More universities attracted to Iskandar education hub

A growing number of international universities are setting up operations on the 243 hectare site that will be part of Iskandar Malaysia, a new eco-city and trading zone with districts for tourism, health care and education, designed to help regenerate Johor state.

Around 16,000 students are expected to attend universities and schools at EduCity once the project in Nusajaya is completed, transforming the region into a ‘global hub’.

Mohd Hisham Kamaruzaman, acting chief operating officer of Education@Iskandar Sdn Bhd – a subsidiary of the government-owned company Iskandar Investment Berhad (IIB), which is responsible for developing EduCity – told University World News that the student village and sports complex will be ready by August, in time for the next academic year.

These parts of the scheme were originally due to be completed last year. Hisham said that phase one of the student accommodation was completed, with more than 200 students in residence since August 2012.

Three institutions have already begun full-time operations – Britain’s Newcastle University, Medicine Malaysia (NUMed) and the University of Southampton’s Malaysia Campus, which started in September 2012, as well as Marlborough College Malaysia, a branch of the British boarding school.

Reg Jordan, CEO and provost of NUMed, said that while its target market is Malaysia, the institution expects that by 2020 30% of students will be from outside the country, mostly from Asia.

“With over 60% of educational demand expected to come from South East Asia and the Asian region by 2025, it is the right time for EduCity to take the lead and cater to this,” said Siti Hamsah, a deputy director general in the Ministry of Higher Education.

Hisham added that the proportion of the nationalities of the students would vary across institutions. At Marlborough School in Malaysia, 60% of the students are expatriates, mainly from the UK and Europe, residing in Singapore.

He anticipated that African students would also be drawn to EduCity campuses.

More institutions

Hisham said four other institutions had started operations at a temporary campus in Johor Bahru, capital of Johor state – Netherlands Maritime Institute of Technology, which is to open in EduCity mid-year, Britain’s University of Reading Malaysia Campus, and Raffles University Iskandar – a joint venture between Singapore’s Raffles Education Corporation Ltd and Education@Iskandar Sdn Bhd. The new Raffles American School in Nusajya will transfer to EduCity in 2015.

Most partner universities are operating on a long-term rental agreement for their teaching facilities, while student accommodation and the sports complex – which will feature a 14,000-seat stadium and an Olympic-length swimming pool – will be shared by institutions.

Ministry of Higher Education Director General Rujhan Mustafa told local media last month that the initial investment of setting up a branch campus in Malaysia is around RM20 million (US$6.5 million) while operational costs could be up to RM100 million (US$32 million) in the first year, rising to RM200 million (US$64 million) for the second to fifth years.

Other institutions are expected to begin operations at EduCity by 2017 and more could sign up. "We are currently talking to several institutions from Malaysia and abroad that are interested in setting up a branch campus in EduCity," Hisham said. Proposals have been received from universities in China and Japan.

Top-notch universities

However, IIB CEO Syed Mohamed Syed Ibrahim told a press conference after the ground-breaking ceremony of the University of Reading Malaysia campus in February that the state investment company would not rush to bring in more universities from other countries for the sake of filling up space.

“We have to be selective and go only for the top-notch universities, to maintain the highest standards for EduCity as the leading educational hub in the region,” he said.

The ministry’s Siti Hamisah said the project went way beyond being a collection of impressive buildings that will house world-class academic institutions.

“EduCity project in Nusajaya will find its true impetus for growth from two areas: universities’ ability to operate in an environment that is outside their familiar region and, second, adapting to a different and diversified culture,” she said.

Hamisah argued that this challenge has maybe “drawn several excellent educational institutes to EduCity”, and opportunities for such cultural adaptation would grow as the complex is fully operational.

“With EduCity, Malaysia will help produce a rich base of stimulating research, knowledge-led industry best practices and other cutting-edge skills for the new age and generation,” said Hamisah.

Flexibility issues

However, concerns continue to surround the project, particularly the level of flexibility universities will have to make key decisions about their own institutions.

NUMed’s Jordan said that changes to some elements such as entry qualifications or fees, normally managed internally at UK universities, require approval from Malaysia’s Ministry of Higher Education, which was “frustrating”.

The approval process for courses is also complex.

Jordan said that in order to introduce its bachelor of science programme, NUMed had to go through a seven-month process, first seeking approval from the Malaysian Qualifications Agency, which he described as a "rigorous process", and then having the programme registered with the ministry before final approval was given to advertise the course.

“It is always a big risk taking a proven business model from one environment to another,” he said, but added: "Overall, we are optimistic about the EduCity project. We believe the vision can be realised and it will really come to fruition within the next 10 years."

Hisham said that over time, greater flexibility would be given to institutions. "Universities will be allowed to do self-accreditation in due course, once they have satisfied and complied with the standard set by the regulatory bodies,” he said.

Academic standards are being monitored and maintained by the relevant regulatory bodies, including the ministry and qualifications agency, while institutions themselves – as with all tertiary education institutions in Malaysia – will be monitored by the ministry.

* Additional reporting by Aradhana Takhtani.