Frederika Whitehead talks to some of the UK universities who are joining forces to form a shared campus in Malaysia
Transnational education is booming and the forms in which it is delivered are proliferating all the time. Ever increasing numbers of UK universities are setting up franchising arrangements, 2+1 models, or even full-blown overseas campuses.
The 350-acre campus at Educity Iskandar will be shared by no fewer than eight international universities, including three from the UK. Newcastle, Southampton and Reading universities will take their place alongside the Netherlands Maritime Institute of Technology and the Singaporean private university Raffles. Australia’s Monash and a Californian cinematic art school associated with Pinewood Studios are in talks with Iskandar’s management, leaving just one spot left for another, as yet unknown, international institution.
Students from all of the universities will live together in one giant international student village and will share sports and leisure facilities far beyond those any single university could afford, including a 14,000-seater stadium and an Olympic-length swimming pool.
In the 1990s Malaysia singled out higher education as one of its strategic investments. Historically Malaysia has sent its students abroad for their education, now it is preparing to reverse that position, it wants to become the hub of its region drawing thousands students from across south-east Asia to its universities in huge numbers. Attracting foreign universities to set up overseas campuses is part of the that plan.
The Iskandar special economic region in Johor lies at the southern-most tip of Malaysia, just 5km from the border with Singapore. For Reg Jordan, CEO and provost of Newcastle’s Medical School in Malaysia both of these things – the location and the financial incentives associated with the special economic region – were major factors.
Newcastle University got the call in 2004. It was invited to bring medicine and biomedical sciences to the project. Jordan said it represented a “golden opportunity” for Newcastle to develop its internationalisation strategy.
“Like many civic universities in the UK we have little flags all over the world which have normally grown up through research collaborations and all the rest of it. But our vice-chancellor felt it was time to pick a few strategic areas and plant one or two large flags.
The international campus here – a fully owned branch of Newcastle University – is a golden opportunity to do that in south-east Asia, and brings us to the new markets. The World Bank will tell you that there’s going to be an increasingly exponential demand for higher education but it’s largely going to come from Asia and south-east Asia,” Jordan said.
Newcastle has existing partnerships with higher education providers in the centre of Singapore, which is just 35 minutes away from the new campus in Iskandar, so the chance to build on these was not to be missed, Jordan explained. “The growth triangle of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia is a very big market. We already had a presence here so when the operation came to put our own full international branch campus, our building, our staff, right next door to where we have other interests that became a quite interesting proposition.”
Planting a large operation in the centre of south-east Asia will also help Newcastle maximise the value of its intellectual property. “For the university at large it also gives us a base through which the value added business can be added through the research endeavours back in the UK,” Jordan said.
Jordan also sees the occupants of his south-east Asian outpost as playing “ambassadorial roles” for the north-east of England. “A colleague of mine said that one of the best things that Newcastle University could do for the north east of England is to be globally linked. We have a lot of ambassadorial roles, in a sense.”
Southampton, which will open the doors of its new engineering faculty in Malaysia in October this year, is similarly excited by the location. Professor Mark Spearing, pro vice-chancellor, international, said the location was a “very natural fit for us” given the number of important engineering companies which operate in the region. “Malaysia is the hub of hi-tech industry … Dyson, Rolls Royce, Lloyds Register and BAE Systems are all interested in working with us and employing our students.”
Of the host country’s motives he said: “Malaysia recognises that it is a small country in a region of giants so it wants to move into higher value added activities, not manufacturing but design and engineering, and it needs a very strong education system to do this.”
But what of the practicalities?
Rob Robson, CEO and provost of the University of Reading in Malaysia, has recently opened a school of business and social sciences at Iskandar. He says that all of the partner universities must do well for the project to thrive. “If one institution does badly, and gets a poor reputation, that will be harmful for all of us.”
The management of a large-scale project where organisations’ fortunes are interrelated is “a layer above what we do in a regular university.” “We all have our own brands out here but what more can we do to be greater than the sum of our parts … working together is going to be terribly important.”
For Spearing, the key to smoothing the process of opening the school was “getting our people on the ground quickly”, rather than trying to arrange things remotely, and “having a lot of native language speakers involved. We had a target of 50% locally employed academics and that was not difficult at all.” All of Southampton’s administrative staff in Malaysia are local, although they are supported and guided through the processes by UK staff at the moment, he said.
“Procurement and purchasing all went smoothly because our staff speak the language,” he said.
But what about student discipline? Or student health and welfare in the student village?
Robson foresees that problems on site “will need to be solved by committee”, He says initial talks have taken place about setting up some kind of “parliament type system, or council to settle disputes”.
This council will also “act as a pressure group on commercial aspects,” since the international student village and leisure facilities will be operated by private companies.
There are a myriad of other practical issues to be dealt with – such as getting the balance of staff. The Malaysia government has warned overseas universities against poaching too many academic staff from indigenous universities so the Iskandar project will recruit globally. Robson said “obviously we’re very keen to use Reading’s UK staff to begin with but we will want to switch to local staff on lower wages when possible.”
At the moment, because it was first to open, Newcastle is operating its medicine faculty like a university in miniature, paying for everything – IT, library, student welfare – itself. So all three of the UK universities are looking forward to merging what they can of these services to share costs in the future. Spearing said “one of the huge attractions of EduCity is the opportunity to share resources and spread risk.” This frees the universities up “to concentrate on academic delivery”.