04 February 2008

Japan and Malaysia to establish a joint university of technology

Japan and Malaysia to establish a joint university of technology
by Charles Jannuzi


In late August 2007, Japan's then-prime minister, Shinzo Abe, was in Malaysia on an official three-day visit for bilateral talks with his Malaysian counterpart, PM Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The meetings in Putrajaya, the new planned city and government center of Malaysia , marked both the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two Asian nations and the 25th anniversary of Malaysia's 'Look East Policy'. A joint statement from the PMs for the occasion announced a renewed call for the rapid establishment of the Malaysia-Japan International University of Technology (MJIUT).

However, after only one troubled year in office, the sudden collapse of the Abe government on 12 September 2007 has cast serious doubts about the future of the MJIUT. This is a project which so far has seemed to elude any realistic schedules for completion or even cost estimates. The utter lack of specifics on time and money is not at all encouraging for the start up of a new science and technology university, since such an institution is so capital intensive and requires expensive equipment, highly trained personnel, and a career structure for its academics.

Hopeful statements, but...

Just where does the project stand in the list of priorities of the hastily formed government of new Japan PM Yasuo Fukuda? The signals being sent seem somewhat encouraging. As reported in October 2007 by the official news agency of Malaysia, Masahiko Horie, Japan's new ambassador appointee to Malaysia, has stated that a major goal of his tenure is the completion of the new university. He reiterated that the completion of the institution will be a high priority for his term as ambassador during a trip to Penang last month (January 2008).

An international symposium in Kuala Lumpur on 12-15 November 2007 was held to promote cooperative research in advanced technology between Japan and Malaysia in support of the new university's establishment. Still, since the Ambassador Horie has given no specific guidance on budgets or realistic targets for stages of completion (other than the goal of opening by mid-2009), the Malaysian side must be hoping his tenure is longer than his predecessor's one year under Abe.

Flagship project for the 'Asian Gateway' Concept

Over the past two years, the MJIUT has been promoted as a 'flagship' project ushering in a new era of expanded economic and cultural ties between Japan and SE Asia, including the vital trade partner and newly industrialized country, Malaysia. For example, the joint university project was supposed to exemplify the benefits of bilateral trade liberalization and harmonization of the Japan-Malaysia Economic Partnership Agreement, which went into effect in July 2006.

Of course such projects can sell the benefits of the many bilateral free trade agreements Japan has been reaching with countries in ASEAN and worldwide. But the origins of the MJIUT go back to November 2001 at the the ASEAN+3 Summit in Brunei, where then Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad proposed the project during talks with then Prime Minister of Japan, Junichiro Koizumi. PM Mahathir, nearing the end of his long reign as a dominant figure in Malaysian and SE Asian politics, was seeking ways to make his legacy in education and social development more lasting while taking his leadership vision to other parts of Asia. At the same time, PM Koizumi, only just starting out, needed to be seen as an effective leader of reform and renewal in Japan. Therefore Mahathir's brainchild proved appealing to both countries' governments and was the envy of other ASEAN nations seeking more Japanese involvement in their development plans.

Predictions for opening dates keep receding

Reports that the MJIUT would be operating sometime in the period 2004-8 have proven, predictably enough, wrong. Even the new target of June 2009 now seems out of reach. For a start, official statements about the proposal at the initial stages gave way to wishful thinking regarding the condition of Japan's government finances or the management expertise of a consortium of Japanese universities and their academics assigned to this project. Also, Japan's overseas development aid (10% of which goes to education) began to decline severely while Koizumi was PM, both in total yen amounts (because of the need to control government borrowing) and in purchasing power (because of the weak yen). Moreover, advocates of the initiative may have underestimated the difficulty in overcoming language barriers and cultural differences between the two sponsoring nations.

Still, there has been some progress on the ground. In December 2005 the City Campus (KL) of the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) became host to the Malaysia-Japan University Center (MJUC). This center has functioned as the start-up form of the new university. A small group of Japanese academics from the Japan university consortium has been assigned to this center while Malaysian officials administer it. Its mission is to spearhead the planning and building of the new university.

Location somewhere in the Klang Valley

Meanwhile the burden of financing the ambitious project is shifting from joint government sponsorship to a mix of public and private funds coming from consortia set up in both countries. These consortia consist of government ministries, associating universities, and companies, including ones that may be exploring opportunities in for-profit education provision. If construction does begin, the most likely location would be a greenfield site south of crowded and expensive K. L., in the towns of Nilai or Enstek or some similar location in the 'Klang Valley' (a descriptive term that can take in quite a bit of real estate). These towns are said to form a 'knowledge valley', home to a growing group of institutions of higher learning and research, including Nilai International University College, INTI International University College, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia, and Islamic University College Malaysia. In addition to having the MJIUT, the Nilai area, because it is centrally located relative to KL, the international airport, Putrayjaya, and Cyberjaya, has also been designated as the future host for similar technical institutes to be run jointly with interests from S. Korea and Taiwan.

Good time for a tie-up for HE in both Japan and Malaysia

An unprecedented public-private tie-up between Japan and Malaysia to run a major transnational science and technology university could not come at a better time for the higher education systems of both countries.

Japan's 700+ universities and four-year colleges are struggling to meet their government-set enrollment quotas. The population of senior high school graduates peaked over a decade ago and its current size, just over one million, is still in decline. With about 50% of this cohort continuing to university or college, Japan's large higher education system of about 1250 degree-granting institutions has entered an era of open admissions and intense competition to admit the best students. To help meet the shortfalls in enrollment from the domestic population, universities and colleges have turned increasingly to students from overseas. International students are close to 120,000, but their numbers peaked several years ago and have been falling.

This year the Japanese government called for a renewed drive to internationalize the universities while keeping enrollments up, requesting that the number of foreign students be increased to an extremely ambitious 350,000 by 2025. Of the international students now in Japan, by far the single largest national group is from China, followed by S. Korea and Taiwan. Students from Malaysia, like ASEAN neighbor and rival, Thailand, form a much smaller but significant group of about 2% of the 120,000 internationals studying in Japan. Numbers from China are inflated by many who are doing relatively short-term Japanese language study. Those from Malaysia are sponsored by their own government to stay and complete two- and four-year degrees. Degrees issued in Japan and Malaysia are now recognized in both countries.

Following a pattern set with a number of foreign institutions from Anglophone countries operating branch campuses in Malaysia, the proposed MJIUT might educate students for two years in country and then have them finish their four-year degrees by spending the last two years at the universities in Japan that are members of the sponsoring university consortium. Some of the successful graduates might then stay on at universities in Japan to complete graduate program or enter careers with Japanese companies operating in SE Asia.

Malaysia has been frustrated by a lack of representation in international and Asian rankings of universities. So clearly the hope is that an infusion of money and technological know-how from the E. Asian trade surplus giants of Japan, S. Korea and Taiwan will boost the country's fortunes in globalizing its expanding higher education system. Because of their developed systems (as well as language barriers), these countries send few students abroad to study in science and technology. If language and cultural differences can be overcome (major issues that can not be overestimated) , the thinking is Japan and its national development state apprentices, S. Korea and Taiwan, should be able to export science and technology education to Malaysia.

Could Malaysia become SE Asia's #1 HE hub?

The Malaysian government would like to see its higher education sector compete with Singapore to become the dominant hub of SE Asia. Prime Minister Abdullah recently called for the current number of 50,000 international students to be doubled to 100,000 by 2010. The majority of foreign students in Malaysia (over 60%) are enrolled in private (and even private, for-profit) institutions. Technical institutes and universities with connections to corporations, research institutes and higher education in Japan, S. Korea and Taiwan would certainly prove attractive to a large number of students under-served in populous China, India, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand. Moreover, Malaysia may well prove to have the edge over Singapore in terms of physical space, cost, and potential for future immigration. Cultural and religious affinities can not be dismissed.

Malaysia's main rival for hub status is the city state of Singapore. Compared to Malaysia, it is tiny, crowded, expensive, and closed to most immigration. Its close military relationships with the US and Israel do little for its image in much of the world. Compared to sprawling, resource-rich Malaysia, Singapore may lack appeal to the growing number of young people from the Islamic world, namely nearby Indonesia (the world's most populous majority Muslim country), but also the Muslim parts of Thailand and the Philippines as well as Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the affluent Gulf States. Also, Malaysia's higher education system already has significant numbers of students from W. and N. Africa.

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