NUSAJAYA, MALAYSIA -- The Malaysian state of Johor has long been viewed as an inexpensive shopping area across the border from Singapore, or a stop en route to the brighter lights of Kuala Lumpur.
Now Malaysia is trying to upgrade a hodgepodge of gritty industrial towns and rural villages with Iskandar Malaysia, a planned eco-city and trading zone with districts for tourism, health care and education.
Part of the development is EduCity, a 240-hectare, or 600-acre, plot of land in Nusajaya, which is being developed by Iskandar Investment Berhad. This company is majority-owned by investment entities linked to the federal and state authorities. Iskandar Investment hopes that Nusajaya's lush green fields, neatly paved roads and two theme parks will eventually become a second home to more than 16,000 students.
The developer has signed up 10 education institutions to set up local campuses in EduCity. Two of them, Marlborough College Malaysia and Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia, have begun full-time operations; the others are scheduled to do so by 2017. The developer is also building a 12,000-seat sports complex and a student village.
Marlborough is an international boarding school owned by an elite British private school of the same name founded in 1843. Another pedigreed school project is Raffles University Iskandar, which is run by a Singapore corporation that operates schools across Asia. (It has no relation to the Raffles Hotel.)
They are joined by the Netherlands Maritime Institute of Technology; two British institutions: the University of Southampton and the University of Reading; the Management Development Institute of Singapore; and a tie-up between Malaysia's Multimedia University and the University of Southern California. The Johann Cruyff Institute for Sports Studies, a sports management school started by the Dutch soccer star Johann Cruyff, will operate a Malaysian campus here as well.
The only secondary school aside from Marlborough is the Raffles American School. The rest are institutes of higher education.
An increasing number of Western schools are opening campuses in Asia and the Middle East, and not without controversy. The Yale-National University of Singapore College, expected to start operations next year, has come under criticism by those who question whether a U.S. liberal arts college can operate in a society that does not have full political freedoms. From Abu Dhabi to Shanghai, there are concerns over whether schools can offer the same level of quality and academic freedom overseas as they do back home.
For foreign schools used to autonomy, operating in Malaysia has been challenging.
"The one big risk is whether you can adapt your proven model in one jurisdiction to another where there are fundamental differences," said Professor Reginald Jordan, the provost at Newcastle's Malaysian branch. He cited the example of the University of New South Wales, whose Singapore campus closed after just one semester in 2007.
He said that in England, changes to entrance qualifications or fees were generally internal decisions. But in Malaysia, such modifications must be approved by the Ministry of Higher Education. "I find that exceptionally frustrating," he said.
Professor Malek Pourzanjani, the president of Raffles University, said he could not use staff members from affiliated schools as more than guest lectures without government approval.
EduCity will operate on an unusual model. Most of the universities will only have one faculty or department. For instance, the local branch of Newcastle will specialize in medicine, while the University of Southampton will focus on engineering.
Dr. Jordan, the Newcastle branch provost, said this arrangement allowed for lower costs and made it easier for his university to set up its program, which has around 250 students in its medical program. Newcastle, which plans to add a biomedical sciences degree next year, will allow some students to spend a year at the main campus in Britain.
One complication with overseas campuses is that they do not all offer equivalent degrees and transferable credits with their parent schools.
At Newscastle, students at the Malaysian campus will graduate with bona fide University of Newcastle degrees. But students cannot transfer freely between campuses because of British and E.U. quotas on foreign medical students.
Raffles University is exploring a program where students do half the work for their degree at an affiliated school and half in Iskandar. Dr. Pourzanjani, the university president, said he was in discussions with other EduCity institutions about offering parts of their programs to his students.
The Malaysian government has offered incentives to lure foreign professionals and institutions. According to the Iskandar Regional Development Authority, "knowledge workers" who meet a certain criteria will pay a 15 percent flat income tax rate, which is significantly lower than what most foreign faculty would be paying in their home countries.
The authority also noted that institutions operating in Iskandar could be entirely owned by their foreign parent schools, whereas those operating elsewhere in the country require a Malaysian partner.
Iskandar Investment did not respond directly to questions about whether it gave financial assistance to the partner schools in EduCity.
Dr. Jordan said Newcastle University had received no financial assistance and was set to invest at least $180 million over 30 years on its Malaysian campus.
"This is not some neo-imperialist ploy to ship money home," he said. "It's a myth that we're all here for free. Iskandar is about inward investment."
The schools at EduCity say that although curriculums were adjusted to reflect the local context, the academic standards at their Malaysian campuses are as rigorous as those at the parent schools.
"The standards are the same," Dr. Jordan said.
He added that quotas on international medical students in Britain meant that Newcastle's parent campus had to turn away some qualified Malaysian students.
"It doesn't matter if you're black, blue, or with spots, the students who we take are eligible to register in the U.K," he said. "It's the same program here."
At Newcastle, students take exams that are prepared in Britain. At Raffles University, which is operating out of a temporary campus about a half-hour drive from EduCity, the bulk of the curriculum was designed in Singapore.
Malaysia's lower operating costs have translated into savings for students.
Newcastle's five-year M.B.B.S., or bachelor of medicine, bachelor of surgery program, cost students up to 100,000 Malaysian ringgit, or about $32,700, per year. In Britain, comparable fees could be as high as £27,305, or $43,800.
At the Singapore campuses of Raffles Education, a degree program typically costs more than 14,000 Singapore dollars, or $11,440, a year. At EduCity, it starts at roughly half that price. "We're providing access and options that previously didn't exist," Dr. Pourzanjani said.
EduCity advertises itself as an international destination that can attract students from across Asia. But with the exception of Marlborough College, which caters to an expatriate clientele, most students are from Johor.
At Newcastle, only a handful of students come from Singapore. Raffles University, which only recently received approval to enroll foreigners, has 30 Malaysian students. Noting that it was still in the "early days," Dr. Pourzanjani acknowledged the difficulty in attracting students and staff members from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
"There's a negative perception to Johor, and changing perceptions takes time and hard work," he said. He added that his school participated in road shows and campaigns to promote Iskandar.
There have also been delays in construction. According to Dr. Jordan, Newcastle University opened in Iskandar last year with the anticipation that the sports complex and student housing areas would be ready. As of November, both were not fully complete, though Iskandar Investment housed students at its own cost.
Another concern is whether top Malaysian students who can afford to study abroad will choose to do so back home.
"I considered studying in Malaysia but the outside world is so much bigger, and you can learn things you just can't at home," said Penny Cheong, a 20-year-old biomedical sciences student at the University of Newcastle's campus in England.
"I've learned to communicate with people who are culturally opposite to me and to adapt to the environment I'm thrown into. If I were still in Malaysia, I would not have learned all these things."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.