International Strategy for Higher Education Institutions

RSS FeedEduCity, Malaysia – some challenges to (cost-effective) collaboration

Posted on by Vicky Lewis

Can a 'shared campus' overseas work?

This post is an adaptation of a submission I made to the Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the 'Knowledge Economy' MOOC that I participated in earlier this year.

It draws on my experience of the International Branch Campus of a UK university in EduCity in southern Malaysia (just across the Straits from Singapore). It seeks to highlight some of the challenges which hamper what appears to be a great idea for a more cost-effective and collaborative approach to branch campus development.

National agenda

As argued in The Shape of Things to Come: the evolution of transnational education: data, definitions, opportunities and impacts analysis (PDF) (British Council, Going Global 2013), Malaysia has used transnational education (TNE) strategically to meet demand from specific student population groups and to ‘cap the outflow of currency’ via students who study abroad. The country has taken a market-oriented approach and has ambitions to become a regional hub for international education. It aims to attract 150,000 international students by 2015. It is envisaged that a proportion of those international students will be attracted to one of the foreign branch campuses (of which there were eight – mainly Australian and UK - as of January 2013 [British Council, 2013]) established with the encouragement of the Malaysian government.

EduCity concept

EduCity Iskandar is a cluster of educational establishments in a newly developed area at the southern tip of Malaysia, within easy reach of Singapore.

The Iskandar Investment website (http://www.iskandarinvestment.com/master-planned-development-projects/surrounding-developments/ ) states that:

EduCity Iskandar Malaysia (EduCity) is a pioneering multi-varsity education hub located in Nusajaya, comprising universities and institutes of higher education, academia-industry action and R&D centres, as well as student accommodation, shared sports and recreational facilities.…. EduCity aspires to create Asia’s first “best-in-class” higher education destination with a superior urban environment in which students and staff can live, work, study and play.

There is space for eight international universities to share facilities and, ideally, offer complementary provision. This 2012 article from the UK’s The Guardian newspaper, outlines what the 350 acre development will look like from the perspective of the three UK universities involved (Newcastle University, University of Southampton, University of Reading):


The intention was for different institutions to offer courses in an area of specialist expertise (e.g. medicine, engineering). To this end, exclusivity agreements were provided to certain institutions so that they have a monopoly on delivering EduCity-based courses in a particular subject area for a number of years.

Foreign institution motivations

The motivations for the UK universities to set up campuses there revolved primarily around extending their international reach and raising their profile in a key Asian location with strong connections to the wider region. However, these campus developments are also intrinsically linked to wider organisational commitments to ‘tackling the big societal issues of the day’ via ‘working with international partners to invest in collaborative teaching and research projects’ whilst contributing to workforce development in the host country (quotes taken from Newcastle University brochure The Impact of a World-Class Civic University).

Strategic collaboration challenges

So far so good. It sounds like a great plan which allows institutions to develop a branch campus without having to invest individually in all the associated infrastructure and systems. However the article in The Guardian (2012) is a little misleading when it refers to some of the UK universities who are joining forces to form a shared campus in Malaysia’ (my emphasis).

In reality, the UK institutions took the decision to develop their Malaysia campuses (plural) at different times, are at very different stages and are working to different timescales and budgets. Each institution’s Malaysia campus also plays a different role within the overall strategy of the home institution and has a different level of delegated decision-making authority. Yes, they discuss plans and try to collaborate but it is not as joined up and cohesive as implied in this article.

Here are a few examples of the challenges:

Academic footprint (cooperation vs financial sustainability)

Although some of the UK institutions started out thinking they would run courses only in one specialist area of expertise (which fits with the steer from the Malaysian end and with the idea of collaboration rather than competition), it has become clear that if each campus is to be financially sustainable it will need to have a broader academic footprint, delivering not just high-cost courses but also some ‘cash cows’ – which could lead to a risk of competition for students between the institutions.

Shared services

Although there are shared facilities at EduCity provided by the Malaysian investor (student accommodation, sports facilities etc.), it is more challenging to share support services that tend to need to link back to those of the parent campus (HR, IT etc.). There is a certain amount of sharing that can take place at an operational level (e.g. joint student recruitment activities), but the challenges arise where the parent campuses have differing expectations and requirements in respect of particular policies and systems.

Multiple communication lines

Truly strategic collaboration is hampered by the complexities of involving the right people in multi-institution discussions across a 7000 mile distance / 8 hour time difference. Those on the ground running the campuses can communicate easily with one another (across institutional boundaries) as they are close neighbours. And senior representatives of the parent universities meet regularly in the UK to discuss strategic developments. However, it is a challenge to ensure that those strategic discussions about the future are fully informed by the realities of the operating environment (as experienced by those on the ground). This applies at an individual institution level – and even more so when multiple institutions are involved.  


Ultimately each of the campuses within EduCity is very much its own entity. Early priorities tend to be around clarifying its relationship (as a branch campus) with its parent institution in the UK and ironing out any wrinkles in communication channels and decision-making responsibilities. Only once this is sorted out (and this may happen at different times for different campuses) can attention really be turned to areas of collaboration and the potential to share services (and associated costs). It might be different in a situation where all institutions involved in a new initiative are starting out at the same time and able to progress at the same pace. However, my suspicion is that such an experience is pretty unusual - and probably works best with a heavily externally coordinated (and bankrolled) initiative.

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