Adult Education While Living Abroad

Learn new skills, engage with the local and international community and gain a global outlook.

A global outlook. An immersion into a host country. A deeper engagement with a diverse local and international community. The gains of knowledge and skills. And most of all, an enriching experience that lasts beyond a posting abroad.

Nelson Mandela has once said that, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” This has never been truer than for an expatriate living and working abroad. Education gained while abroad serves to enhance an already rich experience and international outlook that are greatly valued by multinational corporations worldwide in an increasingly global community.

Many employers seek out skills they value such as problem solving and decision-making abilities, as well as an openness to embrace diversity and challenges – all of which working and living abroad in a foreign country would help develop. An Oxford educational report in 2015 also stated that some 64 per cent of employers would value a prospective recruit’s international experience.


Over five million students are currently studying outside their home countries, which is more than double the 2.1 million students in 2000 and more than triple the number in 1990. With more universities expanding globally and offering a wide choice of subjects and greater flexibility, even expatriates or our accompanying spouses and children can take advantage of the multiple benefits of studying while posted abroad.

In Malaysia, a national plan for higher education expansion and evolution has seen a healthy growth of international branch campuses by highly regarded foreign universities. A dedicated 350-acre EduCity is currently being developed in the southernmost state of Johor. By 2018, it will host eight international campuses by leading universities, including the United Kingdom’s University of Reading, the University of Southampton and Newcastle University Medicine, alongside the prestigious Raffles University of Singapore, Maritime Institute of Technology from the Netherlands and the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. In the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, the University of Nottingham and Heriot-Watt University from the UK have set up large facilities here.

This development is well in line with the global trend of universities expanding across other countries with a strong demand for reputable educational opportunities. All of these campuses are designed to draw in not only a strong local community of students who would no longer need to travel abroad for further study, but also caters to the network of expatriates, their accompanying spouses or university-going children.



In Malaysia, attractive propositions beckon the expatriate and family members. “We offer a very comprehensive range of programmes across most disciplines from undergraduate to post graduate degrees that are delivered in an incredibly diverse and international environment,” explains Professor Helen Bartlett, Monash University President and Vice Chancellor.

“Expatriates or their accompanying spouses and children looking to do something fulfilling during their time here would have to consider several things while selecting a course. They’d need to look at the duration of a programme, as most undergraduate degrees are three years or up to four or five years for engineering and medicine; whereas a post graduate study requires 18 months to three years.

“There are many choices of study determined by availability of time, whether they’d be interested in doing something structured or to do research. It also depends largely on an expatriate’s background, experience, educational level and their goals for being here. Accompanying spouses who are unable to work here may be taking a break to support their partners but they can also decide to advance their own career by taking on a higher degree. Motivation is central and you’d have to do something you enjoy, put your back into it and get something out of it.

“The learning experience is important. Monash is among the 100 top universities in the world, so that’s a major advantage for an expatriate to have a guarantee of a quality education that would be recognised wherever they go. We have a diverse community, as 40 per cent of our lecturers are expatriates themselves representing over 19 nations, while our international student body of 1,875 members represent 72 countries.

“Most of all, taking on a course here is an amazing way to engage people in a new country, and helps you adapt better. It’s a great way to engage with your host country and improves your wellbeing and prospects on a lifelong journey.”

Monash University’s International MBA Director Professor Christina Lee shares that students range from 25 to 52 years of age. “Doing an MBA would be ideal for someone who might be at a crossroads of their career,” she says. “You may be a lawyer or engineer without any training in business but even for, say, a medical professional, if your career aspiration is towards management or building a business, then an MBA would be invaluable.”



Continuing education while posted abroad has much to do with timing as it does with personal commitment and resolve.

“I believe that there is a tiny window in our lives when we must seize it to continue our education and learning,” says Professor Robert Craik, Provost and CEO of Heriot-Watt University (Malaysia) and Vice- Principal of Heriot-Watt University.

“If you pursue a postgraduate degree too early, you might not be ready; but if you wait another 10 years, you’d have different priorities with marriage, family, elderly partners, and mortgages among other issues to consider. It is really important to think, plan and commit to your personal decision to take up an education. A degree programme should also have the flexibility to fit into your life, because it requires commitment.

“If the education adds value to your life, make sure you can do it within the time you have, because on average, 20 hours a week would have to be devoted for post graduate studies for two years and you’d also have to give up two evenings and an entire Saturday every week, as well as blocks of time for exams. Sometimes things happen in our lives, and studies can spread over three years or even seven years. We’d have to be prepared for that.”

Professor Craik adds that every student’s goals are unique and personal. Students who have been admitted into the MBA programme include medical doctors and engineers who are moving into management and seeking opportunities to gain new skills, perspective and knowledge.

Selecting the right school as an expatriate in a foreign country would need the same considerations as they do back in their home country, Craik adds. They include issues like selecting a recognised university, comfort, safety and location, all of which he adds are well provided for at Heriot-Watt University’s stunning new glass-encased facility. Set beside the Putrajaya Lake, Scotland’s most international university currently has a student body of around 1,100 students and this is expected to rise to 1,700 students.

“This location is very conducive for serious studying. There is no clubbing or partying here. Our students arrive here knowing that this is the place to learn. We provide flexibility to our post-graduate students under the assumption they are working adults, so we use the study time on campus on things they can’t do at home like seminars and discussion groups.

“Flexibility also plays a crucial role. At Heriot-Watt, students can opt to study for a semester at our Dubai campus and another semester in Edinburgh.”



While there are numerous reasons to pursue further studies at any of the attractive international universities in Malaysia, the goal should always be on learning and harnessing the invaluable opportunities afforded.

“We are not in the prestige business but in the capability development business,” explains Professor Charles Fine, President and Dean of the Asia School of Business (ASB), a high-powered collaboration with the MIT Sloan School of Management.

“MIT certainly offers a certain prestige and it will doubtless attract students and companies to hire our graduates, but we deliver value above all. Our students have to work extremely hard, develop capabilities and build the brand name of the school.

“I’ve had many opportunities to interact with companies across Asia, and I find that many talented people are running businesses but some have not had professional education,” Professor Fine replies to the question on the relevance of an MBA today.

“They are smart and capable but they are sometimes reinventing the wheel. There is a best practice and textbook solutions where the knowledge exists to tackle the challenges they are facing. It can be inefficient to invent solutions from scratch as a business leader. With a professional business education, you are equipped with a large toolkit and a library with potential solutions.

“Our aims for an ideal graduate to walk out of the ASB is someone who has taken full advantage of what we offer. They have absorbed the academic course, have tools and techniques, have built intelligent capabilities and are armed with a conscience and principles they have learned here.”

The ASB’s full-time MBA programme extends over 18 months, where students would be attending classes for 12 months and spending six months working on projects. Visiting MIT professors would be teaching modules on a curriculum based on the American programme, emphasising innovation, entrepreneurship and general management.

Students would also get to work on projects with a wide range of multinational corporations – from projects in Boeing’s facility in northern Malaysia, to building a platform for NGOs to connect with potential donors for Maybank, and improving public perception with Johnson & Johnson.



Not only business, science or engineering should be considered. Arts and social sciences are also worthy investments of time and finances, particularly here in Malaysia.

“The biggest reason to study in Malaysia is also the reason that drew me here – and that’s the rich diversity of culture that I find extremely appealing and fascinating,” says Dr Charles Leary, Dean of the Faculty of Cinematic Art of Multimedia University (MMU), which offers a Bachelor of Cinematic Arts in collaboration with the University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts.

“This location has given us access to different cultural traditions with important and interesting stories to tell. Filmmaking is about telling stories, and here, our students get to engage and immerse themselves in the local community in the most unique way possible. Our programme is one of the few in Malaysia where film is not offered as just part of an arts course, but as a course in itself.”

Currently the school has 146 undergraduates, with the majority being Malaysian. Leary adds that an objective of the school is to become a centre for film education in the region and is expected to draw more international students.


A major consideration for expatriates to take up studying in Malaysia is the costs, which are comparatively cheaper than in the same university at its home campus.

For instance, the savings can be substantial at Heriot-Watt University (Malaysia): up to RM300,000 for an engineering degree or RM200,000 for Business (with current exchange rate of GBP1: MYR5.30)

Tuition fees for an MBA at the ASB is around USD80,000, while living expenses are about RM15,000 over 18 months. The fees are identical to studying in Singapore or Hong Kong although the programmes there are only one year in duration, adds Professor Fine from the ASB.

“Expatriates will find ASB to be a comfortable environment as we are a truly international community so that it’s easy to blend in, coupled with our beautiful building and facilities. Our first batch of MBA students, where 70 per cent are international, will be starting this September. They include three PhD holders in computer science, music, and physics as well as degree holders in liberal arts and engineering. Some are founders of small start ups as well as heads of large multinational corporations.”

Other advantages of studying in Malaysia include the ease of communication as English is widely spoken here, the easy availability of facilities, and the convenience of travel as the country is a regional transport hub.

Australian undergraduate student Katy Holmes, 18, explains that she had explored options throughout Asia and as far as Dubai before settling for a Bachelor of Business and Commerce at Monash University Malaysia.

“I plan to major in marketing and join my dad’s educational consultation business,” she says.

“I found Malaysia to be more exotic and different, I like the mix of Middle Eastern culture, and the malls are as good as any. I had thought about studying in Dubai but it’s too far from Australia. Malaysia is really cheaper compared to Singapore or back home. I also think it’s more global and cultural and I have friends from all over the world, as compared to if I’d stayed on in Australia. I really hope I could learn a lot and be involved in as many different things as much as possible.”


Beyond the lure of a degree is the same set of challenges for any student, which expatriates would also need to be prepared for.

“If someone hasn’t studied for a long time, he would need to develop study skills and be expected to work with deadlines in delivering assignments on time and participate in group work,” says Professor Bartlett from Monash.

“Older students would need to be open to working with younger students and often, from different backgrounds, culture, values and beliefs. If you’re comfortable with being vocal, sometimes that might not be the case with other cultural groups, so you would need to learn to perhaps, hold back a little when working in teams and understanding when and how to engage with others. Teamwork is a crucial component of learning so we try to replicate the environment students would be working in.”


Professor Bartlett, who has an international research record in gerontology, focusing on population ageing, healthy ageing, aged and community care, highlights a couple in their 60s who were studying in Monash in Australia and decided to come to the Malaysian campus on an exchange programme. “It’s never too late or early to study!” she says.

“The transition for older learners can be challenging but ultimately they would have such a sense of accomplishment and achievement. Older learners feel like they stand out like a sore thumb, but after a week, age doesn’t matter anymore.

“For expatriates worrying about returning to studying, especially for those in their 30s, 40s or older, there will be hurdles such as dealing with different cultures and having to master a whole new digital learning experience as it’s not just chalk and talk anymore. But all this presents a wonderful opportunity that would enrich their lives.”

Professor Kuah Khun Eng, Monash University Head of the School of Arts and Social Sciences, knows full well the benefits of working, living and studying abroad. The Singapore-born professor has spent substantial time overseas before taking up her current position.

“As an anthropologist, I enjoy experiencing different cultures and lifestyles and understanding how people communicate and the way societies think, live and act. For instance, in Malaysia, it is interesting to understand the subtleties of a society that seems so similar to Singapore, yet there is so much for us to learn.

“The biggest benefits of living, working and studying in a foreign place make us a better person. The experience develops empathy and allows me to understand people better and to embrace differences and complexities in a society. It has also opened my heart to be compassionate, and truly a bigger heart is always a better way to live wherever we are.”

Tags: Tertiary, Features, MUM
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