Malaysia floats ‘transit hub’ for students waiting to head to West

EduCity initiative could let students stay closer to home until Covid eases

January 9, 2021
Source: University of Reading Malaysia

EduCity, a complex in Malaysia that houses three UK branch campuses and other institutions, is proposing that international universities use its facilities to recruit and temporarily house Asian students who are interested in an overseas education, but are not ready to take the leap because of Covid.

Wan Ahmad Saifuddin, managing director of EduCity Iskandar, told Times Higher Education that foreign institutions could quickly set up classrooms to accommodate Asian students who were not confident about returning to the West for the current semester, or even for the 2021-22 school year.

The idea is that they would take the same credit-bearing online classes as their peers and eventually transfer to the UK. But in the meanwhile, they will live on an Asian campus with libraries, labs, sports facilities and other aspects of student life.

“Traditionally, partner universities talk about twinning models or branch campuses,” said Mr Saifuddin. “But today, they don’t necessarily need a full campus. They can start with 10,000 square feet and a one-year-agreement.”

“It’s like the higher education version of virtual offices or cloud kitchens. You just bring your ingredients.”

Cecilia Pereira-Yates, managing director of GB8, an international recruitment specialist firm and consultant for EduCity, told THE that transnational education (TNE) had changed since she started working in the field. 

“If you look at TNE in the late 1990s, it was all about twinning agreements. Now, it’s evolved,” she said. “UK universities traditionally looked at TNE in one way; but here’s another way. It can start as a sort of ‘transit’.

“The relationships between countries need to be more balanced, more collaborative,” added Ms Pereira-Yates, who first moved to the UK as a Malaysian international student herself.

She said that the “transit hub” idea was conceived over the summer in response to concerns by Asian parents, who were posting worried comments on a Facebook page she runs.

“‘Parent power’ plays a major role in Asian student decision-making,” she said. “Asian parents have fears about safety, security, and not knowing about the state of campuses. They may not want to spend money on airfares and rent while their child, especially a first-year student, sits alone in a flat overseas.”

The “transit” concept has become even more timely, given the recent closure of campuses across the UK, which will not return to face-to-face teaching until mid-February at the earliest for most courses.

Part of Malaysia’s appeal is that it has only had about 500 Covid deaths. While its border is still closed, it may reopen first to “green zone” Asia-Pacific countries soon.

EduCity, located less than an hour from the Singapore border, has had no major outbreaks and has remained functional through the pandemic.

It houses branches of the University of Southampton, the University of Reading, Newcastle University’s medical school, two Singaporean institutions, plus Multimedia University, which partners with the University of Southern California. It is currently home to 4,000 students, but aims to grow to 15,000 by 2024.

If Western universities can tap in to the larger Asian regional market, the potential is huge. Malaysia sends more than 60,000 students overseas a year. Its cohort in the UK grew from 15,000 in 2010 to nearly 30,000 in 2030, increasing at a rate of 7 per cent annually, according to the British Council’s Vision 2020 report.

However, this is just a small percentage of the 1.2 million higher education students in Malaysia. According to 2020 statistics from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the larger region is home to 20 million students and 7,000 institutions. 

“The idea of the hub isn’t just for Malaysians, but for students in the region,” said Ms Pereira-Yates. “It’s for China, India, [and] Southeast Asia. Parents feel more comfortable having their children three or four hours away, not 10.”

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