In the United States, we often think of colleges and universities as the anchors of their communities. A campus is often among the largest employers in the region, a significant consumer of local goods and services, a critical supporter of local businesses, and a major attractor of new people to the region. Not only does a college educate the next generation of the work force, but it also plays a major role in enhancing the local quality of life and economy. That role is even more important as other employers close or relocate elsewhere. No matter how bleak the local economic and demographic situation may become, the college campus is a reliable community stalwart and rarely a credible threat to bolt.
The news out of Singapore, however, demonstrates why we can’t say the same for international branch campuses.
A couple of weeks ago, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business announced that it would leave Singapore and shift its Asian operation to Hong Kong. The reasoning seems to be strategic. Its contract with Singapore was concluding in 2015, and Hong Kong offers better access to the rapidly expanding Chinese market. Similarly, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas has signaled that it may be leaving Singapore after its last batch of students complete their study in 2015. In this case, the university couldn’t agree on the student subsidies paid by its host, the government-sponsored Singapore Institute of Technology. And, in the midst of its global expansion, New York University also recently revealed it was closing its Tisch campus on the island nation after it also failed to reach a new financial arrangement with the Singapore government.
To be sure, some of the departures reflect on Singapore’s changing attitude toward hosting Western universities. But the changes do shed light on an interesting distinction between home campuses in the United States and those set up abroad.
Within a matter of a few months, three international branch campuses on one island signaled they would be closing or relocating because they didn’t like the financial deal provided by the government. This is virtually unthinkable back home. The University of Chicago is not tempted to relocate to Houston because of Governor Perry’s pitch that business is better in Texas. The University of Nevada at Las Vegas will not be leaving Nevada no matter how much it dislikes the financial arrangement it has with Nevada. And NYU would never have closed its New York campus, even if it didn’t get approval from the city for a controversial expansion in Greenwich Village.
When demographics change and the availability of students in the region shrinks, public and private colleges look to attract more students by increasing their online offerings or enhancing their out-of-state recruiting. They do not pack up and leave their hometowns to gain easier access to another student market. Once firmly established in a particular location, universities don’t move around on a whim, nor do they close without using extraordinary measures to survive where they are.
International branch campuses, though, seem to have a more flexible sense of place. They are less like a university in a college town and more like a department store in a suburban mall. If the community declines or the market shifts, the university soldiers on; the store has a moving sale.
Certainly, we know some overseas programs that have invested heavily in building campuses with strong ties to the region. Australia’s Monash University built its own campus in South Africa and continues to operate it despite the fact the local revenue stream has proved unstable. Britain’s University of Nottingham has created large physical footprints in Malaysia and China, serving thousands of students and pursuing locally relevant research agendas. Webster University, in St. Louis, operates campuses in seven other countries, opening its first in the 1970s. These are designed as long-term endeavors and have all the intentions of being an anchor tenant in their host countries. But if push came to shove, even these institutions would unquestionably retract their global footprint and close their international operations before putting their home campuses on the chopping block.
So, what will happen when the branch campuses in Qatar come to the end of their contracts? Or if the financial or security situation in Dubai changes? Or if an impossible-to-refuse recruiting package is put together by educational hubs started in Mauritius, Sri Lanka, or Botswana? In these circumstances, we doubt that any initial loyalty of multinational universities to their host communities is enough to prevent them from weighing anchor and setting sail for another shore.