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University College London – Big visions, small overseas campuses

The establishment of overseas campuses has become an important dimension of transnational education over the past decade and, to the surprise of some, there are now some 200 overseas campuses delivering home university degrees in a host country.

Nearly 40 more are planned to open in the next few years, and there are also significant numbers of other kinds of overseas physical presences, such as research partnerships or collaborative provision of university education.

Furthermore, the number of countries providing overseas campuses and the number of host countries in which these universities are being established are growing steadily year-on-year.

This sector of transnational higher education is becoming increasingly competitive – and providers are becoming increasingly aware of the challenges posed by such ventures, as well as of the many opportunities offered by them.

Significant opportunities

The opportunities are indeed significant.

An overseas campus helps to raise the international profile of the home university and gives it the chance to extend considerably both its impact and its influence in terms of education and research. It offers the chance to innovate in curriculum design, since often entire degree programmes are created from scratch, with no constraining legacy of historic custom and practice.

Furthermore, given the need to work with the cultural and societal contexts of the host country, it means that new approaches to the student experience can, indeed must, be developed. An overseas campus will also diversify the university’s student body and offer enhanced opportunities for greater student and staff mobility, which is an increasingly urgent priority for universities around the world.

Overseas campuses also enable a university to develop new and diverse sources of revenue – student fee income, access to new research funding opportunities, contract research and other engagements with business and industry in the host country, and the provision of executive education and-or continuing professional development there and so on.

However, I would argue strongly that the financial aspect should never drive the creation of an overseas campus; if it does, the campus is ultimately likely either to fail or to do reputational damage to the home university.

Each campus must, of course, be financially secure and sustainable, but the drive to set them up and to maintain them must come from academic imperatives and, in many cases, from social imperatives too: an overseas campus can offer the possibility of working with the host country for social justice and cohesion, especially in developing countries, and of working, through both public engagement and engagement with governments, towards bringing about changes in policy in areas such as energy, global health, society, the economy and political reform etc.

This may sound bold, over-ambitious even, but overseas campuses undoubtedly have the potential to contribute to bringing about change and to finding solutions to global problems – if only the vision to do so is accompanied by a sustained will to achieve this.

Considerable risks

The risks, of course, are considerable.

First of all, there are significant financial risks, not only in terms of securing sufficient revenue to maintain the campus, but also in terms of the very significant costs that would be involved if it were decided, for whatever reason, to close the campus at a later point.

And there are major ongoing costs that need to be borne by the university in its home country as well as the costs of maintaining and delivering the campus in the host country.

One of the major areas for consideration is the risk of reputational damage. Failure of an overseas campus is extremely damaging to a university’s reputation for professionalism and excellence in its business practices: there have been several instances of failure, of markets being overestimated and of partners proving to be unreliable.

Furthermore, the experience of the UK’s London School of Economics in its dealings with Libya, as chronicled in the Woolf Enquiry [into donations received], demonstrates the extent of negative exposure that a university may experience if it is perceived to have been lending support to a corrupt regime.

Ethical issues must be just as important as financial ones in the decision-making process. It is vital also that the organisational and logistical elements of an overseas campus and its relationship with the home institution be neither underestimated nor considered of marginal importance.

In this overall context, it is becoming increasingly evident that differentiation is vital and will become ever more important over the next few years. Universities considering setting up an overseas campus need to think not only about where to establish it and how to finance it, but also about what form it will take.

At the moment, many are essentially undergraduate campuses; others offer both undergraduate and postgraduate education and have a commitment to engage in research; yet others are based on considerable student mobility between the home institution and overseas campus, whereas others operate almost separately from the home institution.

As the sector grows, different models are emerging.

The University College London approach

The approach taken by University College London (UCL) is that of the small, specialised ‘niche’ campus. The vision for any UCL campus is for it to be recognised in time as among the best in the world, with the same standing as UCL in London.

At present, we have two niche campuses: UCL Australia in Adelaide, which contains the School of Energy and Resources Australia (SERAus), the International Energy Policy Institute (IEPI) and a sub-department of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory; and UCL Qatar, which is based in Education City in Doha, and whose specialisms are archaeology, conservation, cultural heritage and museum studies.

Each UCL overseas campus operates as a department or faculty of UCL and as such is intimately connected to all other departments, divisions and central services in London.

Each conforms to a clear and explicit model: (a) it is research-led, including fundamental research as well as applied and translational research; (b) it has a strong emphasis on postgraduate education and training in which teaching is informed by the research being undertaken by its staff; (c) it has defined areas of study, which are strategically important to the host country as well as to UCL’s own academic strategy; (d) it espouses the secular ethos of UCL and is committed to equality and diversity in all of its policies and processes; (e) it is committed to upholding freedom of inquiry in its teaching, research and other activities; (f) it has a significant outreach and public engagement activity.

In the case of UCL Australia, SERAus was opened in 2009 with four academics and three support staff. In February 2010, the first cohort of students on a two-year MSc in energy and resources was admitted, and in December 2011 the first cohort of nine MSc students and three graduate certificate students graduated.

The expansion into allied areas began in 2012, when a branch of the UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory was opened and when the International Energy Policy Institute was established. From September 2012 there will be 16 staff in the various parts of UCL Australia – nine academics and seven support staff.

UCL Qatar was opened in September 2011, with six academics and six support staff. From September 2012 it will have 18 staff (nine academics and researchers, and nine support staff).

Three masters programmes are being offered from September 2012. Two major research projects have been translocated from other parts of the world and two others will be translocated by 2013. On both campuses we already have PhD students enrolled and there are plans to increase these numbers fairly rapidly.

International strategy changed

It is perhaps interesting to note that, in its first International Strategy (2006), UCL stated explicitly that it would not create overseas campuses. However, in 2009 UCL published a revised International Strategy that included the possibility of creating overseas campuses.

The reason for this change was because the world of higher education had changed significantly in those three years and UCL was increasingly working overseas in education, research and capacity-building and wanted to bring greater focus to its work.

The major advantage of the niche campus is that, by definition, it has a strong and sharp academic focus, in terms of both its disciplines and the nature of the education and training it will offer.

UCL’s view is that a niche campus should operate as a catalyst for change in research thinking, and also in terms of the type of pedagogical delivery offered. It should bring some challenges to local providers, but these will be creative challenges, and precisely because of its deliberately small size, it will never threaten local universities in terms of ‘poaching’ students or attracting all research grants.

Another major advantage of the niche campus is that, because it is relatively small, it has the ability to experiment in its teaching and operational practices much more easily than the home university and, if necessary, it can correct any failings or weaknesses swiftly as well.

Furthermore, although small, it can serve as a portal into the host country-region and a platform for further activities there.

In UCL Australia’s case, for instance, there has been both an extension of our initial industry-focused approach to the energy and resources sector to research in energy policy, and also an expansion into space science and its applied use in the energy and resources industry (for example, through remote sensors, systems thinking, systems integration etc).

In UCL Qatar, our focus on the academic side (both educational and research) of archaeology, cultural heritage and museum studies is now extending into professional and executive education, and outreach is beginning in schools and hospitals and will then move into working with marginalised communities, addressing issues of social cohesion and of individual and national identity.

Different but equivalent

In the case of both campuses, a considerable amount of time has been and continues to be spent on thinking about how to deal with what might be perceived as a ‘diminished’ student experience, compared to that of our students in London.

This has led to a serious focus on what the curriculum, the ‘co-curriculum’ and student support should be and how these would give an equivalent – though different – student experience.

Thus, we have decided to provide a stream of visiting lecturers, internships, regular field trips and an emphasis on building a ‘cohort’ ethos. Individualised student support is essential on these campuses, this being complemented by the organisation of group social activities.

There is also focused engagement of students and staff alike with industry, as well as with policy-makers and governance. And in both cases, at the heart of the student experience is an emphasis on UCL’s values and the importance of ethical behaviour.

The UCL niche approach emerged from a desire to have a greater and more influential global presence. It also grew out of a desire to fulfil in a genuinely global way UCL’s mission, identity and core values.

While the approach is highly risk-aware and while it is also acutely aware of our responsibilities to the host country and our funding partners, it is founded on our belief that through the massive opportunities offered, our niche campuses will help to move international agendas forward through partnerships based on trust and long-term commitments.

The challenges may be great, but the academic adventure is both exciting and invigorating. Crucially, the niche campuses are already changing the way UCL thinks and operates in London – and they are helping us become more effectively London’s Global University.

* Michael Worton is vice-provost of University College London.

* This article is based on a presentation given at the OBHE Global Forum 2012, “New Players and New Directions: The challenges of international branch campus management”, held in Kuala Lumpur last week.
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