EduCity losing its stellar touch

EDUCITY in Nusajaya is a brilliant idea. Designed to showcase Malaysia as a centre for western education, it caters to the growing demand among the middle class in Malaysia, and indeed from throughout Asia, for quality English-language schooling.

Parents spend a fortune every year sending their children to British and American schools. To help reverse the trend and stem the massive resultant brain-drain (it is conservatively estimated that over 500,000 university-educated Malaysians now work abroad), the government came up with this unique initiative.

It actively campaigned to woo western schools and colleges to set up branch campuses here.

The proposition was simple and beguiling … get the same degrees and qualifications as in Britain or the US, and at half the price, by sending your children to the branch campus at home.

This is the premise behind the establishment of EduCity – a 242.81ha education hub developed by Iskandar Investment Bhd, a company jointly owned by Khazanah Nasional Bhd, the Employees Provident Fund and Johor-owned Kumpulan Prasarana Rakyat Johor Bhd.

So far, 10 renowned education institutions have opened branches in EduCity, including secondary schools Marlborough College Malaysia, and Raffles American School.

Marlborough is an international boarding school owned by an elite private school with the same name in the UK, which boasts alumni such as the Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and poet Siegfried Sassoon.

The rest are tertiary institutions, including Raffles University Iskandar; British academies Newcastle University Medical Malaysia (NuMed), the University of Southampton and the University of Reading; Netherlands Maritime Institute of Technology; the Management Development Institute of Singapore; the Johann Cruyff Institute for Sports Studies; and a joint-venture between Multimedia University and the University of Southern California.

Most of the universities, however, will only have one faculty or department each: NUMed will focus on medicine, Southampton on engineering, and Reading on English language and finance courses.

This unique model allows their programmes to be set up at a lower cost. More importantly, students from all of the universities live together in one student village and share sports and leisure facilities far beyond those any single university could afford, including a 14,000-seater stadium and an Olympic-length swimming pool.

This is truly a great idea.

But having secured the commitment and participation by these world-renown universities, EduCity now seem to have gone into hibernation with a "hands-off" approach towards these foreign tertiary institutions.

At two recent major education fares, EduCity was conspicuously missing. Instead, it was the universities themselves who were doing their bidding to woo students.

This is fundamentally wrong because EduCity is a destination. Hence, all promotions and marketing must be anchored under the EduCity platform and not on a piecemeal basis.

Highest on the litany of other woes is EduCity's apparent indifference to visa issues involving foreign faculty staff and students, with some having to wait for six months to secure clearance.

Sub-standard and under-equipped facilities at the student village have also upped the chagrin, with inadequate public transport being the bane of all and sundry, not to mention the lack of a proper cafeteria and other basic facilities.

Despite offering itself as a cheaper alternative in obtaining education from prestigious academies, EduCity is also finding it hard to attract prospective students and staff from Singapore and even Kuala Lumpur, with most students coming from Johor itself.

Johor simply is not yet an attraction proposition. And there are many anecdotal accounts to back this claim.

A fortnight ago, five relatively well-off families drove from KL to explore the possibility of registering their children for Foundation courses at EduCity in Nusajaya.

All backed out after only a day in Johor Baru. Reason – serious concerns about the quality of the student experience at the still relatively isolated, no-frills facility in this city.

There is a glaring negative perception about Johor, and changing that perception will take time and hard work. But at the rate EduCity is moving, this sad state of affairs may never change.

There are also serious bureaucratic interferences, like the universities being disallowed to put up billboards or even hoardings around their campus to advertise academic programmes.

It is worth mentioning here that EduCity itself has done nothing to promote and market this so-called world-class education hub – except for a single inconspicuous sign that says this is where it is.

The universities are also finding it extremely frustrating because of changes to entrance qualifications or fees which must be approved by the Education Ministry, whereas these matters are dealt with internally in England.

EduCity did an incredible job in wooing these 10 colleges and universities to set up base in Johor. But having secured them now, it has failed miserably to manage expectations and propel this idea of an integrated campus university project to greater heights.

At a time when Malaysians are genuinely concerned about the poor-quality of state-run universities and shrinking academic freedoms, so much hope was riding on EduCity and its stable of world famous universities.

EduCity started off with a big bang. But it is in danger of going out with a whimper. And that would be a shame, indeed.

Roy is a keen watcher of economic, political and social trends on both sides of the Johor Straits. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com