Before we tell you why we disagree, let’s look at what the latest rankings show.
Conducted by the QS Best Student Cities Index, Kuala Lumpur has been ranked as the most affordable student city for the second year in a row.
Here is what they’ve got to say about the home of some of our biggest universities, including Universiti Malaya (UM), International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), Open University Malaysia (OUM) and many more:
Topping the Affordability category for the second time in a row in 2017, Malaysia’s capital city offers the ideal combination of low living costs and low tuition fees. Tuition fees at internationally ranked universities are less than US$3,000 on average, and your costs of living could be as low as US$5,400 a year, according to StudyInMalaysia.com.
Overall, Kuala Lumpur climbed 12 places in this year’s QS Best Student Cities index to rank 41st out of 100 cities. The city is home to three of Malaysia’s top universities, as featured in the QS World University Rankings® 2016-2017, as well as a selection of international branch campuses such as Australia’s Monash University, allowing you to get the same course as at the main campus for a far lower price.
But there’s a catch… (did you spot it?)
Studying in an affordable city is definitely a huge attraction for students – most of us are already struggling to find any way possible to support ourselves through university. And if KL is the most affordable city, beating other student cities like Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), Warsaw (Germany) and Monterrey (the city in Mexico where we as a community sent Luqman to for his exchange!), then it’s all good right?
Well… Maybe. But maybe not.
How QS Measures Affordability.
Whenever someone comes up with a list of rankings, it’s probably a good idea to ask: how did they measure it? For the QS Best Student Cities Index, the team of researchers chose 5 criteria and developed a way to measure each of them. From their website, here’s how Kuala Lumpur was measured as the most affordable student city in the world:
1. Tuition Fees [x3]
Usually the most substantial outlay for students, global trends suggest that tuition fees are likely to play an increasing role in shaping international student mobility trends in the coming years. This score carries twice the weight of the other affordability indicators.
2. Big Mac Index [x2]
A score based on this well-known index of retail pricing in cities worldwide, compiled and published by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
3. IPad Index [x2]
A score based on the iPad Index, compiled by Commsec, which compares the price of an iPad in different countries, giving an additional insight into local living costs.
4. Cost of Living 
This score is based on the Mercer Cost of Living Rankings and provides a good counterpoint to the other affordability measures considered. For instance, Hong Kong is among the cheapest locations according to the Big Mac Index, but the second most expensive city in the Mercer Cost of Living Index, due to factors such as the high costs of accommodation. Considering this selection of indicators together provides a fuller picture.
Now that we know this, we have a much better understanding of how this index works! Let’s take the last example of the Mercer Cost of Living Index.
Taking a look at the rankings, we see that Kuala Lumpur is waaaaay down below at 151 – meaning that compared to neighbour cities like Singapore (4rd highest cost of living) and Jakarta (93rd most expensive city), you don’t need too much to live a comfortable life in KL.
Here’s the thing.
The Mercer Cost of Living Index states that the purpose of the ranking is to:
…help multinational companies and governments determine compensation allowances for their expatriate employees.
In other words, these rankings are measured in relation to an international standard – not local. And that’s the same thing for the QS Index as a whole.
The rankings look at fees for international students. The rankings also measure the cost of living using the US Dollar – which means that the high exchange rate with our MYR will result in a “cheaper” cost of living… if you’re earning in US Dollar in the first place!
So is KL really the most affordable student city?
Not for locals. The New Straits Times has a very useful article that breaks down the cost of higher education for Malaysians. Here’s what a local private college costs on average:
While public universities are definitely a cheaper option, not everyone is able to get into them. And even if they do, they might still struggle without a scholarship or loan.
A Much More Accurate Indicator?
In fact, if you compare university fees in KL to local average salaries (instead of US Dollars), you get a vastly different picture. In another study, Malaysia has been ranked the “fifth most expensive country in the world to get a degree.”
Without any financial assistance, a family earning the average monthly salary (in 2015) of RM2,052 would be forking out 55% of their salaries for each child to receive a full university education.
1) That’s more than half their pay. What if more than one child in a family is attending university?
2) That’s the average monthly salary. In other words, it can be assumed that around half (or more) of all Malaysians don’t even earn that much.
And as we’ve learnt here at Skolafund, the only thing certain about life is uncertainty. A sponsorship might suddenly be taken away. Entire families lose their main sources of income due to an injury. Disease and deaths come without warning – all of which means money needed for medical and other fees.
What can we do?
If you’re a student, you have to explore all possible ways to pay for your university studies – hopefully without having to go into debt. Apply for scholarships. Consider crowdfunding for some expenses, to ease your burden. If you have the time and energy, start a business or a part-time job.
At the same time, we must educate ourselves to be financially responsible. Budget your spending. Start saving – where you can. Treat yourself, but always think long-term.
If you’ve survived your student years, then there are many ways you could give back. Provide employment or internship opportunities to young graduates. If you have some extra cash, contribute to student crowdfunding campaigns. If you have more, you could start your own scholarship. Even if it’s just words of support for a student you know is struggling, it means so much.
The city can be a scary place. But if we show each other that we care, we’ll make it through.
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