A home a long way from home

Graeme Wilkinson tells David Matthews he has no regrets about taking a ‘curious opportunity’ to leave Wales and lead a Malaysian university

August 8, 2013

With UK universities facing financial uncertainty, many British academics face a tricky dilemma: should I move overseas to where opportunities can be rather more plentiful?

Last year, Graeme Wilkinson, who had served for five years as pro vice-chancellor of Glyndwr University, was casting around for a new role in the UK when he came across an unexpected opportunity: the vice-chancellorship of the private Sunway University in Malaysia.

Now, just over a year after taking the helm, he told Times Higher Education that making the move from North Wales to the tropics was “absolutely the right thing to do”, citing more respectful staff, a surprisingly familiar university system, and “a lot of very beautiful tropical beaches”.

Sunway is located on a huge purpose-built tourist destination on the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur, and was created as part of the charitable mission of the construction firm, Sunway Group, that built the complex.

As a result, it sits shoulder to shoulder with a giant mall shaped like an Egyptian pyramid, five-star hotels and a theme park complete with water slides, bears and parrots.

However, the students are able to resist these distractions, Professor Wilkinson observed.

“They seem to be very, very hard-working. At eight in the morning the place will be bustling with students. I can’t say I have seen quite the level of keenness that early in the morning in the UK,” he said.

Yet in other ways Sunway is remarkably like a UK university: partly because of Britain’s colonial influence, it has a three-year degree system, adheres to a similar quality assurance regime, and its departments and faculties are run “along very British lines”, he explained.

“Obviously it’s a bit of a dramatic change [from Glyndwr],” he added. “On the other hand, from a professional point of view, I feel at home here. You get a sense of a lot of Britishness about the country. It does feel a bit like a British university.”

Given the widespread use of English in the country, he has been able to lead the university despite knowing “only a few words”of Malay, Professor Wilkinson said.

Staff more ‘cooperative’ than in UK

However, there are also some marked differences between the Malaysian institution and the UK academy. Academics at Sunway get performance-based bonuses and are not unionised.

Professor Wilkinson said the atmosphere at UK universities could sometimes be “antagonistic” while in Malaysia, “I do get more respect. In the UK, of course there’s respect, but the atmosphere here is more collaborative and cooperative.” He attributed this to Asian culture.

There could be opportunities in the Southeast Asian state’s higher education sector for British academics who feel stymied in their careers at home. The government aims to increase the proportion of overseas staff in research universities to 15 per cent by the end of the decade, and Malaysian universities have “a great deal of respect for Western educators and they are very keen to get people from the UK and the US”, Professor Wilkinson said.

Salaries are “on the low end by UK standards” but the cost of living is “much lower” too, he added. Sunway will be advertising for more junior staff members in “due course”.

Low-cost Western education on offer

Malaysia hopes to attract foreign students as well as staff: by 2020, it aims to host 200,000 of them. In 2009 there were just over 80,000, according to research commissioned by the Ministry of Higher Education, with the biggest source countries being Iran, Indonesia and China.

At Sunway, about a fifth of the students are from overseas, with a large contingent from the Middle East seeking a “Western education at a relatively low cost in a Muslim country”, Professor Wilkinson said.

Currently only a “handful” of students are from Europe or North America, but Sunway will be sending marketing staff to the UK to extol the virtues of “UK degrees cheaper than in the UK”, he continued.

Twelve months into his job at Sunway, Professor Wilkinson reflected that he was “almost glad” that no positions had come up in the UK before he discovered the vacancy in Malaysia, because otherwise he might never have taken up such a “curious opportunity”.

“I don’t imagine I’m going to be coming back to the UK any time soon,” he said.


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