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Internationalised learning at the branch campus – Enriching curricula

Transnational education is evolving: agreements that may have started out as ‘fly in, fly out’ delivery of foreign curricula now typically need to meet governmental expectations for collaborative partnerships that will develop institutional capability within the host country.

Nowhere is this trend more obvious than in the evolution of branch campus partnerships.

Initial planning and business-case development for branch campus initiatives has tended to focus on supporting internationalisation strategies of parent institutions, exploring market opportunities and complying with governmental regulations.

Less emphasis has typically been placed on planning for collaborative approaches to tackle learning, teaching and curriculum issues, even though addressing these is crucial if a new branch campus is to achieve excellence in educational outcomes within an international context.

The sustainability of branch campus initiatives relies on developing an engaging student learning experience that is relevant to – and enriched by – the national and social contexts of both the parent institution and the branch campus.

In turn, this relies on branch campus academics being empowered to contribute to the development as well as to the delivery of teaching programmes in ways that can strengthen their academic career paths.

Branch campus student populations may be made up of diverse cohorts of local and foreign students and include visiting students from the parent institution. Their motivations for studying at branch campuses and their expectations concerning learning experiences there have been little studied, but anecdotally vary widely, and so a ‘one size fits all’ approach involving transplanted curricula is unlikely to result in engaged learning.

The case of Australia

Using Australian transnational education partnerships as illustrative examples, branch campus websites commonly promote the delivery of an ‘Australian education experience’, but are less specific about whether this implies identical curricula, internationalised curricula with an ‘Australian flavour’ or Australian (=Western?) approaches to learning and teaching.

Branch campus students may therefore expect to receive a learning experience that is largely identical to that at Australian institutions and delivered by Australian nationals.

In reality, while ‘fly in’ Australian academics may contribute occasional guest lectures, most teaching is undertaken by branch campus academics, typically from a range of national origins but including few Australian nationals. Branch campus academics understandably seek to bring their own diverse expertise and perspectives to their teaching.

Where content and delivery are constrained to be the same as in the parent campus, branch campus students may find themselves studying material developed in Australian contexts that has limited relevance to their interests and their likely career outcomes.

As a consequence, branch campus learning experiences are evolving to include region-specific, ‘contextualised’ units of study, discipline specialisations and even whole programmes that are accredited in Australia but may only be offered in the branch campus location.

If we take a constructivist view of curricula as involving not only planned learning opportunities but also the learning experiences that students actually encounter within their learning environment, then it is inevitable that curricula experienced on branch campuses must be influenced by local contexts.

Further, the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of branch campus students and academics provide the potential to produce internationalised curricula that develop faster at branch campuses than in their parent institutions.

In this context where branch campus curricula are inevitably becoming contextualised, transnational education quality assurance approaches that previously relied on Australian content and assessment being transplanted into branch campus classes are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Australian universities with branch campuses are now required to demonstrate ‘equivalence of learning outcomes’ by the new Australian national regulator TEQSA, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency, and typically by host country regulators also.

This provides scope for branch campus academics to contribute to the development and delivery of contextualised, internationalised curricula – as long as academics at both the parent institution and the branch campus can agree to collaborate on learning outcomes and moderation of assessment tasks and standards, and receive appropriate academic development support in doing so.

When negotiating new branch campus partnerships, this evolution in approaches to curricula highlights the need to be explicit in setting mutual expectations about branch teaching and learning approaches.

The outcome, assuming that parent universities can cope with sharing curriculum control with their maturing branch campuses, has the potential to produce engaging, internationalised curricula that enrich the learning experience ‘across borders’ at both branch campuses and parent institutions alike.

* Professor Margaret Mazzolini is pro vice-chancellor of learning and teaching at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia.

* 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.

* The reflections draw on the outcomes of the Learning without Borders project, a collaboration between members of the Australian and Malaysian campuses of Swinburne University of Technology and Curtin University. The project websitecontains online professional development modules, together with recommendations and checklists designed to support the roles of transnational education academics and promote internationalisation of the curriculum.
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