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Can The Average Malaysian Afford Tertiary Education?

Recently, the University Malaya student union expressed their dissatisfaction on the planned increment of between 10% to 60% on course fees in University Malaya[1].The rate of inflation shows no slowing down and as we transition from pandemic to a new normal, the increase would not only hit tuition fees but also in living costs. Let’s take this conversation forward and attempt to understand the dilemma of tertiary education costs in Malaysia. 

As of 2021, Malaysia houses 20 public universities and 437 private universities[2]. The enrollment rate each year to tertiary education has increased exponentially, and reportedly in 2020, 101,101 students enrolled in public universities and 70,048 students stepped into private universities to pursue their undergraduate studies [3].The figures indicate that more Malaysians are receiving a degree as compared to 10 years ago and we have achieved more than 1.2 million higher education enrollment [4].  


A degree scroll is deemed as a necessity to our parents, an essential key to financial security, and higher income. It is resoundingly true as those who completed tertiary education are paid higher (mean wage of RM4,171) than those who only have a high school diploma (mean wage of RM2,125) [5]. Ironically, the promised future threatens our parents’ financial status and it jeopardises our finances at the same time.

In 2015, the average working parents in Malaysia spent 55% of their income on a child’s tertiary education[6]. The percentage makes us the fifth most expensive country to gain a university education[7]. 

The estimated tuition fees in public and private universities are, of course, jarring. An estimated average cost of tuition fees in a public university is at least RM26,000 for a 4-year degree and RM35,000 for more in-demand courses in better-ranked universities [8].  

Compare this figure to the price tag of a private university in Selangor, an arts and humanities degree costs around RM38,213 per year. A more in demand engineering course requires a fee payment of RM48,101 per year and in three years, the cost would rise to RM144,303. At the same time, private universities linked to foreign institutions offer twinning programs which would hike up the expenditure even more[8]. 

At least 93% of Malaysian parents would fund their children’s tertiary education despite its heavy burden[9]. By dipping into the education savings of each child, taking an education loan under their names or even withdrawing their Employment Provident Fund to ensure their child would attain a better education. 

“Parents are taking out money from their Employees Provident Fund (EPF) account to finance their children’s education and that causes a huge leakage for their retirement. We [financial planners] do not recommend this. You can take a loan for your child’s education, but you cannot take a loan for your retirement.” Joyce Chuah, Success Concepts Life Planners CEO [10] 

Reality Check: Limited Options For Affordable Tertiary Education  

With the given digits, it is no surprise that instinctively the cheaper option that is readily available should be the one that we grab. This option, however, comes with its eligibility criteria. 

In 2020, out of 92,017 who have applied to public universities, only 48,605 students were selected on the first stage of public university placement through  Unit Pusat Universiti (UPU), others would have to re-appeal for a placement[11]. However, the 90:10 quota that was imposed resulted in more enrollment of Bumiputra as opposed to the minority community. Yet, public universities also select potential international students to be a part of their universities intensifying the competition for a place. 

Source: Unsplash

There have been calls to abolish the racial quota and voices fighting for a more inclusive public education which would ensure that only qualified students regardless of their racial background deserve a seat in the public universities. Priorities should be given to those who belong to families with lower socioeconomic status which have received backlash. 

The reality now is that those who are not accepted by public universities would have to seek alternative options which leads them to the steps of private universities. This has deterred those who are deserving of a seat but cannot afford the stipulated fees to withdraw from further education. 

For example, the B40 community who are scrapping barrels to ensure survival and the M40 community who would have to trade-off their daily consumption to ease the struggles of their children to private universities.

The Living Cost And Its Geographical Location 

In addition to the whopping cost of education, the day-to-day spending is another additional concern. A range of RM13,200 to RM160,000 is needed per year for a child’s daily living cost over four years of university in 2018 and it may lead up to RM 640,000 for a private university[10]. However, the inflation rate may have increased the cited figures. 

To a B40 family, the burden of fees and the additional living costs add to the hefty price tag tertiary education strings along. For example, an undergraduate belonging to a B40 family who lives in East Malaysia requires to move to Selangor to study further would require a flight ticket each semester, rented accommodation and monthly allowances to sustain. Entrance to universities that are located in the urban areas and the skyrocketing costs of living is another hole in the pocket of the M40 families.  

In 2016, at least 97% of students in selected public universities shared that they require financial assistance and 74% of them had no money for meals[12]

Students from B40 backgrounds were cited to fast frequently and rely on a simple bread as a meal for several days. The survey spurred the establishment of food banks in public universities nationwide and the channelling of surplus food to university students in 2019[13]

But at the same time, the stereotype that those who attend private universities are well-to-do may have shielded the reality of students who may be skipping meals to ensure their allowances would last them for a month. 

The Sustained Burden Of Loans Post-Graduation 

There are aids out there for those who are in public and private universities; from scholarships to loans that would reduce the significant burden of their families. However, there are fine prints to each; with scholarships, students would have to maintain a certain Grade Point Average GPA or grade to qualify and it is rightfully awarded to high-achievers.  

With loans, there are those which are catered to only specific target groups and Perbadanan Tabung Pendidikan Tinggi Nasional (PTPTN) loans which are universally offered to students. However, the given amount is often meagre and may only help the students to a certain extent. Private universities out there have given tuition fee waivers to ease their burden. At the end of their studies, those who did well in their studies would also benefit from the reduction of loan payment or even conversion of the loan to scholarships. 

Yet, an average student  would not only receive a degree scroll. But they will also be saddled with the repayment cost of the loans as soon as 6 months after graduation already affecting their financial security in the future. 

The loan repayment of at least a few hundred ringgit per month, taking into account the living cost  “is actually about ten percent of most millennials’ salaries.[14]

For this very reason, most Malaysian parents by hook or crook attempt to fully fund their children’s education to ensure their entrance to adulthood would be a clean slate in its financial trajectory.   

“I believe we need to pay forward our debts. But the payment should be fair, not burdensome … especially to those who have been diligently paying their loans on time.” Syed Saddiq, former Youth and Sports Minister of Malaysia [14]

Students Are Adulting Sooner 

Source: New Straits Times

Opinions are also suggesting that university students are old enough to feed themselves rather than waiting for handouts from their parents. 

“With student finance presenting an increasingly complicated picture, many students are finding alternative sources to keep up with costs, including paid employment and borrowing from friends, family or personal loans.” Tara Latini, HSBC Malaysia’s head of retail banking and wealth management [15]

Based on a HSBC report in 2018, 9 out of 10 Malaysian university students are working part-time to garner extra income while studying[15]

“People say the poorer kids are lazy and not doing what they should in order to survive, but this is a half-truth. While I agree some are lazy, the rest are having a hard time coping with classes just like the rest of us,” Choong Jin Shen, an undergraduate in 2019[16] 

The HSBC Report also shed light that working students spend an average of 3.4 hours per day in their paid employment as compared to spending their time in the library (2.1 hours) or studying at home (2.3 hours) [15]

With this in mind, could we still place the blame on the shoulders of the young generation for adopting a laissez-faire attitude when the exponential living expenses are unfavourably over the years?  

Preparing For The Looming Future 

Interestingly, our tertiary education facilities were highlighted as one of the most affordable locations for international students. Malaysia also ranked second as the most affordable destination for students in 2018 and 2019 [17].  Yet at the same time, the whopping amount can easily retract most Malaysians with no financial backing to pursue tertiary education.  

We have unearthed the cost behind tertiary education, the stark differences between the projected amount of attending public and private institutions including its living costs. To those who had the very goal of attending tertiary education, surely, saving up money has been in the picture by both the parents and students. 

At the same time, there is help out there for high-achievers who may need it with scholarships, loans and their set rules by governmental, non-governmental and corporate bodies such as :

However, potential students should also have a look at the lesser- known aids such as bursaries, grants and tuition fee waivers that are on offer to support their tertiary education such as the: 

Education is an important investment to uplift an individual and the community despite its increasingly steep cost. With the demands of the job market, it is a necessity to hold a degree scroll. Even if it’s not the choice of many, it should be on the cards for all Malaysian youth to have an accessible and affordable tertiary education without compromising its quality. 

Over the years, with the struggles of many parents and students out there we recognise that there is one thing that rings true when it comes to enrolling into universities – if there’s a will, there’s always a way. 

Source: New Straits Times

Explore our sources:

  1. Free Malaysia Today. (2021). Why the steep hike in tuition fees, union asks Universiti Malaya. Link
  2. Ministry of Higher Education. (2021). Main page. Link
  3. Ministry of Higher Education. (2020). Statistiks Pendidikan Tinggi 2020 : Makro Institusi Pendidikan Tinggi. Link
  4. Ministry of Higher Education (2015). Malaysia Education Blueprint 2015-2025 (Higher Education). Link
  5. Department of Statistics Malaysia. (2021). Salaries & Wages Survey Report, Malaysia. Link
  6. OCBC Bank Malaysia. (2015). How much does your child need for university? Link
  7. L. Crossfield. (2015). The Most Expensive Places to Send your Kids to University. Expert Market. Link
  8. Afterschool.(2021). Public universities vs private universities: Which one is better? Link
  9. E.Kiang. (2019). Should parents pay for their children’s higher education? Free Malaysia Today. Link
  10. L. Ismail. (2018). Cover Story: The cost of raising a child today. The Edge Markets. Link
  11. Afterschool.(2020). Over 40,000 Students Enrolled in Public Universities Through UPU Academic Session 2020/2021. Link
  12.  Malaysiakini. (2016). Three out of four varsity students too broke to eat. Malaysiakini. Link
  13. J.K.Jr. (2019). Food for needy students. The Star. Link
  14. V.Nades. (2019). Higher education loans in Malaysia: Opportunities but at a cost. Channel News Asia. Link
  15. HSBC (2018). The Value of Education — The Price of Success. Link
  16. R. Loheshwar. (2019). Aren’t varsity students old enough to work for their own sustenance? Malay Mail. Link
  17. StudyMalaysia.(2020). The cost of higher education in Malaysia. Link

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