Graduate Study Destinations: Affordable Solutions

QS Staff Writer

Updated January 29, 2021 Updated January 29

Many of the world's most popular study destinations can be on the more expensive side. But there are alternatives – here we consider the more affordable grad school options offered by Malaysia, New Zealand and countries in Africa.

Though they may not be the first names that leap to mind, that does not mean that they are not valid alternatives.


For years, Malaysia was known by many involved in international education as the number one source of students coming to Australia, the UK and the US for their degree-level studies.

Tens of thousands of Malaysian students pursued graduate programs abroad, many returning home and entering academic positions as teachers and researchers.

Over the years, the benefits of master's and PhD degrees earned abroad have had a direct impact on the quality, reputation and visibility of many of Malaysian universities, resulting in an annually increasing number of students choosing to study in the country that was once the single largest source of international students for the rest of the world.

Universities such as the Universiti Malaya (UM), Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) all offer high quality master's and PhD programs in English, providing state-of-the-art academic facilities for international students from a diverse range of countries.

Dr Mohd Ismail Abd. Aziz, director of the Office of International Affairs at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM), believes universities like his in Malaysia have a range of advantages many international students are unaware of.

“We welcome students and academic staff from around the globe, many of whom are attracted to the international environment and outlook of UTM. We enjoy an excellent setting, safe environment and very reasonable cost of tuition – all of these allow us to compete with top universities in other countries.” 

Master's programs at UTM cost as little as US$1,100 a year, with PhD studies for international students costing US$1,350 annually.

The quality of Malaysian universities is underlined by both the variety of different kinds of institutions that make up the Malaysian higher education system and their overall performance in international rankings.

Alongside the 20 government-funded universities in the country, more than 50 other private institutions offer local and international qualifications to international students. In recent years, a number of private institutions have been awarded what is known as “University College” status, acknowledging their superior quality in terms of teaching and student support.

In the 2010 QS World University Rankings, five Malaysian universities feature in the top 400, with Universiti Malaya the highest at 207.


Perhaps the most neglected of all continents by international graduate students is Africa. With more than 1,500 universities to choose from, Africa as a whole has one of the most diverse networks of higher education available anywhere in the world today.

Although conditions tend to be somewhat mixed, a number of countries are newly emerging as destinations for international students, including Botswana, Egypt, Mauritius, Morocco and South Africa.

Attracted by low cost tuition fees and a unique academic experience, international graduate students are drawn to African campuses because of their unique combination of academic programs and socially diverse settings.

The most popular destination on the African continent for international students is currently South Africa. With 23 publicly funded universities spread across the country benefitting from recent reforms to ensure academic programs, teaching staff and quality assurance were of a similar standard to other international systems of higher education, and in line with the development demands of the new South Africa, international students find the country to be a remarkably open and supportive country in which to study.

From the oldest university in the country, the University of Cape Town, founded in 1829, to one of the newest, the University of Limpopo, established in 2005, international graduate students are able to choose from more than 10,000 Masters programs throughout South Africa.

David Farirai, president of the International Education Association of South Africa believes his country offers  international graduate students something a little different.

“Some of our major universities are research hubs and offer international students access to unique research opportunities. We have a very diverse range of universities, allowing international students a real choice.

"Combined with our low tuition fees and student’s ability to work 20 hours a week while they study, more than 60,000 international students are already here studying. South African universities will continuously strive to be internationally competitive and locally relevant through a number of innovative models, one of which is the recruitment of international students.”

One of the key defining elements countries such as Malaysia and South Africa, in addition to other emerging value-for-money destinations such as China, Thailand, Indonesia and Hong Kong, share is their relatively low cost of living available to international graduate students.

With accommodation and other costs sometimes as low as US$300 a month, and the legal right to work as a full-time student recognized by authorities, pursuing a master's or PhD degree can be financially very attractive. While there is no doubt these destinations will not suit all tastes, it is likely they will be more gentle on the pocket than graduate programs in the UK or USA.

New Zealand

While perhaps not known as a particularly cheap destination in which to study, the eight universities in New Zealand represent fantastic value for money in terms of their tuition fees.

With master's programs being priced at a similar level to Canada, tuition is relatively affordable for the two-year taught programs, but the real discovery of New Zealand university education is the PhD programs.

In order to encourage top international talent, New Zealand universities charge domestic level fees to all international students pursuing PhD degrees, making them between 60 and 80% cheaper than their equivalents in the UK.

According to Robert Stevens, chief executive of Education New Zealand, it pays for international students to consider the combination of value-for-money, with the quality of education and quality of life experience when choosing where to pursue their graduate program.

“Value-for-money is much more than the simple cost of tuition fees or living expenses. New Zealand’s universities and polytechnics combine competitive levels of fees with access to a living and study experience that is second to none. All graduate programs are rigorously quality controlled and recognized internationally.”

Whatever your specific subject interest at the graduate level, study opportunities are available all over the world. If you need to budget carefully, it might just pay to consider one of the more value-for-money study destinations away from the most popular centers of international higher education.

This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2021

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