Updated: 02/21/2014 19:58 | By Agence France-Presse

Western colleges find common ground on Malaysia campus

At Newcastle University's medical school, students tread red-brick paths through a green campus bearing Victorian touches in a scene that befits a top college in northern England.

Western colleges find common ground on Malaysia campus

Photograph taken on November 15, 2013 shows students on a break at Newcastle University's medical school in Nusajaya, in Malaysia's southern state of Johor Bahru - by Roslan Rahman

But this setting is sweltering tropical Malaysia, where select departments of several European universities have joined in a shared-campus concept to tap growing Asian demand for sought-after Western degrees.

Distance and cost concerns combine to keep many Asian students and Western universities apart.

But the shared nature of facilities in the 123-hectare (305-acre) "EduCity" in southern Malaysia, and resulting lower start-up costs, allows institutions to gain an Asian foothold while passing savings on to students.

Malaysian student Kanesh Rajoo pays just 60 percent of the 120,000-pound tuition ($200,000) charged at Newcastle University Medical School's UK campus and saves a small fortune in British living costs.

"Because of the reputation of obtaining a recognised UK degree, I will probably have an upper hand (in Malaysia's job market) as compared to those from a local university," Kanesh said while studying in NUMed's spacious library.

Multi-university concepts have been tried elsewhere with mixed success but the Malaysian government project hopes to set itself apart by cherry-picking respected individual university departments.

Colleges, meanwhile, get a slice of a growing education market in developing Asia. 

Non-EU enrollment in universities in Britain grew by 20 percent to 300,000 students from 2008 to 2012, according to the British government. It forecasts four million students per year will seek study abroad globally by 2024, one-third of them from China and India.

"Our ambition is to market this opportunity regionally, so a big target for us is going to be the Indonesian-type market, potentially Vietnam, potentially Thailand, and of course China and India," said John McBride, CEO of the University of Southampton at EduCity.

- Green lawns, unfinished construction -

Launched in 2011 as part of a vast Malaysian development zone, EduCity has six institutions on site including NUMed, the University of Southampton's engineering programme, and various offerings by the Netherlands Maritime Institute of Technology and Britain's Reading University.

It also includes the Johan Cruyff Institute, a sports-management school founded by the Dutch football legend, plus noted primary and secondary schools such as Britain's 170-year-old Marlborough College.

At least 10 institutions, including eight universities, are expected by 2015.

"You don’t have to spend the capex required to build an entire university," said Joanne Oei, EduCity's managing director.

The government estimates buy-in costs at 20 million ringgit ($6 million) per institution. By comparison, an unrelated Malaysia campus of Britain's Nottingham University established in 2005 cost six times that.

Malaysia has bent rules to allow 100 percent foreign ownership in the venture and offers various tax incentives.

Built on former oil-palm plantations, EduCity has a 14,000-seat sports complex, accommodations in a 570-bed "student village", and other shared features on a campus mixing wide green lawns mixed with unfinished construction.

Enrollment doubled this school year to more than 1,200 undergraduates, mostly Malaysian. One-fifth of all students are foreign. An eventual student body of 16,000 is targeted.

- Teething troubles -

There have been teething problems, however.

"None of us were happy," said Peter Osbourne, head of Reading University's presence, of a Malaysian-built student village viewed as sub-standard and under-equipped.

NUMed spent extra to build its own cafeteria, unhappy with the student village's.

Concerns also have been raised about the quality of the student experience at the still relatively isolated, no-frills facility. The nearest city is about 30 kilometres (18 miles) away. Transport options are thin.

"Current students are only at university for a certain period of time, and for us to tell them how great EduCity is going to be, doesn't actually help their experience," said NUMed provost and chief executive Reg Jordan.

Said Malaysian student Dhanya Menon: "I guess it's different (from Newcastle).

"I don't think many of us go out every night but we do have fun during the weekends and hang out (at a humble nearby shopping mall)."

But analysts said as EduCity works on drawing in international students, it could have a solid core market in Muslim-majority Malaysia, where concerns have risen over poor-quality state-run universities and shrinking academic freedoms.

Many in Malaysia's sizable Chinese and Indian minority communities also are left out by affirmative-action policies for ethnic Malays that favor the country's majority ethnic group in college placements.

Such factors have been blamed for fueling a "brain drain" of talent overseas, just as Malaysia grapples with tougher regional economic competition and a resulting need for more qualified personnel.

"Which uni you went to is going to be a quick way for employers to sort through applications," Wan Saiful Wan Jan, head of Malaysian think-tank IDEAS, said of the growing regional economic competition.

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