Xiamen University Malaysia (XMUM) opened in February 2016, describing itself as “the first overseas campus established by a renowned Chinese university and the first Chinese university branch campus in Malaysia.” The Malaysian government invited China’s ministry of education to establish a branch campus to strengthen bilateral relations.
Xiamen University (XMU) was chosen to lead the initiative because its founder, Mr. Tan Kah Kee, was a successful businessman in Malaysia, and the university has well-established programmes in Southeast Asia studies and traditional Chinese medicine. XMUM is to be a not-for-profit entity, with any surplus revenues reinvested in research and student scholarships in Malaysia. The project is expected to cost US$315 million and is being financed largely by a loan from the China Development Bank. Private donations helped with initial construction, including a US$30 million gift for XMUM’s library.
XMUM is of interest as the first branch campus of a Chinese university and its role as a flagship of China’s international engagement strategy in higher education. A late entrant to a region with many branch campuses – nine in Malaysia and 14 in Singapore – XMUM offers some insights into how to attract enrollments in a well-served market – but a market where there have been failures, such as the withdrawals from Singapore of the University of New South Wales and New York University’s Tisch School. How XMUM adjusts and adapts to the local environment will be instructive for other Chinese universities seeking to establish branches.
ADAPTING TO THE LOCAL ENVIRONMENT MAY CONSTRAIN VIABILITY
XMUM opened with 200 undergraduate students and expects to grow to 1,200 students by the end of 2016, with a target of 5,000 by 2022 and a long-term goal of 10,000 students. XMUM’s first cohort of Malaysian students started in February 2016, followed by its first group of 440 Chinese students in September 2016. Rather than mirroring the policies and practices of the home campus, XMUM has adjusted some key features, including the language of instruction, length and type of academic programmes, level of tuition fees, and entrance requirements.
The most obvious difference between the two campuses is the language of instruction. At XMUM, as required by the Malaysian government’s Qualification Agency, most courses are taught in English. The exceptions are two degree programmes, Chinese studies and traditional Chinese medicine.
On the home campus, most courses are taught in Chinese. By offering classes mainly in English, XMUM has faced difficulties in recruiting faculty from the home campus because not many XMU faculty are proficient in English. To entice faculty to XMUM, it has offered financial incentives and arranged for the main campus to recognize four months of Malaysian service as meeting the requirement of a year’s international experience for promotion to full professor at XMU.
The second significant adjustment is the academic calendar. At XMU, student intake occurs in September and most first-degree programmes are four years in length, with medicine and architecture being five-year programmes. At MUM, there are two intakes a year, in February and September, and greater variation in programme length: arts and social science degrees take three years, while science degrees take four. The differences in academic cycles will constrain student and faculty mobility between the two campuses.
A further difference is the establishment of foundation year programmes at the Malaysian campus. With the Malaysian government’s approval, XMUM offers one-year science and arts and social science foundation programmes. Successful completion will qualify for admission to XMUM undergraduate studies.
There is no foundation year or courses in XMU’s undergraduate programmes – or in China’s public secondary schools. The different level of academic eligibility may further constrain the flow of students from the China campus to Malaysia, and may make it difficult for Chinese high school graduates who enroll at XMUM to be academically successful.
These programming decisions may limit the attractiveness of the Malaysian campus for mainland Chinese students. Similarly, the cost of the Malaysian campus programmes may deter students from China, particularly when comparing tuition fees. For example, a software engineering student at XMUM will pay more than seven times the home campus tuition for the same degree. The price difference is the same for international students. It is cheaper for them to study at the main campus in China than at XMUM; humanities majors would pay around US$3,700 annually at the main campus, roughly 50% more compared to US$5,600 at XMUM.
To alleviate the price disadvantage, XMUM will offer academic scholarships, needs based grants, and bursaries to enrolled Malaysian students. Until policies for Chinese students and other international students are developed, price will limit the attractiveness of the Malaysian campus. The fee “discount” inherent in need and merit aid will also reduce XMUM’s net revenue and impede its path to financial viability.
Conversely, there are some aspects of the academic programme that may attract students from China, Malaysia, and neighbouring nations. The opportunity for English language immersion is a ready example. For students majoring in Chinese studies, some may be attracted by the reduced emphasis on linguistics in Chinese language and literature courses, and by the absence of compulsory political courses and military training. Others may come for culturerelated elective courses like “International Relations of Southeast Asia since WWII.”
Students may also be attracted to XMUM by its nine different enrolment pathways. Most of these are to recruit Malaysian students to different undergraduate programmes and to accommodate the different assessment schedules in Malaysian secondary schools. XMUM has designed its more flexible admissions policies and practices to make its programmes more attractive, to respond to the local environment, and to attract students from neighboring countries. But the Chinese government has limited XMUM’s flexibility by requiring Chinese nationals resident in Malaysia to take the gaokao as a path to enrolling at XMUM. Similarly, any mainland resident Chinese student seeking to enter XMUM has to take the “Big Test.”
While it is too early to assess XMUM’s longterm viability, its first steps are informative. The XMU/XMUM partnership illustrates that a branch campus is not a simple mirror site of the home campus. In this case, adjustments have been made to fundamentals like language of instruction, academic calendar and programme, admissions policies and practices, and price. Some of these decisions may limit the flow of students from China in general and from the home university. Yet these adjustments, made in response to local context and prevailing educational practices, may impact the longer-term viability of the branch campus.
This article was originally published in International Higher Education.
BONNIE YINGFEI HE
Bonnie Yingfei He is beginning a career in international education and intercultural communication.
Alan Ruby is a senior scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, US.