.

When asked how they judged a “good” teacher or lecturer, the largest indicator was that they were passionate about the subject they teach.

As one of the biggest motivations for many Malaysian students to go to university was that they have a personal interest in the subject, it was clear that they expected their passion for the subject matter to be reflected by their teachers as well.

Another important indicator was that the teacher had “real-world” experience extending beyond academia.

Nicol said: “This report highlights how a greater focus on celebrating the quality of

teaching, and importantly how an education in Malaysia can lead to international study opportunity, could help universities to attract more students.

“Communicating the passion staff have for the subjects they teach and their ‘real-world’ experience beyond academia could have a major impact, in comparison to purely communicating their academic credentials.”

Nicol added that QS Enrolment Solutions hoped that the results from the surveys would help Malaysian institutions adapt to students’ changing expectations and harness the opportunities presented by the shifting higher education market.

By Hazlina Aziz.

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