Hard sell in an Asian market

February 26, 1999

Tony Tysome reports from Malaysia and Thailand where UK universities are battling for students

The press-cutting posted on the reception window at Malaysia's ministry of education pulls no punches. Like Kuala Lumpur's gigantic twin Petronas Towers it signals a proud independence and suggests two fingers up to outsiders. It reads: "Parents are doing their children no favours by sending them to international schools. As Malaysians they should be taught to mix with locals instead of foreigners. Children should not grow up with the impression that they are different from other Malaysians because they have gone through a different education system."

This is perhaps an extreme example of an insular outlook that in the past has influenced policy-makers in Malaysia, one of Britain's biggest overseas higher education markets. But the recent downturn in Malaysia's economy, along with its Southeast Asian neighbours, has helped change attitudes. There is a realisation that Britain and other countries with strong links in Malaysia have something to offer that could serve rather than threaten Malaysia's own agenda.

Ted Edmondson, director of the British Council in Malaysia, explained:

"Malaysia is not an economy on its knees. But the crisis has brought a breath of realism and thrown out some of the hubris about tallest towers and so on."

In this sense at least the region's currency crisis has been good news for British higher education. An earlier government clampdown on franchise arrangements with overseas institutions has given way to active encouragement of new kinds of links and the establishment of branch campuses. The emphasis now is on greater choice for Malaysian students, many of whom can no longer afford to spend time abroad. Local higher education options with foreign university involvement are the order of the day, with the number of Malaysian students going to Britain for their higher education dropping by 44 per cent last year.

But far from bailing out as recruitment plummeted, British institutions that have been quick to respond to new opportunities. They were supported last year by a British Council campaign that carried the message, "Britain is not just a fair-weather friend".

According to Paul Taylor, Education Counselling Service manager in Kuala Lumpur, this was important because the value of the Malaysian market is greater than the most recent estimates of Pounds 350 million. He said: "I am constantly meeting people here who have some experience or connection with British education. You cannot measure the value of that."

The latest development, foreign university degree programmes delivered entirely in Malaysian institutions (so-called 3 plus 0 programmes), has attracted strong British interest. So far 17 of these links have been set up, and 11 involve British institutions.

Khoo Soo Peng, president of Taylors College in Kuala Lumpur, which has just set up a 3 plus 0 programme with Sheffield University, said: "It is a significant development because it enables us to pursue certain levels of higher education that were not previously possible. We have to make an investment to provide a quality programme, and Sheffield has helped us achieve that."

British higher education, while well established in Malaysia, has far from a monopoly in the market. Not far behind and catching up rapidly are the Australians, whose aggressive marketing is making inroads into each new development, including two branch campuses with the blessing of the Malaysian government. The Americans and Canadians are also big players.

According to Dato Dr Ir Haji Ahmad Zaidee Laidin, rector of the Institute Teknologi MARA, which has links with Oxford Brookes University, Cardiff, De Montfort and Stirling, Britain still has the edge. "We feel British education is easier to follow because of our traditional links with institutions and professional bodies. At the moment the UK is more expensive than Australia, but cheaper than the US. We have tolerated a slight range in cost because of the confidence we have in British education," he said.

But Dr Zaharatul, deputy director of Malaysia's department of higher education, suggests certain factors, such as the strength of the pound, incompatibility of credit transfer systems, and restrictions on student employment, are handicapping British institutions.

She said: "It does not mean no one wants to go to the UK - it is the place where people want to finish their education. We cannot match your system, but at the moment we cannot afford it."

Nevertheless, education minister YB Dato Sri Mohd Najib bin Tun Abdul Razak, believes that there is room for more British branch campuses along the lines of a development, south of Kuala Lumpur, announced by Nottingham University last month.

Official support for such developments has not been well received in all quarters. Malaysia's 500 private colleges, encouraged by the government to expand to help meet growing demand for local higher education, feel threatened by the sudden arrival of "a little piece of Nottingham in Kuala Lumpur".

Teo Chiang Liang, chief executive of Kolej Bandar Utama and president of the Malaysian Association of Private Colleges, said: "When Malaysia allowed the establishment of foreign branch campuses, the original idea was that they would specialise in particular areas. But they are doing everything right across the board."

En Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malasian Strategic Research Centre, said: "We have to ask ourselves how many branch campuses do we want and what are they for? There is a feeling this is being done on an ad hoc basis."

Dealing with such concerns might seem a luxury for British institutions attempting to establish a presence in Thailand, Malaysia's northern neighbour country. Here, once again, the Australians are working hard, but the US already has 75 per cent of the market.

Keith Davies, deputy director of the British Council in Bangkok, said:

"Gone are the days when you could just come in and say here are my strengths, give me the students. You have to give them something in return, because they have a choice."

Given these conditions, one might expect morale to be low, particularly since recruitment of Thai students to Britain dropped by 29 per cent last year. Yet there is clear optimism among British representatives. The British Council reports that recruitment fairs in Thailand last month were busier than ever.

British Council officials think this is because there is a feeling that there is scope for considerable growth in the Thai market. The Thai government is encouraging closer links with British institutions and agencies in the hope that these will help it see through reforms in its higher education system. Ministers also see links with Britain as a way of promoting Thailand as a regional centre of excellence in higher education. They are planning a visit to Britain in April to discuss this with British ministers and higher education leaders.

Prachub Chaiyasarn, Thailand's minister of university affairs, said: "I urge every UK university to come here to look at the options. We want to change the war zone into a knowledge market, with the help of British higher education."

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