Walk around the streets of Kuala Lumpur and the Chinese influence is unmistakable. From dim sum restaurants to schools where Putonghua is the medium of instruction, the Chinese community is an integral ingredient in Malaysia's cultural melting pot. Now a Malaysian-Chinese group and education officials want to entice top universities from Hong Kong and the mainland to set up branch campuses. If the Chinese universities pursue the offer, they would become the latest in a growing band of foreign universities to come to Malaysia's shores. A number of universities from Australia and Britain have already established campuses in Malaysia and say it has provided them with an opportunity to offer educational opportunities to more students in Asia. While establishing an offshore campus may not be on the agenda for most Hong Kong universities, some believe this could provide an opportunity for them to expand their reach across the region. The move has been initiated by the Malaysian Chinese Association, a political party in the country's ruling coalition. Secretary general Wong Foon Meng said the MCA, which has established a network of Chinese schools where Putonghua is the medium of instruction, planned to contact top universities in Hong Kong and the mainland. Mr Wong said establishing branch campuses would not only increase educational opportunities for Malaysians but also contribute to the country's plan to become an international education hub by providing more places for overseas students. 'We will have more places of study in various fields for the students from Malaysia and also for children from other countries like China. By creating the opportunity for Malaysian students and overseas students to study in some of these top universities here, this will also further strengthen the co-operation in education sectors.' In addition to providing more university places, setting up branch campuses would also pave the way for more collaborative research work between China and Malaysia. Radin Unar, director general of Malaysia's Higher Education Department, said offshore universities had become part of the country's efforts to become an education hub. Three Australian institutions - Monash University, Swinburne University of Technology and Curtain University of Technology - and Britain's University of Nottingham have already established offshore campuses in Malaysia. Britain's Newcastle University announced in November that it was planning to open a campus in the southern state of Johor. Professor Radin said the offshore campuses had increased the availability of affordable, quality programmes for students in the region. 'This has been an excellent experience, especially because the degree is exactly the same as in their home country,' he said. Professor Radin said the government welcomed applications from overseas universities. He said in order to set up an offshore campus, foreign universities must apply to the government, which would consider factors such as the university's commitment to quality education, whether it met Malaysia's qualifications framework and whether it was recognised internationally. The university would then be invited to submit a detailed proposal. Professor Radin said foreign universities must use English as the medium of instruction. He said Malaysia and China already enjoyed strong educational links, with 12,000 Chinese students studying at Malaysian institutions, representing the highest number of overseas students after India. Australia's Monash University became the first overseas institution to set up an offshore campus in Malaysia when it began offering classes in 1998. Located in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Bandar Sunway, the campus is home to 400 staff and 4,000 students, of whom one-quarter are international students. The university, which was established through a partnership with the Sunway Education Trust, a Malaysian non-profit organisation, hopes to expand to more than 6,000 students and 600 staff. Pro-vice-chancellor and president of Monash Malaysia, Robin Pollard, said the university decided to open a Malaysian campus to increase its international presence. 'Malaysia was selected as the location for the first overseas campus because of the strong ties between the two countries in the education sector, the large number of Monash alumni in the country and the strong commitment from the Malaysian partner, the Sunway Education Trust,' he said. Professor Pollard said although the Malaysian government had not provided any specific incentives to Monash, strong government support had been vital to the campus' success. He believed an increasing number of foreign universities were establishing campuses in Malaysia due to the government's strong commitment to making Malaysia a regional education hub and the country's multicultural environment, location and thriving education sector. 'Malaysia has selected the education sector as a key growth area and has committed to making it a regional centre for excellence,' he said. 'Monash is in a position to contribute to Malaysia's aspirations and achieve its own goal of becoming a premier private university that contributes to Malaysia and the region through teaching and research.' The latest institution to join those branching into Malaysia, Newcastle University, will offer medicine and biomedical science degree courses at a new campus in Johor. The Newcastle campus will be in the EduCity development at Iskandar Malaysia, a new development expected to house international colleges and universities. The first intake of students, who will begin in September, will study the first two years at the university's British campus before transferring to Malaysia to continue their studies when the campus opens in 2011. The degrees will be identical to the five-year programmes offered at Newcastle University in Britain, and the campus will eventually accommodate about 900 students. Reg Jordan, chief executive of Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia, said the university was working in partnership with the Malaysian authorities to establish the campus. 'We decided to open a campus in Malaysia to enhance our international profile and extend our global footprint,' Professor Jordan said. 'Obviously it takes some time to go through the regulatory requirements, and in addition, we have had to ensure that for medicine, the programme has received approval but with a bit of patience and care for the multicultural sensitivities of a Muslim country. We have found no problems.' He said the university believed Southeast Asia would be a significant global hub for higher education in future. 'We can offer the same package as in the UK - a world-recognised qualification - for a lot less money, about half the cost, for students who wouldn't otherwise get access.' The University of Hong Kong, Chinese University, Polytechnic University and the University of Science and Technology said they had no plans to establish campuses in Malaysia. However, HKU's chair professor of education and senior adviser to the vice-chancellor, Cheng Kai-ming, believes establishing offshore campuses in Malaysia is one of the ways Hong Kong universities could internationalise. 'I think Hong Kong universities would be very interested but they are yet to develop their offshore capacities,' he said. 'I don't think they have the intention at this point, even though they are moving across the border to Shenzhen. 'There should be a station of HKU in Southeast Asia and Malaysia would be the best choice because on the one hand it shares the same British colonial legacy and on the other hand, it shares some of the same elements of the Asian culture.' Professor Cheng said there were also many historical relations between China and Malaysia. Until the 1960s, many Malaysian students studied at the University of Hong Kong. Some of them stayed in the city while others have become prominent members of Malaysian society. 'There's no real competition or hostility between Hong Kong and Malaysia,' he said. 'Unlike some of the neighbouring countries, Malaysia has never had a track record of anti-Chinese movements. Malaysia has always been very friendly to Chinese.' Professor Cheng pointed out that while foreign universities offered offshore programmes in Hong Kong, there were no foreign university campuses like those in Malaysia. He said the foreign university campuses had enhanced education options in Malaysia. By establishing foreign campuses, Malaysia had - in trade terms - successfully 'imported' some of the expertise in running international higher education and in turn 'exported' to other countries by admitting overseas students. 'It immediately raises the status of Malaysian higher education; otherwise it would be rather difficult to attract students from India, Tanzania, Kenya and China,' he said. However, some have questioned whether Malaysia really needs more foreign universities. 'It's good to internationalise the Malaysian higher education system but at the moment I think we are a bit saturated. We have a lot of institutions,' said Morshidi Sirat, director of the National Higher Education Research Institute at the Universiti Sains Malaysia. Professor Morshidi questioned what medium of instruction Chinese universities would use and said Malaysia may be more suitable for those Hong Kong institutions that already used English as the medium of instruction. 'That would inject diversity. Right now, the foreign universities are primarily from English-speaking countries but coming from Hong Kong and using English, that would be a different scenario altogether,' he said. Professor Morshidi said while Malaysia's public universities were not competing with the foreign institutions because they catered to students studying in the Bahasa Malaysia language, there was competition between the foreign campuses and Malaysia's private universities which use English. 'The private universities are responding to this by having dual degree programmes with foreign universities,' he said, adding that this allowed a foreign university to have a presence in Malaysia without the costs associated with establishing a campus.