How Do You Build an International University From Scratch? (Part 1)

Posted By: Francisco Marmolejo|Dated: November 1, 2012

Many scholars have argued with reason that higher-education institutions around the world are highly resistant to change. Some are even more critical, predicting that in the information-based economy, universities are condemned to disappear or become obsolete, at least in the way they currently function. Certainly, fostering and implementing change in colleges and universities can be a daunting task, as witnessed by many institutional leaders who have lost their jobs trying to change the course of their organizations. This sense of frustration in trying to foster change was cogently expressed by President Clinton about 15 years ago at a gathering of higher-education leaders when he sympathized with the work of a president of a higher-education institution and compared it to that of a cemetery’s administrator: they have many people under them, but nobody listens.

How Do You Build an International University From Scratch? (Part 1)

In 1998, Arthur Levine compared the challenges faced by higher-education institutions and the typical response to those faced when a ship is sinking after being hit by an iceberg. The captain decides the following actions in order of priority: to save the crew, to make sure that the show and entertainment continues as normal, to repair the ship and, at the end, if time allows, to save the passengers. A response by a university president employing the same rationale might be as follows: efforts are made to protect the faculty, resources are dedicated to assure that classroom activities continue, committees are created to address the problem, and in all likelihood, by the time that results are announced, it will be too late for graduating students.

One of the problems with university reform is that institutions cannot be shut down while repairs are made. But what about creating a new one? Well, that is not easy either, considering all that is required to establish a new higher-education institution. Nevertheless, all over the world many institutions are being created, especially in countries where demographic pressures are such that massive numbers of youth are demanding education. Just to mention some cases, in Mexico in the last six years a total of 105 new universities were established; in India the government has said that to be able to attend the huge demand for higher education it will be necessary to build 1,000 new universities by 2020; in China the number of higher-education institutions went from around 1,000 in 2000 to almost double that at the end of the decade; and in Brazil a total of 1,512 new higher-education institutions were established from 1997 to 2009.

When new institutions are created from scratch, it represents a unique opportunity. During my trips to different countries, occasionally I learn of a new institution being established and I am always curious to know to what extent institutional leaders are simply emulating other institutions, and how much they are willing to risk in doing something innovative and different.

A good example of an institution trying a new model is Albukhary International University (AIU) in Malaysia. Supported by the Albukhary Foundation, and established by a prominent Malaysian entrepreneur and philanthropist, AIU is a non-religious, residential, private institution located in Alor Setar, a community located in the northern part of Malaysia, very close to the border with Thailand. This institution, with superb, brand new facilities, just opened its doors to a first cohort of undergraduate students from 47 countries (with only a small number being from Malaysia). Since all students receive a full scholarship, which covers all tuition and fees, and all living expenses during their entire duration of studies, a necessary condition of admission is that they must belong to a low-income family and to come from an underprivileged or disadvantaged background. In order to develop basic knowledge of English among all students, an optional six-month English immersion program is offered to those arriving with the minimum required TOEFL score of 440. All students begin their regular education with one year of general education content packed into 15 trimester-based courses from mathematics and learning and thinking skills, to leadership and community-service projects. The following three years, students can major in accounting, business administration, or computer science with emphasis on software engineering or networking offered by the school of business studies and information and communications technology. Future plans include establishing a school of humanities and social sciences.

Interestingly, though Malaysia is a Muslim country, AIU is not an Islamic university. Also, interestingly, all students are mandated to conduct community service for the underprivileged and disadvantaged in the local community in which AIU is located. Also they will be required to return to their respective countries at graduation.

As explained by the vice chancellor of AIU, Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, an energetic and well-known educator, and former vice chancellor of the prestigious Universiti Sains Malaysia, AIU pretends to innovate using the metaphor of a “humaniversity” in which they intend to “make available high quality and relevant education based on equity and access with success across the many existing global divides.”

Too good to be true? Of course, it is too early to know how successful AIU may be in accomplishing its goal, and many questions remain to be answered, ranging from its long-term financial viability, to the capacity of graduates to adapt and become effective change agents on their return to their respective countries. Also, formidable challenges remain in recruiting and retaining innovative faculty members also willing to venture into new pedagogical territories, and in creating the adequate environment to fully maximize the multicultural richness existing on campus, just to mention a few. Nevertheless, it is great to learn about efforts happening in the world to recreate higher education. As expressed by Vice Chancellor Dzulkifli, AIU may serve as “a new inspiration for a university of the future” in which graduates may help to “shape the journey to a sustainable and peaceful future.”

What do you think? If you could start a university from scratch, what would be its mission?

This article was originally published here in English, and in Spanish by the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Francisco MarmolejoFrancisco Marmolejo is the Executive Director of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration (CONAHEC), a network of more than 130 colleges and universities primarily from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Francisco also serves as Assistant Vice President for Western Hemispheric Programs at the University of Arizona and has taught at several universities and has published extensively on administration and internationalization. Marmolejo has consulted for universities and governments in different parts of the world, and has been part of OECD and World Bank peer review teams conducting evaluations of higher education in Europe, Latin America and Asia.

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  • Sukalyanmitra

    We as Global Citizen works in Unison for Substantial up liftment in Education sectors,and stop considering it as money making process,,,Conglomerate’s CSR definetly add building blocks in this nobel Cause.

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