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Will They Come If You Build It? The Future of International Branch Campuses

Will They Come If You Build It? The Future of International Branch Campuses
World campuses that survive will contribute to their host countries, their home institutions and the internationalization of higher education. Photo by Jeramey Jannene

The short answer, as in many other questions in life, is: “Yes, but…”

Two new sources – a full report by a higher education research organization and a scholarly quarterly publication focusing on international education – have made significant contributions to the discussion of the history and the future of international branch campuses. The Report, International Branch Campuses: Data and Developments, released in January by the U.K.-based The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) is a comprehensive survey of the field and builds on similar survey results from 2006 and 2009. The publication is International Higher Education, Number 66 (Winter 2012) which is produced by the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

Both of these sources try to pinpoint the meaning of the term ‘international branch campus’ and come up with similar definitions. Basically, a degree-granting entity at least partially owned and operated by a foreign education provider displaying its brand. This definition excludes the vast majority of cross-border education activities such as joint degrees, online programs, twinning arrangements, franchises, etc.  As such, there are 200 international branch campuses operating in the world today. According to the OBHE Report, this is an increase of 23 percent over the number in 2009 (162) which, in turn, was a dizzying increase of almost 100 percent over the total in 2006 (82)! The Report also shows that 37 more branch campuses are expected to open in the next two years. Of the 200 branch campuses, 78 are connected to U.S. institutions, as are 13 of the 37 that are being planned.


So when it comes to international branch campuses, the trend is still upwards but the pace has slowed down. Given the changes in international education landscape and some high profile and expensive failures in the last five years, this is not surprising. The shuttering of Michigan State and George Mason’s Middle East campuses and the closing of Suffolk University’s campus in Senegal sent alarm waves all over the United States and beyond.

Add to that the projects that had to be abandoned in the planning phase, the University of Connecticut’s Dubai campus and the University of Montana’s China campus are two, and one gets a sense that one has to proceed much more cautiously in establishing branch campuses overseas.  Some additional trends identified by the Report:

  • Although the United Arab Emirates (UAE) still host the largest number of branch campuses, the center of gravity is shifting from the Middle East to Asia where China is now the fastest growing destination country, followed by Singapore. Malaysia and South Korea are also contenders in the branch campus race.
  • The United States is still the number one originating country for international branch campuses but France and the U.K. are increasing their branch campuses at a much faster rate.
  • The so-called “South-South” branch campuses, those built by non-traditional providers of international education such as India, Malaysia and Iran are also on the increase, with India leading the way. They constitute about 20 percent of all new branch campuses . The Islamic Azad University from Iran has set up campuses in Afghanistan, Armenia, Lebanon, Tanzania and Dubai. Malaysian and Chinese universities are also expanding into Africa in a big way.
  • At the Annual Conference of the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA), the point was driven home that the stand-alone model, where the originating university fully owns and operates the branch campus, is increasingly being replaced by joint ownership and operation in collaboration with a host country university. China, in particular, has made it clear that that will be the preferred model for branch campuses in the future; already, NYU Shanghai is jointly run with East China Normal University (ECNU).  The advantage of this model is the mitigation of financial risk for the originating university. Host governments are often willing to cover a significant share of the costs because of national economic and educational strategies.

Student Needs

The issue of establishment and growth of international branch campuses is usually examined and discussed within an institutional/programmatic framework, something along the lines of ‘university A offers a MBA degree in country X’.

But another important question is How Well Are International Branch Campuses Serving Students? This happens to be the title of an illuminating article, one of several, in the Winter 2012 issue of International Higher Education. The authors identify a number of services that these campuses provide to satisfy real world needs of their students.  Chief among these services is widening access to higher education. Branch campuses provide access to native students who might not otherwise be able to attend college. But perhaps more importantly, they also provide access to expatriate populations who have very little chance of being admitted to public universities in their host countries. Singapore and UAE are prime examples of such host countries. According to the authors, foreign universities have already served over 30,000 students in the Arab Gulf states and are expected to provide much of the new capacity to achieve Singapore’s goal of 150,000 international students by 2015.

Better employment opportunities are another benefit that branch campuses can offer. The prestige of a degree from an American, European or Australian university opens doors in countries where high youth unemployment is the norm. Most branch campuses specialize in professional and technical fields which further add to the employability of their students.  Although there has been limited research into student satisfaction at international branch campuses, the authors say that students are generally very satisfied both with institutions and programs. This satisfaction is even more discernible in students of branch campuses of Australian, British and American universities.

The Future

International branch campuses form a minority but highly visible segment of the cross-border education activities. They will continue to grow in numbers, albeit at a slower pace in near future, and also geographically into more countries and continents. This worldwide expansion of branch campuses will play an important role in internationalization of higher education. International branch campuses benefit the originating university by enhancing its international profile and by providing teaching and learning opportunities to its faculty and students. At the same time, they fill a gap in the market by responding to the demand for foreign higher education that exists in many parts of the world. They also benefit destination country students by widening their access to higher education and by improving their labor market prospects.

This is not to say that the sector has no problems. Some branch campuses have had to close down due to rising costs and/or low enrollments. Some others, though none from Western countries, have been shut down by accreditation bodies on quality grounds. Initial set-up costs can be prohibitive and the pressure to show a profit or at least to break even can pose serious problems. However as the sector grows and as some other universities fail, as they are likely to, those that survive will grow stronger and will contribute even more to their host countries, their home institutions and the process of internationalization of higher education in general.