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Friday, March 11, 2016, 11:06

Xiamen University goes global

By Elaine Tan in Kuala Lumpur
Xiamen University goes global
Artist’s impression of X iamen U niversity M alaysia. (Provided to China Daily Asia Weekly )
With about 50 local private universities and university colleges, Malaysia’s higher education landscape is competitive to say the least. Yet expectations are high that the latest entrant will make its mark by writing a new chapter in the sector.

As the first branch campus of a Chinese State-owned university, Xiamen University Malaysia (XUM), which opened on Feb 22, is a diplomatic achievement that could be a pivotal turning point for the globalization of the Chinese education system.

The inaugural batch of 187 freshmen will choose from programs including new energy science and engineering, traditional Chinese medicine, Chinese studies, journalism, accounting, finance and international business.

Spanning 150 acres within a new township in the district of Sepang (located some 45km outside of Kuala Lumpur), the XUM campus is expected to be built in two phases at a total investment of $314 million. It will accommodate 10,000 students.

When completed in 2026, the first phase of XUM will see five schools in operation: Chinese language and culture, medicine, information communication technology, economics and oceanography. Each of these has been selected for its heritage as well as the marketability of the courses they offer.

Later additions will include the schools of chemical engineering and energy, biological engineering, electronic engineering, material sciences, and mass media and animation.

Significantly, it also represents a full circle for a university that traces its roots to Malaysia. Xiamen University, also known as Xia Da, was founded by a migrant from Fujian, Tan Kah Kee, who came to British Malaya in the early 1900s to seek his fortune.

Building an empire in rubber, rice and sugar trading, shipping and manufacturing, he generously repatriated funds to help set up village schools in his hometown and later helped found Xia Da in 1921.

Tan continued to financially support the university until his death in 1961. Ever the philanthropist and educationist, he bequeathed his remaining wealth to the university and other schools. “XUM is thus a historic reciprocation,” said its president, Wang Ruifang.

The Malaysian campus also embodies the next step in Xia Da’s internationalization agenda.

“In the last decade or so, we have been striving to create a globally-oriented university with an international campus culture that will attract foreign students,” explained Wang, who is an alumnus of the university in Fujian.

“Going abroad will help deepen this process. Being the first university in China to venture out is a challenging task. But we felt, if handled properly, this would take the university’s internationalization further. We would be in the position to attract foreign students to the main campus, send our teaching staff to the branch campus and to nurture talent in other countries.”

Another key motivating factor for Xia Da was to participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative by providing capable and suitable manpower. The initiative seeks to build a modern trade and infrastructure network on the route of the historical Silk Road.

XUM could function as a platform for interaction between students from China, Malaysia and neighboring countries, sparking future exchanges of knowledge and collaborations in trade, culture and technology.

“This campus could be a showcase for China as well as a gateway into China,” Wang said.

In the spirit of Tan Kah Kee, the Malaysian-Chinese community has rallied strongly behind the project with financial and other support. Although it is the sizeable contributions from local business tycoons like Robert Kuok and Lee Shin Cheng — at $30 million and $4 million, respectively — that have dominated the press, Wang said the community as a whole has provided equally invaluable support.

Xiamen University goes global
A statue of Tan Kah Kee at Xiamen University in Fujian province. Established with funds from Tan in 1921, the university is known for its academic achievements. (CHAN KIN SANG / China Daily Asia Weekly )
Since the idea was mooted in 2011, many have stepped forward to offer advice and assistance on myriad issues, like finding a suitable location, local laws, systems and procedures, marketing and much more.

Support from both governments has also been encouraging. Beijing has approved a $15 million research grant from the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund to the China-ASEAN College of Marine Sciences. The college, located in XUM, seeks to facilitate cooperation between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations through higher education.

The Malaysian government too is doing its part with a range of tax incentives, including a special tax-free status for donations made to XUM and exemptions on income derived by employees transferred from Xia Da.

XUM will begin by offering two foundation courses and 10 undergraduate programs — all of which will be taught in English except for Chinese studies and traditional Chinese medicine. There are also plans to add three master’s and two doctoral programs in the next few years.

“We want to offer something different from the Commonwealth system that will enrich the Malaysian education landscape and provide choices for students and parents.

“For example, we would like to provide a wide range of general electives to cultivate young talent who will be able to meet challenges from a changing world, which comes only from having wide exposure to knowledge and inspiration,” Wang added.

XUM will strongly leverage its connections to Xia Da to carve out a unique academic offering. Plans are being discussed to allow students from the branch campus to complete a portion of certain subjects in the Xiamen campus.

Additionally, solutions for credit transfers are being explored to fulfill the requirements set by Malaysia’s Ministry of Education. The Malaysian campus will also maintain at least a one-third composition of academic staff from Xia Da at any time.

“Naturally, in the long run, we aspire to be a premier Malaysian university with a unique identity that is different from our parent university in China. XUM will hopefully be a university with a distinctly global outlook, first-class teaching and research, and one that embraces cultural diversity,” Wang said.

The Xiamen University brand and reputation certainly bodes well for such ambitions. Xia Da is ranked 11th out of 2,000 institutions of higher learning in China, 37th in Asia and 275th globally.

The Malaysian campus, however, is in a distinct position of being a Chinese-based university using English as a medium of instruction — Xia Da’s first attempt at such an exercise.

“We are in danger of being caught in the middle,” Wang acknowledged. “On the one hand, we have to compete with branch campuses of Western universities that are in Malaysia or the region. On the other, we are compared with universities from (Chinese mainland) and Taiwan which are attracting students to further their studies in Mandarin.

“But the challenge could provide an opportunity for us. We could offer the perfect integration of Chinese perspectives with high quality, international-level education in English that will give our students a competitive edge.”

Although it is early days to claim that China will be jumping onto the education export bandwagon, this initiative is definitely being watched by the Chinese government and other institutions of higher learning. XUM could well go down in history as the catalyst for a new wave of Chinese globalization through education.

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