Branch campuses are unlikely to blossom


Coventry University is making bold moves into international higher education, signing two agreements since Christmas to open new branch campuses.

One, on a purpose-built campus in Casablanca, Morocco, will provide teacher training and courses in business and science and technology in partnership with Morocco’s Superior Institution of Science and Technology (SIST). The other, in Wrocław, Poland, will occupy two floors of a new office complex and initially offer undergraduate degrees in digital technology, business management and cybersecurity.

Coventry is the first UK university to establish a presence in Morocco and the first university from any foreign country to open a branch campus in Poland. However, it seems unlikely that the moves signal the reversal of a trend that, in recent years, has seen the growth of international branch campuses (IBCs) slow to a near-standstill.

In 2015, according to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, there were 263 IBCs – defined as offshore operations run by the home institution, or as a joint venture, using the foreign institution’s name and awarding its degrees. That figure compares with just 84 in 2000. However, only a handful have opened since, and OBCs still account only for perhaps 225,000 students, out of 200 million worldwide (of whom more than 5 million are internationally mobile).

International branch campuses are risky ventures because they are hostage to several potentially unstable forces. Host countries have primary control over them, and changes in the host’s political, regulatory or economic climate can hit them hard – as can changing student interest. Japan is a good example. In the 1980s, more than 21 branch campuses, largely of little-known US universities, were established there, mainly at the invitation of municipal and prefecture governments. However, they quickly ran into problems with the national regulator and, for this and other reasons, were unable to meet their enrolment goals. All but three disappeared.

The Singapore government, which hosts branch campuses, has over time closed down several for a variety of reasons, while other IBCs in the region were closed by host institutions or local authorities because of financial, enrolment and internal political problems. Several other IBCs never even started, such as Groningen University’s abortive campus for 10,000 students in Yantai, China, cancelled in 2018.

The shutdowns and non-starters have occurred even though few, if any, home universities pay for their IBCs’ construction out of their own pockets. Coventry’s £14 million campus in Morocco is being financed by SIST, for instance, while New York University’s impressive campus in Abu Dhabi was built by the emirate’s government.

The motivations for such investments vary. In some cases, the aim is to service particular expatriate communities, as in the case of the branch campuses of Indian universities in Dubai and the Caribbean, as well as Xiamen University’s branch campus in Malaysia, funded mainly by the local Chinese community to serve Malaysian Chinese students.

Host countries may also be keen to retain students who would otherwise go overseas, especially in fields where there is a domestic shortage of places. Or they may be keen to offer opportunities to students less able to go abroad, such as women in the Middle East.

Some host governments also hope that foreign universities will have useful things to teach domestic institutions about curricula, governance or teaching (with a few exceptions, they rarely do much serious research). This hope stems from the idea that an IBC should replicate as much as possible the curriculum, faculty and ethos of the home campus. And, in a few cases, such as NYU’s Shanghai and Abu Dhabi campuses and Yale’s campus in Singapore, the home universities have indeed made serious attempts to do this (almost entirely at the host country’s considerable expense) since they see the IBCs as a means to internationalise their home educational offerings by allowing students from the home campus to study at the branch.

However, those IBCs – the vast majority – that are expected by both home and host sponsors to at least break even on the provision of educational programmes tend to use mainly locally hired faculty, and have rather basic facilities. There are serious questions to be asked about the match between these IBCs’ academic standards and quality of education and those of their home institutions.

There is certainly little evidence that international branch campuses have contributed much to the reform of the higher education systems in which they operate. On the contrary, their non-traditional norms, such as institutional autonomy and academic freedom, result in frequent tensions with host countries’ governments, as recent examples in China have demonstrated.

Moreover, as host countries build sufficient capacity and quality in their own academic systems, it is not clear that IBCs will continue to be either useful or attractive to students. Perhaps Coventry will be an exception but, in the longer term, it is doubtful how many IBCs will survive.

Although they receive much less attention, it may ultimately be that other, less risky cross-border education projects, such as franchises and articulation programmes, have more longevity and impact.

Author Bios: Philip G. Altbach is Research Professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, where Hans de Wit is Professor and Director.