Overseas Branch Campuses Should Start Small, Assess Demand, Proceed Carefully

September 14, 2010

Successful overseas branch campuses start modestly, pay close attention to student demand, and are opened only after careful analysis, said a pair of American academics who studied more than 40 such institutions in 10 different countries.

Kevin Kinser and Jason E. Lane, who are both with the Institute for Global Education Policy Studies at the State University of New York at Albany, presented their findings at a meeting of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development focused on higher education.

The number of international branch campus has soared in recent years. Of the 164 branch campuses tallied by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a research and advocacy group, in 2009, nearly 80 percent had opened within the past decade. Almost half are outposts of American institutions.

Just a dozen campuses have shuttered since the mid-1990s. For example, George Mason University shut down its campus in the United Arab Emirates last year.

What makes the difference between success and failure? A few basic things, said Mr. Lane and Mr. Kinser.

For one, colleges often decide they are interested in establishing a presence in a particular country, and only then begin to explore what form that international branch might take. "They put the cart before the horse," Mr. Kinser said.

Without proper attention, he said, they don't have an accurate picture of overseas regulations or in-country demand. What's more, Mr. Lane said, college administrators too often neglect to talk to students about their interests, relying solely on what government officials and employers say they want.

Other institutions have been overconfident in starting programs, opening too many degree programs and then being forced to cut back. It's easier to start small and add programs, Mr. Lane said, rather than to begin with 10 and have only three students in each course of study.

And colleges sometimes have trouble getting oversight right, the researchers said. Some give branches too much leeway, failing to enact the proper controls. Others are overly restrictive, not allowing the branch enough autonomy.

And what's good for the home institution isn't always so for the overseas branch, Mr. Lane said. Concern for the reputation of the home campus can sometimes "inhibit the branch from being successful."