Asian women’s leadership university clears land problems

The leaders of a project to set up a women’s university in Malaysia say that they have cleared land purchase problems that had been holding up construction. The Asian Women’s Leadership University Project says it is now on a solid path to the institution opening in 2015.

The university’s attempt to acquire a 40-hectare block had sparked a row with residents in Kampung Genting, near Georgetown in Penang state, who protested against the proposed acquisition of the land in July.

Asian Women’s Leadership University (AWLU) Project co-founder Latifah Merican Cheong told University World News: “A small number of villagers were concerned,” which led to several meetings between residents and members of parliament.

She said finally Chief Minister of Penang Lim Guan Eng had intervened and offered government-owned land on an alternative site. “As in any acquisition of land for delivery of a public good, there will be objections from some quarters,” said Merican.

The project is modelled on the Seven Sisters liberal art colleges in northeast United States, which are mainly institutions for women. Its supporters say it will fill a gap in the Asian higher education sector, building leadership qualities exclusively focusing on women.

The AWLU Project has strong American backing, being a US registered not-for profit organisation. And Smith College, a Seven Sisters college in Massachusetts, is serving as the new university’s academic planning partner.

But even conveying the notion of liberal arts in a country where higher education has traditionally been more based towards applied and scientific studies has been tough, impeding raising the US$8 million required to fund a 2015 opening for 100 students.

“The next milestones in the immediate future are two-fold,” said Barbara Hou, president and another founder of the AWLU Project: “Obtaining approval from the sector regulator, the Ministry of Higher Education, on the AWLU's licensing status to set up a private higher education institute, and then obtaining the funding required to open doors in 2015.”

At full capacity the university will accommodate 2,000 students. Its curriculum is still in the “preliminary draft stages”, she said, but will blend the American-style liberal arts education with regionally relevant courses and leadership training.

The curriculum will be benchmarked against Smith in terms of quality and its benefits to building intellectual capacity. Along with recognition from senior universities, the AWLU will also seek accreditation – both in Malaysia, from the Malaysian Qualifications Agency; and in the US, from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

Hou explained: “All courses will strive to include the experiences, contributions and relevance of women and Asian people to the development of history, politics, science, art, literature and other fields. It is, more aptly, an ‘experience to believe’ situation.”

Case studies would be culturally relevant and include figures such as Benazir Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mother Theresa and others, she said.

The institution will welcome foreign students from across Asia, and the Malaysian government’s liberal approach towards the establishment of private universities and welcoming overseas students helped persuade the AWLU Project to locate their institution in Penang.

As a private entity, AWLU can create its own governance structure and hire its own academic staff, without government interference.

“For example, there are no restrictions on the number of foreign academic staff, or the number of foreign students selected to attend AWLU,” Hou said.

She added that Malaysia was also chosen as “we valued its diversity, its level of development and continuing growth trajectory, [and] its connectivity to the Middle East and Asia”.