Many branch campuses where students can earn a degree from another country without ever going abroad are proliferating. However, they were described as "hollow shells" at the OECD higher education conference in Paris on Tuesday.
Soumitra Dutta, professor of business technology at the Paris-based business school INSEAD, told the OECD's International Management for Higher Education conference that branch campuses are most visible in the Middle East and Asia.
For some it may be too early to judge their success, "but the initial structures are not encouraging. They are hollow shells of their host institutions because the real faculty don't move."
Students and their families are well aware that the quality may not be the same as the original university. "It is not easy to fool the local population who know it is not the same as the real university," Dutta said.
Dutta believes INSEAD has been more successful with its branch campus in Singapore because "we invested heavily and sent the best faculty to Singapore. It is not about the students, it is about the faculty."
The same was true of the Nottingham campus in Ningbo, China, which has been operating for a decade. The faculty on both campuses operate under a single director.
Yale this week announced it would set up an international campus in Singapore, which has increased the interest of university administrators in exploring such options.
But indications from the conference were that not all branch campuses were relevant to the importing countries.
Albert Sassoon from Morocco, a former assistant director-general at Unesco, said many branch campuses were empty shells because they lacked local student and researchers. "When you go there [Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait] you see magnificent campuses but where are the Qataris? You don't find them."
Local populations are often not interested in research careers at universities. In the Gulf in particular there are other opportunities that can earn them more money, such as in real estate and the oil industry, said Sassoon.
International branch campuses have proliferated in recent years, with more than three quarters of them less than five years old.
The Observatory of Borderless Higher Education counted 24 branch campuses in 2002, around 82 in 2006 and more than 164 in their most recent 2009 report.
The US is the dominant exporter, with half of all the branch campuses. But the trend of developed countries exporting to less developed countries is changing, according to research presented at the OECD conference on Tuesday by Jason Lane and Kevin Kinser of the State University of New York in Albany
There have been more North-to-North and South-to-South branch campuses in recent years with countries such as Chile, India, Iran, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka involved as well. Their study was based on research at more than 40 branch campuses in 10 countries.
"Some of these countries are interested in exporting education to other countries as a way of exporting influence," Lane told University World News. "Others such as Indian and Pakistani universities in Dubai are serving their populations in those countries."
"Some 13 countries are both exporting and importing branch campuses," he added. "Such initiatives can be risky and a number of international branch campuses, such as Michigan State University in Dubai, have closed or significantly reduced their offerings due to poor business models," said Lane.
Nonetheless failures have not been as common as thought, with around a dozen in recent years compared to the large number that have opened up.
"Even though relatively few campuses have resulted in documented failures, there are still several reasons to be concerned about their future," Lane said.
Many universities decided where they wanted to go before deciding whether they wanted to go, Kinser said. "Institutes make projections on the basis of wishful thinking rather than knowledge of the local market."
Sometimes it is not what local students want. "The majority of the campuses are offering programmes that are the same or similar to what they have already - most host countries require that for quality reasons," Lane said.
But the main motivation for setting up branch campuses has been economic. "Branch campuses are largely tuition [rather than research] driven, and almost never operate without the expectation of revenue surpluses," Lane said, although there are a dozen branches that offer doctoral degrees, with a handful also supporting active research programmes.
Countries such as China, Singapore and several countries in the Middle East are beginning to see research as a significant indicator of quality at branch campus.
But overall branch campuses "are a quite small segment of the global higher education enterprise, and it is unlikely they will dominate transnational higher education," said Lane. "Establishing branch campuses is a resource-intensive activity and the financial and reputational risks will give pause to most institutions."
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