Nottingham is extending its global reach by training Malaysian academics

Nottingham is a long way from Malaysia and politics lecturer Sanen Marshall is pining for his wife and daughter.

"I do miss them," admits Marshall, who came from Malaysia's Sabah University to the Midlands in December. "And I'm grateful for modern technology, especially the webcam, because it helps me to keep in touch. But I've adjusted well to living here and know this programme is exactly right for me. When it came up, I grabbed it."

The programme on which Marshall enrolled is a new collaborative "split" PhD, and he is its first student. The three-year course, funded by the Malaysian government, sees students spend part of their time in Nottingham, and part of it at their home universities.

For Marshall, who is studying Colonialism in Eastern Malaysia, the set-up couldn't be better. It means he's not separated from his family for years on end (he'll stay in the UK for six months at the beginning and end of the scheme), and that he has the opportunity to do archival research at the British National Archives. He will then return home to carry out some fieldwork before coming back to Nottingham to write up his thesis.

The "split PhD" (or Malaysia-Nottingham Doctoral Programme, as the university has called it) is just the latest example of Nottingham's determination to lead the way in expanding British education into Asia. International students are lucrative and numbers are fast increasing (there are 8,600, from 143 different countries, at Nottingham), but the university has also been quick to adapt to the reality that Asia wants to improve its own universities.

The programme was prompted by the Malaysian government's desire for its universities to become an educational "hub". It noted the success of Nottingham's Malaysian campus (which opened in Semenyih, near Kuala Lumpur, in 2005) and turned there for help.

"The Malaysian government want to upgrade the qualifications of the academic staff within their public universities," says Professor Brian Atkin, who heads the campus in Semenyih. "They came to us with the suggestion that members of staff who don't have a PhD could get one jointly with their university and Nottingham."

Professor Atkin explains that it would have taken much longer for the Malaysian universities to unilaterally help staff obtain their doctorates. Nottingham was seen as the solution.

"From the Malaysian point of view, they get their members of staff upgraded to PhD quickly," says Professor Atkin. "But they save money because they don't have to pay for a spouse or family to travel to the UK and also because Nottingham are discounting the fees. It also means they don't need to worry about whether their students will come back." All have jobs and families to return to.

Nottingham won't reveal how much funding it has received from the Malaysian Ministry of Higher Education, but up to 300 students will arrive in Nottingham over the next five years. Thirty are expected in the next few months.

The PhDs are in a variety of subjects, and each student is given a supervisor at Nottingham as well as their home university. The supervisors will also meet up, so offering the opportunity for collaborative research projects.

"We proved ourselves by having the Malaysian campus and that is why they came to us," says Professor Douglas Tallack, Nottingham's pro-vice-chancellor in charge of internationalisation. "We are the best- known British university in Malaysia and that's paying all kinds of dividends.

"These are particularly attractive, well-qualified students. It's a good situation because they are under pressure from their own universities, who want them back to teach, and from us, to complete their PhDs within the time frame. It's a tight, ambitious scheme."

One might be entitled to ask whether these students are taking away places from other, more qualified applicants. Both professors, however, deny that's the case.

"We wouldn't take on second-rate students and have turned a significant number down," says Brian Atkin. "In law, we've rejected as many as we've accepted, although in areas such as computer science, where there is plenty of capacity, we've accepted them all."

"In practical terms, there could be local blockages in some subjects," admits Douglas Tallack. "But we have that anyway. The students coming in will bring in extra funding and, because that money goes into academic budgets, we may be able to employ more staff."

Nottingham is discounting about 10 to 25 per cent of the total costs of the scheme, but feels that the goodwill, research benefits and forging of closer ties with the seven Malaysian universities involved make it well worth it. Perhaps other British universities should take careful note.