The (Imperfect) Multinational University Analogy

What is a multinational university? As colleges and universities expand their physical presence into other locations, the term multinational university seems to be popping up in different venues as a descriptor, often with different meanings. And, while analogies can be useful, we believe they should be used with caution.

We’ve used the concept of a multinational university before in our writing, including in our recent book, to differentiate between those institutions with a strictly domestic presence from those with a globalized mission, transnational organizational structure, and multi-country presence. Most specifically, we have argued that the rise of the multinational university comes from the increasing number foreign education outposts—branch campuses, research partnerships, joint and dual degrees—in a new globalized higher-education world. The term has come up in reference to efforts of schools like New York University, Duke, and Johns Hopkins University as a way to emphasize plans for strategic transnational expansion.

Earlier this month, the term made a prominent appearance in a report on the international competitive environment for Australian higher education. The intended parallel is to the multinational corporation, an analogy that the Australian report makes explicitly. But it is useful to articulate where this analogy to corporate organization makes sense, and where it might be a distracting metaphor for what we see going on.

To be clear, as an analogy, the multinational label means more than the literal “more than one country.” Most universities have activities in locations outside their geopolitical home, and this is nothing new. Indeed, Clark Kerr in his famous “Uses of the University” lectures in the 1960s noted this fact a half century ago and it should be hardly noteworthy today. Rather, what we have now is something different; something in which the global ambitions of the university are explicitly tied to mission and organizational structures are adapting to serve a broader geographic base – not just foreign students but whole communities outside of their traditional domestic service region.

In mission, a multinational university doesn’t merely talk about global competencies for students or the international reputation for faculty. This would be like a roadside fruit stand that claims world’s best peaches. Instead, as a multinational education enterprise, the university places its brand name in a global context, partners with governments and investors in foreign countries, and expects its students and staff to go to and come from all over the world. The fruit stand promotes its peaches in Peru and develops a product line with a Malaysian mangosteen entrepreneur.

Importantly, though, the organizational structure must change to support this multinational mission. The multinational university involves relationships with foreign organizations and governments, creating a sphere of influence and authority without precise boundaries. A global division may emerge to coordinate far-flung efforts, or a regional vice-president is appointed to concentrate on Southeast Asia or South America. Faculty governance includes global representation and time zones become a key scheduling consideration. Empowered by technology, the home campus may remain the organizational center, but the academic core is dispersed to wherever centers of critical mass occur.

So the multinational university has both the institutional mission and organizational structure to significantly and substantially operate across international borders. Like its multinational corporate cousin, the university’s products of teaching and research are physically produced and sold where demand exists, limited by international regulatory constraints rather than a predefined geographic service area.

The analogy provides a useful connection to globalization, as well, because it reminds us of how global organizations can influence local agendas. Several countries have national plans for higher education that rely on the contributions of multinational universities to build system capacity. Education hubs are the prime example of how countries turn over real estate and resources to foreign universities in the hope of benefiting the local population and economy.

Also, the incentives host countries use to draw foreign universities to their shores parallel the tax breaks and relaxed regulations enjoyed by multinational corporations. Similarly, multinational corporations are encouraged for their contributions to economic development and more efficient operations, just as multinational universities are seen as key contributors to a globally skilled workforce, supporters of local economies, and benchmarks for high quality higher education.

But we think that it is taking the analogy too far to say that multinational universities are acting like multinational corporations, at least in the sense that they are “slicing up the global value chain” as the Australian report suggests.

First of all, we see little evidence that outsourcing knowledge production to less expensive locations is a significant component of the multinational university model, nor is this a force driving its development. Foreign education outposts, particularly those of the more legitimate universities typically named as leaders of this trend, are rarely placed to take advantage of foreign talent pools, and the price of education can be substantially higher for students than other local options. In fact, while China may have plenty of high-quality researchers available for use (as the report suggests), many branch campuses operate in areas where there is a dearth of such individuals.

Second, the multinational university is not displacing home-grown education options any more than other types of private higher education might. Rather we see it acting in a typical private higher education role by providing something superior (e.g., higher quality), something different (e.g., new academic programs), or something more (e.g., absorbing excess demand). In nearly every instance, it augments existing options or provides a non-governmental alternative within the existing system without disadvantaging the local universities.

Though analogous to the multinational corporation, the multinational university should not be seen as its higher education doppelganger. Such comparisons should be carefully considered to determine how and when the analogy applies and when not. The use of the term, however, should draw attention to the organizational and mission changes universities undergo as they move beyond their traditional geographic boundaries.

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