Getting Back On Track - The Star, 30 Jun 2019
Shahinuddin is banking on data to drive the education sector.
AFTER 37 years, Shahinuddin Shariff traded his lawyer robes to spearhead Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS), a wholly-owned company of the Education Ministry that operates a one-stop-centre for international student services together with the Immigration Department.
Although appointed chief executive officer in January, Shahinuddin has been on the EMGS’ board since 2012, when the company was set up. Frustrated with how EMGS has failed to live up to its potential, he didn’t hesitate when asked to take on the hot seat.
Past focus on education exhibitions has had limited impact, with Malaysia losing its leading position as an education hub to neighbours like Thailand, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan. Alarmingly, the number of foreign student applications has dropped by 39% over the past four years. But Shahinuddin is confident of reversing that trend.
“I used to make so much noise as a board member, especially on the lack of good governance in the company, but nothing was done.
“So I offered to resign but EMGS chairman Abdul Rahman Mohamed Shariff asked me to take on the challenge of making things right instead. I left practice on Jan 15 and now, here I am.”
Among the first things he did was to set up a WhatsApp group chat with education providers. Often, EMGS is caught between a rock and a hard place because it’s the go-between for enforcement agencies and the private sector.
“Education providers are our clients. EMGS is here to help sell them. We adopt a business-friendly attitude. With the group chat, I’ve more than 93 industry people sharing their grouses with me 24/7. That’s great because it shows that they know we’re here for them.”
A young team of digital professionals was hired. He met with the Auditor-General to see what needed fixing and got down to business.
“Imagine, we had guys from operations doing marketing and we were spending so much going overseas with little to show for it. I’ve since made sure that everything is above board and put a proper governance framework in place. Of course there’s resistance from some little Napoleons. That will take time to change.”
EMGS has to be cautious of unscrupulous agents when it participates in exhibitions overseas, he says.
“Some agents are out to make a quick buck and will even guarantee that they can draw a huge number of visitors. They pay students to come to make up the crowd. We cannot afford to get conned like that. We must know the country’s market well before going in. That’s where our data analysts come in.”
What’s the new EMGS direction?
We’re going to sell education better than we used to do. It’s going to be targeted and data driven. We’ve corporate strategists who do the number crunching, so even before we ask stakeholders to go anywhere with us, we show them why it makes sense to invest. In certain countries, specific courses do better. If you go to the Middle East, for example, the favourites are medicine and engineering, so why bring the hospitality boys? Before we go anywhere, we’ll have calculated the probabilities of sign-ups. We’re drilling down to the details like background, income level, and demographics of the target market. No more casting a wide net and hoping for the best. Last year, we spent RM7mil and we don’t even know how to measure the success of that in terms of numbers. When I came in, the budget for this year was RM21mil to go to 52 countries. I said, no way. This is public money. We’ve to be much more responsible.
Are we still on track to get 200,000 international students here by next year?
We’ve 170,000 foreign students here now. We’re on target but we’re not raising the bar because we’ve to be realistic. There are new challenges. China is coming into the business in a big way. They’re offering scholarships and running English courses for international students. So, the Middle East, which is traditionally our market, is also looking there now. South Africa and Indonesia are getting in on the act, too. And Thailand – the new kid on the block – is liberalising its education sector and running courses in English. These will have an impact on us.
What are the new markets we’re looking at?
Emerging markets are mostly in South Asia because that’s where the highest growth range is. From Nepal alone, we already have 20% coming. We’d like to emulate Australia and bring in more Nepalis. Some of our institutions are already looking to set up branches in Nepal and India. They like niche courses like hospitality. China’s a growing market. We’re already engaging with some good agents there. Myanmar’s also a very interesting place to be. They’re opening up. We also want to re-look Vietnam although we’ve never been very successful there. All this while, they’ve been going to the US but now with Trump and his new immigration policy, they’re looking at Canada and this part of the world.
What’s Malaysia’s advantage?
Multiracialism and diversity have always been our best selling points especially in the Middle East and China. They like that Malaysians are charming, hospitable and friendly. They’re big on world rankings, too, so our public varsities are doing very well. They also like award-winning institutions. Scholarships are a big deal, especially in the Middle East. They don’t need it but the fact that their children are scholars is something to be proud of. And it doesn’t cost our guys anything. It’s just giving free seats. Sometimes it’s not even really a scholarship, just a discount off the fees, and they’re happy.
EMGS is positioning itself as a premier agency that promotes Malaysia as a leading education destination. Tell us about this transformation.
We’ve to do more. We should be offering the Malaysian University English Test (MUET), promoting universities, and organising courses – providing comprehensive education services essentially. My personal KPI is to make EMGS the British Council of Malaysia by the time my contract ends in 2021. We cannot function like a government ministry. This is a business entity. There must be some sense of urgency. No more besok kita buat (we’ll do it tomorrow) mentality. We’ve also been working on new and more liberal guidelines for the industry. We want to make things easier for them. For example, established varsities are now exempted from having to send their representatives to wait for foreign students arriving at the airport so long as the papers are in order.
When can we expect EMGS to start offering MUET?
EMGS is already promoting education in Malaysia and we’re channeling huge resources to do it. So, it would be great for us to also include MUET in our activities. We’re part of the Education Ministry, so we have access to talents who’re capable of organising it. We’re confident that we can do it as well as the Pearson Test of English (PTE), the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), and the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), and on a more frequent basis. We want to do it online. We’ve already got biometrics in place for health checks. We can do such verification to prevent cheating. Once the Malaysian Examinations Council (MPM) appoints a chairman, we’ll put in our proposal. The council plans to offer it to vendors but imagine Company A doing it in China, Company B doing it in Indonesia and so on. There’s no integration and it’s a waste of resources. And allowing MUET to be marketed abroad by different vendors would result in inconsistencies. > Are we going ahead with the e-visa?It’ll be implemented in due course. The Education Ministry wants everything to go electronic and paperless. It’ll probably be raised in the Cabinet soon. We’re also formulating a liberal tiering system from the data we have. The rating will be neutral as it’s based on things like student attendance, Cumulative Grade Point Average (CGPA) results, and the courses offered. These can help determine whether the students and institutions are genuine. There’s also talk of doing away with the yearly licence renewal for highly-rated institutions. The ministry, which is also reviewing other factors like English requirement, has been quite receptive, so we’re hoping to make it happen by the fourth quarter of the year.
The Multinational Academic Recognition System (MARS) was set up as a central database for all academic certificates and transcripts. How effective is it in keeping fake students out?
It’s working very well. We’ve not detected anything unusual of late. The whole incident in 2016 involving Bangladeshi workers masquerading as students is over. Now, we’ve a very high number of genuine Bangladeshi students. The breakdown is very interesting – 34% of them are here doing their postgraduate studies; about 60% are undergraduates; less than 10% are college kids. It was the college segment that used to be problematic when it came to fake students. But the bad apples have been weeded out because of strict enforcement.
What’s EMGS’ digital marketing plan about?
We relaunched our website recently. Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad made a video for us and it’s gone viral. China’s already asking for it to be dubbed in Mandarin. The website is dynamic. It will change everytime we have a campaign. If we have an exhibition in a particular country, we’ll run a campaign on the website that’s focused on that market. We’re also working on a mobile app with ‘breaking news’ features. It’s going to have useful tips, courses, notifications and updates. And, it’ll be multilingual.
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