Cross-Border Higher Education: a Complicated Mix of Players

Between attending the Association of International Education Administrator’s (AIEA) conference in Washington a couple of weeks ago, and preparing for a meeting we are co-sponsoring on the role of higher education in international relations this week, we’ve been thinking a lot about what is driving higher-education institutions to develop their international capacities by establishing foreign outposts or partnering with foreign providers.

From what we’ve seen in our research (and also noted frequently by others) education providers are motivated by a combination of status-seeking behavior, expectation of revenue enhancement or diversification, and the desire to internationalize the institutional culture. For exporting governments, foreign outposts of colleges and universities can provide cultural and economic connections with citizens and governments of other countries. Importing governments are often investing in an economic-development agenda that highlights education’s capacity to drive growth. But also they may be looking to meet domestic student or employer demands in ways that the public sector has not been able to. In a few cases, countries see foreign providers as a mechanism for improving the quality of existing institutions, whether formally through partnership arrangements, informally by modeling world-class practices, or by introducing competition into the local market

However, provider institutions and governments are not the only actors facilitating the development of cross-border higher education. In many countries, there are a host of nongovernmental partners that can be influential in guiding the development of cross-border higher education. Often from the private sector, and frequently not education providers themselves, these entities tend to be driven by market opportunities rather than national purpose.

For example, we know that private corporate actors in many countries are significant investors of the foreign education outposts of both public and private universities. In some cases, they want to use the education market to turn a profit directly. In other cases, we have seen the involvement of real-estate developers as branch-campus partners: some build and rent facilities to campuses, others help finance the development of the campus as an amenity that improves the value of the land they own nearby. These corporate entities can help institutions and government achieve their own goals. But their motivation for participating often has little to do with providing education, building capacity, or endorsing government agendas.

As a result, in most locations we see a wide range of motives and contradictory behaviors emerging from a mélange of actors. For example: A government sets up a policy environment to encourage foreign providers to enter with the intent of bolstering an emerging knowledge economy. Private companies in the host country lure mid-tier foreign universities with incentives to establish educational outposts in order to boost the value of nearby real estate. The foreign provider is tempted by the prospect of additional revenue and flattered by the attention. And the home government expects the international partnership that develops will be a vehicle of goodwill and public diplomacy.

When it works, the involvement of such multiple actors can provide a sustainable platform for branch-campus development. But when the goals or interests of one party shift, the entire enterprise can quickly crumble. Host governments can change the local policy environment to be hostile toward branch campuses such as we have seen in South Africa. Private partners can go bankrupt and leave the educational partner (and their students) in dire straits; such was the case of RMIT’s endeavor in Malaysia. Or the home institution may decide that operating a branch campus is no longer in their interest and summarily withdraw their involvement: New South Wales in Singapore, for example, or the wholesale case of U.S. institutions in Japan from the 1980s.

As we see it, provider institutions with the urge to internationalize through branch campuses, partnerships, or other foreign outposts should be more attentive to the complexity of these relationships among partners, providers, and governments. Host institutions looking to build their partnership portfolio also must be attuned to how their solicitations are received in the global marketplace. And governments looking to use foreign universities as a bridge to a knowledge economy, or promote their educational prowess as an instrument of soft power, need to have a clear understanding of the motives of educational institutions and partners they expect to serve theses ends.

What other complexities may impact the sustainability of cross-border higher education?

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