Commentary

To Judge International Branch Campuses, We Need to Know Their Goals

Gwenda Kaczor for The Chronicle

February 27, 2012

The international branch campus phenomenon is relatively new, generating much news coverage and capturing the interest of many university presidents. But what is a branch campus? What kind of impact does it have on the home university in terms of its core functions of teaching and learning, research, and service to the larger society and the world? Does it change the campus culture and operations back home? In the case of the United States, thus far, the majority of branch-campus initiatives are conceived of at prestigious private universities—although with a number of important exceptions. Why is that? Just as importantly, how do universities evaluate and decide on a physical presence in some distant global marketplace?

Important questions. But the answers are elusive, hampered in part by the lack of research on the topic. Thus far, most studies, like that conducted by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, are largely scans of activity that lack a more in-depth look at how and why institutions reach for an international presence. We postulate, however, that there are some noticeable trends.

  • Almost all are small-scale, boutique experiments in a limited set of disciplines—more like outposts than a genuine university campus. They are often limited to one or two fields, often in professional areas with high student demand, like business, engineering, or information systems and computer science. Education City in Qatar, which is often cited in the press, graduated 243 students across all its institutions this past academic year. About 10 universities have branch campuses there.
  • Branch campuses appear to be only loosely connected to the home campus, with limited impact on the core functions of teaching, learning, scholarship, and scientific research. Because of their small scale, they involve a limited set of students and faculty members on the main campus. In most cases, branch-campus students do not come to the "mother" institution for a period of study and home-campus students do not matriculate at the branch campus.
  • Undergraduate programs entail greater risk and do not have much of a track record to judge potential success or failure. Liberal-arts or humanities and science curricula are usually undertaken by highly prestigious institutions, like Yale and University College London, or by lower-tier institutions with flexible admission standards, locally hired faculty members on limited contracts, and a clear objective to generate revenue. Some of the most noteworthy failures have been branch campuses that focused on undergraduate degrees, like the University of New South Wales in Singapore and Michigan State in Dubai.
  • The single most limiting factor for foreign campuses is the scarcity of regular faculty members willing to spend extended periods abroad. Career-advancement issues related to research and publication constrain the ability of junior faculty to go abroad, and considerations such as travel, housing, and family relocation make it costly to maintain a mobile faculty. Employment of adjunct or local faculty risks being seen as damaging to academic quality.
  • More often than not, the host country's government or local investors underwrite start-up costs, local infrastructure, and some operating costs. Not surprisingly, most branch campuses have emerged in regions and countries sufficiently wealthy to provide financial incentives that attract the interest of foreign universities. Middle Eastern and Asian nations are where most branch campuses are concentrated. Singapore, Malaysia, China, and South Korea are the most common sites in Asia. Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar have the majority of activity in the Middle East.
  • Most branch campuses are exclusively teaching units. The focus seems to be on replicating some curriculum and programs of the home campus and not on extending other functions like research, alumni relations, or curriculum development. This may be a function of the loose connections between the home campus and branch campus, or because the geographic locations of these efforts may not be near key centers of research and business.
  • It may be not only about the money, but there is some kind of correlation. The financial deals made between governments, private investors, and brand-name universities are rarely open to the public, but there are indicators that large sums are at play. Perhaps this is one reason that most of the branch campus action is being pursued by private universities in the United States that, unlike public universities, can keep their deals in a private black box.

We rarely know what the financial models are, and there are real questions regarding sustainability along with the complexities of maintaining faculty interest at the home campus. Will these branch campuses increasingly morph into more independent institutions with their own faculty, their own peculiar governance and management systems?

To be sure, there are stories of success.

Georgia Tech University has maintained a campus in France since 1991 and has established facilities in Singapore and Ireland. Its degree programs at these sites abroad are in high-demand fields, such as engineering, logistics, and management of technology and have relatively small cohorts of students. Professors from the home campus provide most of the teaching, and the curriculum replicates what is taught in Atlanta. Research activity is a key element on these campuses. In France, the university has developed collaborative research with French universities and the National Center for Scientific Research.

At the same time, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has avoided the branch-campus model while still having significant activities in Singapore. MIT has pursued numerous research projects and partnerships with local institutions to help them create degree programs and even a new university, experimenting with new curricula and pedagogies that might be integrated into home campus programs in Cambridge. This suggests that some brand-name campuses might want to avoid the financial and other risks of the branch campus—at least until more is understood about the long-term benefits and costs.

But our main conclusion is that branch campuses create much noise and attention, but actually may be on average costly appendages.

Until branch campuses are linked to the core activities of the university, they are simply focused on exporting a narrow set of existing degree programs and projecting an image of global engagement for marketing purposes. Only when international programs and networks are integrated into the core functions of the home campus and part of the ethos or culture of faculty, students, alumni, and administrators will cross-border efforts represent a serious move in the direction of becoming a transnational or global university.

We need case studies to look at how major universities come to a decision to open a branch campus or other major international collaborative projects, what their near- and long-term financial models are, how they influence the academic culture at home and abroad, what makes them sustainable, and ultimately what determines success or failure. Yet the deals keep coming.

Richard J. Edelstein is a research associate at the University of California at Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education. John Aubrey Douglass is a senior research fellow in public policy and higher education at the center.


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