Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
6th Feb 2015

Managing growth and maintaining standards in international branch campuses

The number of international branch campuses worldwide continues to grow. This is in some respects a natural result of institutions continuing to expand their global partnerships, and of an increasing recognition of the important opportunities for growth abroad and recruitment at home that such initiatives allow. The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) has defined an international branch campus as an initiative “operated by the institution or through a joint venture in which the institution is a partner, in the name of the foreign institution” and where “upon successful completion of the course programme, which is fully taken at the unit abroad, students are awarded a degree from the foreign institution.” The OBHE estimated there were as many as 200 branch campuses worldwide as of 2012, with another 37 in various stages of development at that time. And this year alone, Arkansas State University is building the first-ever branch campus of an American public university in Mexico, while, across the globe, the first wholly overseas Chinese campus will commence operations in Malaysia. But as some experts have noted, the mention of an international branch campus, or IBC, still causes “many people to think of small replicas of the home campus, set up in a foreign desert or jungle.” In reality, most operating definitions require only a physical presence abroad and IBCs - accordingly - come in various shapes and sizes. In today’s ICEF Monitor article, we take a closer look at different models of IBC ownership, as well as some operating issues and developments in the field.

Five models of ownership

In 2011, researchers from the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT) at the State University of New York at Albany conducted a survey of IBC initiatives worldwide. Subsequently published in the journal International Higher Education, the survey gathered information on 50 international branch campuses and found that the responding universities adopted one of the following five models to establish an IBC’s “physical plant”:

  • In the most common arrangement, 28% (14 IBCs) operate in facilities that are wholly owned by the home campus.
  • In another often-cited arrangement, 22% (11 IBCs) had adopted a government partnership model whereby the local or national government subsidises the cost of, and thereby owns, the local campus. Some governments have, for example, invested in facilities to attract foreign institutions and help foster local economic growth.
  • Meanwhile, 20% (10 IBCs) are owned by a private partner, typically an investment firm or property developer who builds the campus, and sometimes receives a stake in the IBC’s revenues.
  • Another 18% (9 IBCs) rent their campus space from a private party. In Dubai Knowledge Village or Dubai International Academic City (DIAC), for instance, multiple IBCs rent space in the same or nearby buildings, creating a “shopping mall effect” that gives students a variety of academic options.
  • Finally, 12% (6 IBCs) operate within a campus owned by an academic partner, but use its facilities to independently offer stand-alone academic programmes.

As for whether or not any one particular ownership model is better than the other, the study authors note that each arrangement has its advantages and disadvantages: “Wholly owned endeavors provide some stability and freedom from external interference but also pose a financial risk, should the enrolments not meet projections or government hospitality lapse. Partnering reduces the financial risks, but could lead to outside interference in academic affairs.”

Key implementation issues

Apart from ownership models, what other issues need to be considered when it comes to establishing a successful IBC? While social and political changes in a foreign country can undoubtedly impact the viability of an IBC, some experts say that the key to mitigating such risks abroad is careful strategic planning at home. According to a recent article in University World News, the most serious challenge a branch campus faces is likely to be aligning accreditation, quality controls, and standards between the home institution and the host country. Academic departments at the home campus thus have “a significant role to play” in overseeing the quality of academic programmes delivered overseas and, the authors argue, it is essential for deans and their staff to be part of the planning process.

Having clear goals for an IBC initiative - as opposed to “expanding for the sake of expansion” - can also be an important factor in the success of an overseas campus.

Furthermore, the planning process for an IBC should also take into account the additional administrative work and high levels of coordination that are typically required at the home campus to accommodate the unique conditions of an academic programme overseas. Writing in University World News, Daniel Kratochvil and Grace Karram add that:

“Clearly implementing contingency plans, strategic linkages between the campuses, flexible frameworks of governance and realistic expectations for the new venture are essential to ensure an institution’s viability… Clear harmonisation of accreditation, faculty involvement, administrative processes and academic mission will solidify the branch campus’ trajectory and decrease its vulnerability to changes in the host country.”

Quality assurance and regulatory issues

Other experts in the field have raised concerns that the quality assurance mechanisms for transnational education (TNE), including IBCs, are lagging behind. Approaches to quality control can vary across countries, and core concepts such as accreditation, recognition, and the authority to grant degrees may carry different meanings. For example, research conducted on behalf of the European Commission on branch campuses, franchising, and validation activities in the European Union found that legislation on cross-border higher education is often inconsistent across countries, and that there are loopholes in quality assurance which can enable “rogue providers” to take advantage of the system. Furthermore, observers point out that in many countries where the demand for TNE is high – such as Pakistan, Nigeria and India – there is neither strong oversight, nor clearly established quality assurance regulations. While groups such as the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and the CHEA International Quality Group (CIQG) are working to address issues of quality assurance in international settings, some have suggested that more needs to be done, given the current scope and rapid growth of TNE programmes. For example:

  • Undertaking substantial research on TNE models;
  • Developing standards that recognise the nature of TNE;
  • Strengthening collaboration among TNE groups and organisations;
  • Encouraging participation from countries with inadequate quality assurance;
  • Improved sharing of institutional data and practices.

Amid such calls for collaboration and a commonly accepted framework, there are also concerns that some institutions are eschewing the “branch campus label” altogether in order to avoid the regulatory radar. Such was the case with an Indian institution that was operating in Mauritius since 2007 without the approval of the Indian University Grants Commission. Meanwhile in China, there seems to be an increased sensitivity to the notion of educational sovereignty, which rejects the “idea that any other country’s quality-assurance system should have a say over the quality of institutions” operating within a host country’s borders. Other commentators point to what could be seen as a natural tension that forms over time between parent institutions and their international branch campuses. Writing in International Higher Education, Nigel Healey of Nottingham Trent University, adds: “In conversation with faculty at international branch campuses, one of the most widely used metaphors is that of a child-parent relationship. Branch campuses start as dependent infants, reliant on the mother university for their every need. As they grow and mature, they become unruly teenagers, chafing at parental control and striving for greater autonomy. As young adults, they begin to develop their own personalities and the bonds with their mother inevitably weaken until they are broken for good." He concludes:

"History suggests that international branch campuses either flourish and become independent, or fail and close. No one remains a child forever.”

Current state of play

A recent post on the European Association for International Education (EAIE) blog points out that there are currently 30 countries that have established IBCs abroad, including the US (50 IBCs), UK (24), Australia (13), France (6) and India (6). With regard to the estimated 68 importers or hosts of branch campuses, the largest in this group are the UAE (33 IBCs imported), China (29), Singapore (14), Qatar (11), and Malaysia (9). Worldwide, the establishment of New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi, as well as NYU’s latest international campus in Pudong, China have garnered much attention in recent months. And as previously noted, another American university – Arkansas State – is set to open its inaugural branch campus in Mexico in 2016. The campus will be financed and built by the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Education (AIEM), a formally registered non-profit body. Notably, AIEM will be involved in all operations necessary to support the American university’s plans in Mexico, and will ensure that it has no liabilities in the country. Meanwhile, China continues to make waves as an importer and exporter of branch campuses. Established in 2004, the University of Nottingham Ningbo China campus houses over 6,000 students and 400 staff. And since 2006, the University of Liverpool has partnered with Xi’an Jiaotong University in a jointly run institution. But while these British models could be characterised as “independent legal entities,” some other Western universities are taking a different approach in China. The Sino-British College (SBC), for example, is “embedded” within a Chinese institution - the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology - and offers British degrees from nine UK universities. SBC’s principal and chief executive, Dr Ian Gow, sees the consortium approach as one that has great potential for the future, as it can enable universities to be present in more than two or three major regions - and thus be more competitive. In a 2014 interview with Inside Higher Education, Dr Gow noted:

“You can put a footprint on each continent if you are in a consortium… I would say that probably developing more than two overseas campuses on your own would be a phenomenal drain on your resources.”

Looking ahead, the number of IBCs in China is expected to continue to expand. As for China’s exporting activities, construction has begun on Xiamen University’s Malaysia branch campus: the US$400 million project expects to welcome its first 500 students (from China, Malaysia, and elsewhere in the ASEAN region) in the fall of 2015, and to grow to an enrolment of 5,000 by 2020.

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