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Slow but steady growth in foreign branch campuses

Branch campuses of established Western universities can be major assets for emerging market higher education systems – but attracting these institutions is not easy, even for economically dynamic countries such as Malaysia.

There are still only six branch campuses in this South East Asian country.

Over the past decade, two new branch campuses have been set up. Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia, a branch of Britain’s University of Newcastle, was established in 2009. And this year another UK institution, the University of Southampton, established a campus.

The other four were set up a decade earlier. Three are from Australia: Monash University’s Monash Malaysia and Curtin University’s Curtin Sarawak campus established in 1999, and a Swinburne University of Technology branch set up in 2000. Britain’s University of Nottingham also established a Malaysian campus in 2000.

The Malaysian government wants other reputable foreign universities to establish branch campuses and has publicly encouraged their entry, clearing regulatory hurdles that might impede their development.

But the government has not been keen to throw money at the concept, letting market forces play out.

As a result, the Malaysian branch campus sector remains small compared to the country’s 53 private universities, 403 private colleges, 30 polytechnics and 73 public community colleges, according to the latest 2011 data from the Ministry of Higher Education.

Branch campus advantages

Unlike the more popular twinning – where curricula provided by partnering universities or colleges are delivered by local institutions – branch campuses are direct extensions of universities or colleges, run by the institutions themselves.

“They provide the curriculum and the delivery. The home campus has more control over the quality of the education,” Professor Kevin Kinser, associate professor of educational administration and policy studies, and co-director of the cross-border education research team at the State University of New York at Albany, told University World News.

He emphasised that branch campuses can meet demands for quality education that are not met by local universities and cannot be easily delivered through university partnerships.

Universities opening branch campuses, according to Kinser, are keen to maintain their reputation and so are likely to invest significant money and effort to provide adequate teaching and facilities.

For smaller, emerging market countries such as Malaysia, having major universities offering quality education can increase the higher education reputation of an entire nation.

Some challenges

But for foreign universities, branch campuses are not cheap. They need to invest enough to attract students. Monash University, for example, invested around MYR200 million (US$65 million) setting up its campus.

And these campuses need to have sufficient size to deliver a critical mass of services: Newcastle University’s medical school is built on 5.3 hectares; Swinburne Sarawak has a 6.7 hectare campus; and the University of Nottingham at Semenyih, 30 kilometres south of Kuala Lumpur city centre, occupies a 41 hectare site.

Foreign universities also have to make sure that there is local demand for quality Western education to attract enough prospective students.

An attractive destination

However, Malaysia does offer foreign universities a good chance of success – especially in attracting students from East and South East Asia and Muslim students, with Indonesia, China and Iran sending the most foreign students to Malaysia.

“Some students want to enjoy a Western education but do not want to travel or live in a culture very different from their home,” Kinser said.

“Malaysia, as a moderate Muslim country, has leverage to attract students from Muslim countries who want to enjoy a Western education in a Muslim environment,” he added.

Indeed, following the Arab Spring, a significant number of students from the Middle East have chosen to further their studies in Malaysia. This has helped contribute to a 14% increase in international students attending universities in Malaysia in the past three years.

According to Professor Siti Hamisah Binti Tapsir, deputy director general of the private higher education management sector in Malaysia’s Department of Higher Education, the demand is there.

“In term of recruiting international students we are number 10 in the world,” she said, claiming that Malaysia has a 3.7% share in the global market for international students.

And the government is ambitious. It aims to double the number of international students it educates – up from around 100,000 today to 200,000 students by 2020, pushing Malaysia to be an education hub in the region.

Growth slow but steady

But as for the slow growth in branch campus numbers, she argued, it was natural for institutions to be conservative over their development.

“Before they set up a branch, they would see whether the environment is conducive, and the demand. Because once they set up a branch, they are going to be there for long, for a few years. They will be very careful in choosing a country and consider the stability of the country and the openness of the country,” she said.

What Malaysia offers, she said, is a liberalisation policy in tandem with an internationalisation policy, combined with the country's diverse culture – all of which attracts international students.

And despite the small numbers, branch campuses are already a significant contributor to the internationalisation of Malaysia’s student body.

Monash’s branch campus has 5,100 students, and around a quarter of them are international. Curtin University in Sarawak has students from 40 different countries. Swinburne’s campus has 4,000 students from more than 50 countries including Bangladesh, Brunei, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Myanma (Burma), Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

The government is happy for this slow but steady development of branch campuses to continue.

“Basically we let the institution decide, because they understand the…sector. Some will introduce a twinning programme. Some will do a kind of franchising where the students will do their programme entirely in Malaysia. We leave it to the institutions, because every programme has a different demand for it,” Siti said.

To get government backing for the establishment of a branch, foreign universities must have a good reputation and add value to Malaysia’s higher education system. Institutions offering programmes currently lacking in Malaysia are especially attractive.

As a result, branch campuses currently focus on technology, engineering, science, commerce, computing, design, medicine and social sciences courses.

“If it is offering programmes that we already have, we have to consider,” Siti stressed. “Newcastle was brought in because we didn't have enough medical schools a few years ago – the institutions must…support [our] national aspirations and recruit international students from this region,” she said.

Meanwhile, Malaysian universities have themselves been looking to export their education brands, creating branch campuses abroad.

Limkokwing University for Creative Technology, for example, has branch campuses in Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Lesotho and Swaziland.

“We encourage them because this is exporting Malaysian education. But we leave it to the institutions to decide because they are familiar with the country,” said Siti.
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