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International branch campuses expanding, geopolitical landscape changing

The number of international branch campuses for higher education continues to expand at a stately rate, rather than with a headlong rush. But the landscape is changing, in line with prevailing geopolitical currents. According to data collected by the Observatory on Borderless Education in the latter half of 2011, there are now 200 branch campuses around the world.

This is an increase of 38, or 23%, since our September 2009 report, which identified 162 international branch campuses. That number, in turn, represented a larger increase of 43% over the total identified in our October 2006 report. The rate of increase has therefore slowed but given the narrower time frame between 2009 and 2011, it may not have slowed very much.

The research also shows that the rate of growth is likely to pick up again. There are 37 more international branch campuses currently being planned by universities. All but two are slated to open in 2012 or 2013.

These numbers, of course, depend wholly on where the conceptual boundaries are drawn. Our report includes only degree-granting operations, while the 2009 report included 17 programmes at diploma and other pre-degree levels.

This report also excludes some of the small international degree-granting operations established by higher education institutions that were included in the 2009 report. The ones excluded have no physical infrastructure for teaching in the host country and are therefore usually not considered to be campuses by the home institutions.

If all of the above exclusions had been retained, the total number of international branch campuses would now be at least 225 and probably higher, because there are likely also to be many more non-degree programmes of the type previously included.

In common with its predecessors, however, this report also excludes the myriad of transnational education operations, from joint degrees to online learning, that constitute the vast bulk of international teaching activities.

In India, for example, 631 foreign institutions were operating in 2010, of which 440 did so from their home campuses, 186 had twinning or some other arrangements with local institutions, and five had opened a campus in India.

When considered against this full spectrum, international branch campuses remain firmly a minority pursuit. This is not surprising when considering that they represent a greater level of capital outlay and financial risk than other forms of transnational education (though not the greatest reputational risk – that distinction belongs to validation arrangements, in which the originating institution provides only brand marketing and the partner institution covers admissions, teaching, materials, curriculum and assessment).

Having said that, many universities now considering branch campuses abroad are able to mitigate financial risk because prospective host governments are keen to cover the initial and operational costs.

These governments see the provision of education by foreign universities as a core element of national economic strategies. In these cases, some or much financial risk is transferred from the foreign institutions to the host governments. Although significant overheads and resource investments for universities remain, external financial support could in many cases be the deciding factor when developing business plans.

Some trends

Some basic headline statistics remain unchanged.

American universities still originate the greatest number of campuses abroad; this is unchanged at 78, although there have been additions and closures. The United Arab Emirates still host the greatest number (37), although this has in fact decreased by three.

But the direction of travel under these numbers is more significant: the number of US-origin campuses had registered the fastest growth in the preceding interval (2006-09). Furthermore, there are no new international branch campuses planned for the UAE. The centre of gravity is clearly shifting eastwards from the Gulf.

The 2009 report showed 10 campuses on the Chinese mainland and five in Hong Kong. The number identified in China is now 17, but these include a few operations that existed before 2009. Hong Kong now has one fewer, with the withdrawal of the University of Northern Virginia. And surprisingly, there are no campuses planned in Hong Kong that we are aware of.

In addition to the new campuses in mainland China, there are at least seven more currently in development – five from the US and two from the UK.

This movement should not be surprising either: at a geopolitical level it reflects the shift in economic and political power towards China. But it also shows the responsiveness of Western institutions to Chinese determination to act on the world stage in higher education – a determination that is backed up with state funding.

Of the 37 planned campuses identified, it is worth noting that 13 are from American universities and colleges, for destinations from China to Korea to Rwanda. It is therefore too soon to conclude that the US is losing interest in international branch campuses.

The expansion of international branch campuses worldwide therefore continues as an important element of higher education internationalisation.

There is a great variety of models and approaches, although the motivations are fairly simple to state: international branch campuses extend the reach of institutions in such a way as to enhance their international profile and status.

They provide greater access to an expanding student market, especially in Asia where demand for higher education is expected to continue to outstrip supply for another 20 years.

Many governments, especially in Asia and parts of Africa, see international branch campuses as preferable to the outward migration of young people and as essential components of their national economic and developmental goals, as expressed through the drive and support for education hubs.

But building branch campuses will never supplant broader transnational education activities as a means of positioning universities with international aspirations. Long-term partnerships with mutual benefits for universities in different countries do not require new campuses.

This is the case whether the primary motivating factor is securing a new sustainable revenue stream or securing a sustainable research relationship or broadening the institutional profile or providing more international mobility and development opportunities for staff and students.

In all cases, the consolidation of enduring academic partnerships merely starts with the signing of memoranda of understanding. It requires the investment of a great amount of time and resources in relationship-building and in due diligence.

* Dr William Lawton is director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education and Alex Katsomitros is a research analyst. This is an extract from the OBHE report International Branch Campuses: Data and development. A full copy of the report is obtainable by contacting the OBHE at http://www.obhe.ac.uk.
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