Sheffield University's multi-million pound franchising venture to stem the acute shortage of doctors in Malaysia has collapsed because of economic crisis there.
The university is left with substantial debts following the withdrawal last week of its Malaysian partner company, responsible for funding the Asean Sheffield Medical College. More than 100 Malaysian medical students in Sheffield now fear they are stranded halfway through their pre-clinical training.
The university has put up half of the cost of a new purpose-built Pounds 4 million teaching facility at its Western Bank site in central Sheffield.
It began recruiting Malaysian students in 1996 with the intention of giving them their first two years of pre-clinical training, after which they would transfer to a new medical college building in Ipoh, a large city north of Kuala Lumpur. They would have completed their clinical training there under a franchising agreement and received a Sheffield medical degree.
The Ipoh building has not opened, however, and Sheffield has been forced to give the first cohort of 24 students the option of staying at the university to undertake their clinical studies. But the 1997 cohort of 103 students cannot be accommodated, according to a university spokesman.
Sheffield was invited to assist Ipoh four years ago in the creation of a private medical college in a region which had no provision for medical training.
The vice-chancellor visited Malaysia on a number of occasions to complete the deal with the Malaysian partner company which consisted of the State Foundation of Perak, two Kuala Lumpur stock exchange-quoted companies called Paramount Corporation and Gopeng, and a private company known as VXL Sdn. The University of Sheffield was given 20 per cent of the shares in the company.
When it became apparent the Malaysian company was in trouble, Sheffield halted recruitment for September 1998 and the vice- chancellor met the Asean students. He stressed that the responsibility for the students' clinical education rested with the Malaysian company but added that Sheffield would do all it could to assist them. The university is owed in the region of Pounds 500,000 in outstanding student fees by the Malaysian company.
A questionnaire has been circulated to all the students this week to establish their wishes. A university spokesman said: "The students want to be doctors and we will do all we can for them but we cannot take on numbers of this sort." He said the students' contracts were with the Malaysian company.
Chris Ng, international secretary at Sheffield Students Union, said the students were distressed by the news. There was a possibility of transferring to another institution he said, possibly overseas, and talks were underway.
However, he said: "The students want a University of Sheffield degree, that has been their aim all along. Some of them are understandably angry."