Published on 2013/03/15

What We Can Learn from International Branch Campuses

What We Can Learn from International Branch Campuses
International branch campuses face many of the same challenges and barriers as continuing education units; both are needed for their innovation and business-minded nature to help the main institution remain relevant and effective in the future.

There are two crises education is facing today.

The first is workplace relevance. Education is supposed to impart knowledge to the student. Our curriculum (as indicated by the degree certificate) should be a good indicator of knowledge and should equip a student for the dynamics of this world. However, employers don’t seem to think so, according to a McKinsey survey and as evidenced by the rising expenditure on corporate training[1][2]. If education is evolving to be more relevant to future employers, we should be able to decrease the spending on corporate training and there would be no need for new trends like the Thiel Fellowships, which pay students not to attend university, at least for a few years.

The second crisis being faced is that of the quality of education. Often this is ascertained by looking at an institution’s accreditation and rankings, but are these accurate indicators of quality? Who determines quality: the students who pay for the course and who might be self-employed or the end users (employers) who hire students? Accreditations all come with a hefty fee and they don’t encourage transformational change; just incremental change because it is simpler for benchmarking! But this very fact defeats the purpose of education.

The reason why I pose these questions is because I feel branch campuses, which are currently underutilized and underestimated, can contribute to these areas. Branch campuses are often looked on as an extended identity of the main campus. They are considered as cash cows, being based in dynamic locations, like fast-growing emerging markets or in countries with a sizeable expatriate population (expats typically have more disposable income).

The Economist has highlighted the fact that the global economic center of the world is moving eastwards, and this is a tremendous opportunity to study practice and develop theory from the east even though the west is still considered as the ‘gold standard’ in the tertiary education and research market. This reputation is why a majority of international branch campuses originate from the west (the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Australia) though we are seeing a growth of South-South branch campuses (perhaps because of job opportunities?)[3].

Branch campuses hence thrive in competitive markets and they often need to be self-sufficient and innovative. Where they have an advantage over main campuses is that they are not weighed down by size, an issue larger integrated campuses must deal with, which can make policy changes and decision making slower. Often, branch campuses also offer a limited selection of courses, which makes transitions easier.

Branch campuses don’t have systems and processes that were put in place nearly half a century or so back and, hence, can be an ideal ground to test new teaching methods, curricula and systems, and even to create new educational contexts and cultures. Unfortunately, many branch campuses are not used as such and remain the prodigal child in many aspects. They are the last to get the latest technology/curriculum changes and thus always behind the curve. They need to follow their main campus’ pre-approved guidelines and therefore often operate under restraints. Accreditation committees should also be asking questions on innovations coming from branches, not just questions on conformity.

This all means we need to relook some of the factors we use to measure the quality of a branch campus. Even if this means moving away from the idea that branches are quick income generators and teaching machines to understanding them as truly game-changing contributors to knowledge capital and social capital. Offering competency-based degree programs, where time is not a barrier but goal posts are learning (not curriculum) milestones. It might mean embracing experiential learning to spark lifelong-learning and building partnerships with business, government, institutions and the community to create more meaningful research and education. We have a great opportunity, and it’s not just monetary or QS ratings. Loyalty theorists will tell you: the money will come if you keep your customer engaged.

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[1] Jon Marcus, “Colleges find new way to get grads hired,” The Hechinger Report, February 19, 2013.

[2] Brian O’Connell, “Why CEOs Want Faster Training—No Matter The Cost,” Forbes BrandVoice, January 8, 2013.

[3] Yojana Sharma, “Branch campus growth has moved to Asia,” University World News, January 13, 2013.

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Readers Comments

Bill Wright 2013/03/15 at 9:10 am

International branch campuses are, on the whole, relatively new. As such, many institutions with these campuses are still in the process of determining their role in the overall institution and their value added. This article presents possible answers to some of these questions. It’s a good jumping off point for further discussion.

Aaron Stark 2013/03/15 at 10:32 am

I completely agree with Ms. Balakrishnan that branch campuses are the ideal location to develop new teaching models and institutional processes. These can, in turn, be transferred back to the main campus to improve existing models. At the same time, it is important to remember that branch campuses don’t develop in a vacuum, but in relation to the communities they operate in. Thus, some of their ‘ways of doing things’ may not necessarily be transferable to the home campus (in the same way that main campus practices do not always work on extension campuses).

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