Malaysia to host Japan’s first overseas branch campus

The University of Tsukuba could be the first Japanese university to set up a branch in Malaysia, and the first Japanese campus anywhere overseas, after talks kicked off at the end of 2018 following a request from Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and supported by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The University of Tsukuba, a state institution, is responding to a request from Mahathir, a popular Asian leader in Japan for his 1980’s ‘Look East’ policy that promoted Malaysian efforts to follow Japan’s economic miracle.

Mahathir is seeking to revive his Look East policy and raised the possibility of a Japanese branch campus in Malaysia during an official visit to Tokyo in November when he was conferred an honorary doctorate by the University of Tsukuba. Mahathir also visited Tokyo University during that trip.

The Malaysian leader believes Japanese institutions could promote the kind of Japanese work values in Malaysia that led to Japan’s own dramatic post-Second World War recovery. He is specifically advocating for high-tech exchanges with Japan.

Tsukuba is one of the country’s oldest universities, has produced several Nobel laureates, and is known for its science and technology development and innovation studies – a large proportion of the country’s public research and development budget is spent at the university.

Malaysia, for its part, wants to attract universities from more countries in Asia to set up branch campuses, including Japan, South Korea and Indonesia. It already hosts a branch campus of China’s Xiamen University as well as a number of Australian and Western universities.

Malaysia’s Education Minister Maszlee Malik suggested that not just Tsukuba but others might be interested in setting up a branch campus, mentioning Nippon Designers School, which he indicated could start operations in Malaysia this year. He also pointed to Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, which has Mahathir as an honorary advisor, though sources in Japan said Ritsumeikan has not embarked on the process to launch an overseas branch.

Kana Setoguchi, in charge of the section for international campuses at Japan’s ministry of education, told University World News Tsukuba is so far the only institution that has contacted the Japanese ministry for advice on setting up overseas.

Change in policy

The Japanese government has signalled a change in policy in supporting overseas branches. In the past Japan has funded joint university projects in Vietnam and Egypt but has not allowed a branch campus of a Japanese-accredited public institution to open up abroad.

Last year the ministry amended its regulations to make them more flexible and is now backing the University of Tsukuba’s bid.

Setoguchi said the ministry is also looking at more flexibility under its higher education grand policy for 2040, unveiled last year, which includes greater openness to adult students and international students, and the provision of more diverse and flexible education programmes.

These may include a relaxation in rules that the Japanese university must own the university property overseas and may not have to specify the number of students and faculty abroad when making an initial application to set up a branch campus.

The medium of instruction overseas can be either Japanese or English.

Difficult process

Despite the positive signals from both countries, the process is complex and it could be a while before the institution opens its branch in Malaysia.

“The university is very cautious in taking the final decision. There are many challenges that must be cleared,” said Masatoshi Yokose, spokesperson for the Office of Global Initiatives at the University of Tsukuba.

While the university views a campus in Malaysia as an important step in raising the university’s international profile, achieving financial sustainability and being able to attract a sufficient number of students to cover costs are a major risk.

“Deliberations are looking into starting with one department such as a liberal arts programme, to be on the safe side,” Yokose said.

Within Japan, government grants to the University of Tsukuba, for example, account for almost half of its annual budget. National universities are offered public subsidies based on the national policy of offering students reasonable fees for equal opportunities.

Tsukuba also needs a “reasonable offer from the Malaysian private or public sector for the compound and the buildings and the in-house facilities, at least in the early years”, said Makio Miyagawa, Japan’s ambassador to Malaysia.

Another issue is the uncertainty over how many Malaysian or Southeast Asian students will enter the university and whether any scholarships may be provided if the fees are to rise, he told Malaysia’s Bernama news agency.

Top-down process

Professor Takashi Inoguchi, head of the Institute of Asian Cultures, JF Oberlin University, Tokyo, and an academic with much international experience, said the Malaysian bid is in response to requests by governments in both countries and is therefore a top-down process.

The proposed branch campus is in line with increasing investment in infrastructure development in Malaysia by Japanese companies, he explained. Japan is also Malaysia’s fourth largest trading partner, after China, Singapore and the United States. Mahathir visited Japan as his first foreign destination after he took office in June 2018.

“Given the highest political commitment to a Japanese university abroad, the new venture will receive official financial and other support that aims to overcome a major concern for Japanese ventures entering the international market,” Inoguchi said.

But he noted that it is seen as a difficult foray into internationalisation for the University of Tsukuba to represent Japanese higher education abroad and a campus in Malaysia could be some time in coming. In particular, he cautions that a decision has not yet been made.

Experts point out, however, that Malaysia’s approach is well-timed. Japanese higher education institutions are struggling with various challenges and internationalisation is an attractive alternative survival option for universities at a time when a sharp demographic decline has reduced the number of local students.

In addition, tough competition from other Asian universities has seen the global ranking of top Japanese universities decline, even with the Asian region.

Internationalisation for Japanese universities is currently about increasing foreign student numbers, student exchange programmes or collaboration in research with other universities.

Some 190,000 foreign students are enrolled in higher education institutions in Japan, according to the Japan Student Services Organization, a government agency. This is lower than the national target set in 2008 of accepting a total 300,000 students by 2020 and represents 10% of Japan’s 3 million college students, far lower than the 25% in the United States and 12% in Germany.

Full-time foreign faculty is also low – fewer than 5% of faculty in national universities –according to the ministry of education. In addition, Japanese professors lack English language teaching experience.