Malaysia's drive to establish itself as a regional leader in education has taken another step forward.
On November 20, an agreement was signed for the establishment of a new Malaysian campus for Newcastle University, one of the UK's leading higher education institutions.
The £5m ($7.68m) investment will see the establishment of a medical and biotechnology faculty in the Iskandar Development Region (IDR) in Johor province, in the south of peninsula Malaysia. The new campus, known as "Numed", aims to capitalise on the traditional strengths of the British education system, bringing a "UK degree and university experience" to a fast-growing South East Asian market.
Numed will offer degrees in medicine, with biotechnology, masters and research programmes likely to be opened at a later date. Given lower costs in Malaysia, the five-year medical course will cost students around $105,000, compared to approximately $154,000 in the UK. While the first official intake for the institution will arrive in September 2009, they will study in Newcastle for the first two years, transferring to the Johor Campus in 2011 when construction is complete. The university expects to accommodate 900 medical students, but if successful, it seems likely that these numbers will rise.
Numed is part of a development known as EduCity, an "education hub" in IDR designed to create synergies between world-class education institutions and high-tech industries. EduCity is close to the border with Singapore, which has both a world-renowned education system and a highly developed economy. The international press has described IDR as "ripe for development", and is being hailed as an effective "spillover" development for cash-rich but land-poor Singapore. While the hype should be tempered by the consideration that the border remains, there is certainly strong momentum growing.
Furthermore, IDR is not the only area of Malaysia set to benefit from education development. The Malaysian government has set the target of making the country no less than a "regional centre of educational excellence", with 100,000 overseas students by 2010 (from around half that amount at present). This compares to 80,000 in Singapore (which has less than a fifth of the population).
There are already four foreign universities in Malaysia; branches of Australia's Monash University, Curtin Institute of Technology and Swinburne University of Technology, as well as British University of Nottingham, are established in the country. Other universities from the UK, China and Japan are said to be looking into setting up.
Professor Reg Jordan, who will head up Numed, was reported as saying,"We see South East Asia as the future". The advantages of establishing in Malaysia include strong government support; relatively low costs; and an excellent location, close to populous Asian countries and within reach of the Middle East and Australia.
"For students from South East Asia, particularly Indonesia, cultural familiarity is a draw," Mark Disney, chief operating officer of LCCI International Qualifications, told OBG.
Tahir Azar, deputy rector for academic and research affairs at the International Islamic University Malaysia, cited other significant competitive advantages.
"Political stability, multiculturalism, social openness and widespread English language proficiency all draw foreign students and institutions to Malaysia," he told OBG. With 50,000 Malaysian students studying abroad, there is also scope for capitalising on the domestic market.
While international universities are drawn to Malaysia, concerns remain about the domestic system, which shows some key structural weaknesses. Perhaps foremost is a concern that, while 30% of people aged 17-23 are in higher education, up from 13% in 1998, not all may be receiving an education suitable to equip them for the job market. Some 40,000 to 60,000 graduates are officially registered as unemployed (most of them from public universities), and the real figure could be substantially higher. Given the likelihood of a slowdown in economic growth and a paring down of the public sector in the next few years, this issue could become more acute. Many universities are therefore looking to align their courses more closely with the demands of the market.
"Universities are introducing compulsory internships and entrepreneurial elements into the curriculum, and putting greater emphasis on soft skills, innovation and creativity to effect transition into the knowledge economy," Disney said.
Meanwhile, private universities have yet to participate in official ratings, making monitoring performance problematic. Ratings are expected to be extended to the private sector next year, but whether this will be on a compulsory or voluntary basis is as yet unclear.
As Malaysia builds its status as an education centre, addressing these issues will be a key challenge. But as Newcastle's move to the East confirms, the potential abounds.