In response to the forces of globalisation, many universities worldwide have decided to engage in transnational education. In the 1990s, common forms of transnational education included distance education and partner-supported delivery, which includes franchised programmes and twinning. Since the turn of the century, the international branch campus has emerged as a popular form of transnational education with both higher education institutions and students.
At the start of 2012 there were more than 200 international branch campuses globally and, with 39 institutions, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was host to more branch campuses than any other country worldwide. The largest source countries of international branch campuses (where the parent institutions are based) are the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom.
Features of branch campuses
Two features distinguish branch campuses from other forms of transnational education that also adopt a physical ‘bricks and mortar’ approach: first, a branch campus operates under the same name as its parent institution; and, second, the qualifications that the students gain bear the name of the parent institution.
There is an expectation among stakeholders – such as students, parents and employers – that an international branch campus will deliver the same programmes and adhere to the same standards and procedures that apply at its home campus.
Furthermore, in order for a branch campus to be registered, licensed or legally recognised locally, its management must often demonstrate to a local accreditation body that the branch replicates as far as possible the structures and operations of its home campus. In addition, most host countries have quality assurance agencies that have the same expectation.
However, in a 2010 article Philip Altbach, editor of International Higher Education, suggested that the total product offerings of international branch campuses rarely come close to home products in terms of breadth of curriculum, quality of academic staff, physical environment, learning resources and social facilities.
Staffing a branch campus with quality faculty who have previous experience of teaching on the home campus or at least of teaching in the country where the home campus is located, is one of the biggest challenges facing branch campus managements. Senior academics are often unwilling to leave their work or uproot their families and junior staff are concerned that spending time overseas will damage their future career prospects.
Some branch campuses have organised programme delivery in such a way that professors from the home campus can ‘fly in’ for short periods of intensive teaching. This mode of delivery has generally not proved cost-effective or popular with students, and regulatory bodies such as the UAE Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research discourage it.
Most international branch campuses are relatively new and therefore have not yet had enough time to develop the scale needed to replicate the home campus offering.
Branch campuses typically offer a limited curriculum and very often specialise in subjects such as business, management and information technology, which are relatively cheap to establish and which can easily accommodate high student numbers. For example, 43% of all students at non-federal institutions in the UAE study one of these three subjects.
Most branch campuses lack the range of physical facilities and services found on home campuses, such as libraries housing extensive collections, sports and leisure facilities, student accommodation, specialist careers advice and support, and extracurricular activities.
It is interesting therefore to discover how students at international branch campuses rate their experiences as learners and customers of these institutions.
Much of the previous research on transnational higher education has focused on the effectiveness of teaching and learning, but little attention has been given to student attitudes, beliefs and experiences. If one accepts that in any service industry it is the customer who defines quality, then it is logical to research the student perspective.
Higher education institutions must ensure that student expectations are met and that student satisfaction is achieved if they are to grow and benefit from positive word-of-mouth messages.
Our research was conducted in the UAE, the country with the largest number of international branch campuses globally, but also a country that has seen relatively little academic research into its transnational higher education.
It aimed to investigate the attitudes and perceptions of students at branch campuses in the UAE, in order to assess the extent of student satisfaction and to identify the size of the service gap (if any) between student expectations and student perceptions of reality on various aspects of the student experience at a branch campus.
It found that across all of the dimensions examined in this study, the UAE international branch campuses’ ‘scorecard’ indicates that they are performing well and largely satisfying their principle customers: the students.
Of course, the managements of international branch campuses should not become complacent. Transnational higher education has become very competitive and the expectations of stakeholders – students, parents, employers and governments – are increasing.
The results of the survey indicate that the main dimensions needing improvement are not related directly to teaching or learning.
Of the items relating to academic matters, there were only five that had relatively high proportions of negative scores: 21.5% of students did not agree that they had as much contact with their lecturers as they had had with their teachers at school and 17.9% disagreed that they had as much contact with their lecturers as they needed; 20.7% of students disagreed that they received detailed and helpful feedback on their work; 18.7% disagreed that their lecturers were sympathetic if they had problems that affected their work; and 17.8% disagreed that their lecturers involved them in lessons more than their teachers at school had done.
All of the other items with high proportions of negative scores fell into the ‘facilities and quality of social life’ category. Some 17.5% of students did not agree that their university provided a lot of leisure activities and entertainment for students; 15.9% disagreed that their university had a lot of clubs and societies for students; 15.8% disagreed that there was a lively social scene on campus; and 16.6% disagreed that their university had a good careers advice and internships service.
While the findings of this study might refute some of the criticisms of international branch campuses to be found in the literature regarding quality and other issues, including political and ideological concerns, there still remains considerable scope for international branch campuses to improve their operations.
* Stephen Wilkins is a lecturer in international management learning at Plymouth University in the UK, and Melodena Stephens Balakrishnan is associate professor in the faculty of business and management at the University of Wollongong in Dubai. This is an edited version of their article, “Student Perception of Study at International Branch Campuses: Implications for educators and college managers”, published in University of Wollongong Research Online.
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