What, exactly, is an international branch campus (IBC)? These entities have received a great deal of media attention over the last decade, and have been the subject of four Observatory for Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) reports since 2002. Indeed, IBCs now have a cult following of proponents, critics, and curiosity seekers. The attention being given to this particular set of institutions, however, seems to be masking a broader recognition of the changing nature of multinational educational organizations.
This issue is apparent in the new OBHE report documenting the range and scope of IBCs globally (the report is available on the group’s Web site, accessible only to members or for a fee). It is by far the most comprehensive report of their four reports on the subject, with much descriptive data and documentation on the campuses and their operations that were more lightly addressed in previous versions.
In a future post we will discuss some of the findings in the report. Here though, we want to comment on what we see as one of the most remarkable aspects of the current effort: the evolving definition of IBCs as indicated by the amount of space the report devotes to the rather important task of defining its subject. Fully five pages of the report explicitly focus on definitions; definitional justifications of choices and changes to their 2009 list of branch campuses run throughout the discussion.
For those who have never had the occasion to try to define IBCs, it is a fairly slippery subject. Colloquially, it is simple enough: IBCs are foreign degree-granting locations of a higher-education institution. But in practice, it’s not so easy to draw the line. There are many ways for universities to establish a presence abroad, and the IBC boundary is far from settled.
One gets the feeling that the authors of the report are not entirely comfortable with how they approached the definitional difficulties this time. The explanations of decisions they made in including or excluding institutions can be convoluted. Moreover, changes to the definition in this report make comparative and historical analyses tricky. In attempting to hit a moving target, the report captures different forms of foreign educational outposts that don’t fit previous conceptualizations of an IBC, and places a rather diverse set of campuses under a single IBC label.
An example of this evolution is how the report handles degree-granting status. The previous definition by OBHE carved out dual-degree programs from IBCs, and limited their account to only those programs that awarded a degree from the foreign, or home, campus. But the authors note that China in most cases expects a Chinese degree to be awarded as well. So the report reasonably accommodates this model, only stipulating that the degree awarded at the branch is accredited by the home campus.
That distinction, though, is ignored for Yale’s partnership in Singapore with the National University of Singapore (NUS). It has been covered extensively in the media as a Yale campus, even though the degrees are awarded by NUS alone, and not Yale. But by dint of a “judgment call,” the authors declare it to be a branch campus because the Ivy-League brand name is attached to the effort. They similarly include the Nepal campus of Manipal University where the degree is awarded by Kathmandu University (though Manipal provides the curriculum and all of the instruction). By moving away from their definition when including these institutions, it makes it difficult to consider the report truly comprehensive. Why not also include Dubai School of Government, which has received extensive assistance from Harvard, or American University of Antigua, also owned by Manipal University?
In another section, the report excludes “small operations” if they don’t have sufficient physical infrastructure, even if they do award a full degree on site. The example they give is of Exeter in Dubai, which operates its program out of a “small office” in contrast to the more extensive buildings and grounds that one presumes would make up an actual campus. Such a focus on physical space rather than on degree offerings is a significant change from previous reports. In addition, they include as IBCs institutions that only offer partial programs, and no degrees, while excluding branches offering only certificate and credential programs that do not reach degree-level status. Both factors are changes from the previous report.
Our point is not to criticize the definition advanced in this report, or even its application in particular cases--though the NUS-Yale decision is somewhat baffling. Rather, we think it is important to highlight the definitional problems associated with this nascent area of scholarly inquiry. And in full disclosure, the OBHE authors referenced our essay in International Higher Education on the difficulties of defining IBCs, where we argue for a more expansive view of the various types of foreign outposts operated by colleges and universities.
What the OBHE report demonstrates is that overseas activity on the ground is not limited to the parameters established by scholarly definitions. From our perspective, IBCs are but one type of foreign outpost of multinational education enterprises. These outposts are a subset of transnational education activities, all of which are nested under the broad label of internationalization. These are not orthogonal classifications. Rather they reflect an attempt to understand the transformation of the university from an organization endemic to a particular geopolitical space, to one that embodies multiple forms of mobility: people, programs, and physical plant.
It’s not clear that a single definition can ever fully address all of the parameters of IBC activity without more or less questionable use of judgment calls as to what counts and what doesn’t. Though, continually broadening the definition risks covering up important operational nuances of the different types of overseas engagements. Of course working definitions are needed to operationalize research questions and consider policy implications. It is important, however, to document the murky boundaries away from the unambiguous center so that new models and innovative applications can be highlighted and studied.
It’s no secret just how messy the field is when trying to understand the IBC phenomenon (or other types of foreign educational outposts). Whether something is a “real” IBC, however, is less interesting than what function it serves in the host country and how it alters the existing educational landscape. We continue to keep our eyes open for new forms of foreign educational outposts wherever they may appear.