Children in Malaysia begin their education as early as at the age of four at pre-schools although this is not compulsory. Primary education starts when the child reaches the age of six on the first day of January of the current school year. Presently, only the six years of primary education is compulsory while the five years of secondary education will be made compulsory by 2015. The government provides free education for six years at primary level and five years at secondary level. At the end of this secondary education, students sit for the public common examination, Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM). Students who want to pursue higher education after the secondary level need to have the required academic grades and be able to fund their education. School leavers with SPM qualifications can opt to obtain a pre-university qualification (such as the sixth form, matriculation programmes and GCE 'A' levels) or study for a certificate or diploma at higher educational institutions. The time needed to complete a pre-university programme depends on the type of programme - students usually take a year to complete a matriculation programme or STAM and one-and-a-half to two years for STPM and A-levels.
At higher education phase, study opportunities include certificate, diploma, undergraduate, as well as postgraduate studies. Undergraduate studies consist of bachelor degrees and professional qualifications while postgraduate studies offer master degrees and PhDs. Generally, higher education at the diploma level is for school leavers with a secondary school certificate such as SPM (usually age 17 onwards) while bachelor degrees require post-secondary qualifications such as STPM or GCE A Levels or other equivalent pre-university qualifications (usually age 19 onwards). Malaysia welcomes international students for all levels of education. Since the mid 1990s, international students have been coming to Malaysia to pursue their tertiary education at Malaysia's higher educational institutions. Today, Malaysia is ranked the 11th most popular destination in the world for international education at tertiary level.