Over the past two decades, the number of international branch campuses has continued to increase steadily, with estimates of more than 200 operating in 65 countries around the world.
This growth has brought criticism by some who see these institutions as merely revenue-generating enterprises for the home campus. This perspective may be changing, however, as many international branch campuses move towards maturity both in terms of their operational stability and evolving relationships with their home campuses.
Recent trends highlight the potential of international branch campuses for strategic programming, innovative research and quality assurance arrangements - means through which they may assert themselves as mature and valuable members of the academy.
Branch campus or multi-campus global university?
The question of when an international branch campus reaches maturity was discussed at a recent seminar hosted by Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority, or KHDA.
Tellingly, the seminar was titled "Emergence of the Global University", with an invitation that referred to "multi-campus international universities" rather than "branch-campuses" or "off-shore" institutions.
This terminological shift represents a step in re-imagining international branch campuses as part of global institutions with multiple sites of operation, rather than merely an offshoot of a traditional campus.
The 24 March event was hosted by Dr Warren Fox, the chief of higher education at KHDA, Dubai's regulatory agency for the emirate's private education sector, which includes 26 international branch campuses.
An audience of senior university administrators listened to presentations by a range of representatives from Heriot-Watt University, SP Jain School of Global Management, the University of Nottingham Malaysia, and the Laureate Foundation. Professor Raed Awamleh, director of the Middlesex University Dubai Campus, acted as session chair.
Research breeds respect for overseas operations
Following the presentation was a lengthy discussion by participants on the relationship between the international branch campus and its home campus, with institutions sharing several common experiences on the road to maturity.
Foremost, international branch campuses have faced an uphill battle in gaining the respect of home campus administration, and seminar attendees agreed that respect would only come when they are seen as something more than a source of revenue.
Significant increases in research outputs and other benchmarked indicators that are valued by the academic leadership at the home campus are important for branch campuses to gain recognition from home campus peers.
Although research has sometimes been seen as secondary to international branch campus activities, several speakers emphasised their potential to lead knowledge production within their geographic context.
Professor Christine Ennew of the Malaysian campus of the University of Nottingham gave the example of a biologist at the Malay campus who specialises in research on elephants, a field quite distinct from counterparts in the United Kingdom.
Professor Trevor Spedding of the University of Wollongong in Dubai went further, suggesting that there were areas of research where local expertise could be imported back to the home campus. Examples included the areas of Islamic finance and logistics, where local researchers could leverage Dubai's role in the global market.
Maturity versus autonomy
Although international branch campuses share many common experiences, there is also significant variation in the degree of freedom each has from its home campus.
Some branch campuses are strictly tied to the home campus in terms of programme offerings, subject content and examinations. At the University of Strathclyde's international branch campuses, even final examination schedules are synched to the Scottish campus.
A middle line is taken by other universities, which arrange a formal exchange of exam scripts and scrutinise grade distributions before the release of grades each semester. Still others have significant freedom from the home campus with only the occasional spot checks on programming during visits by home campus department deans.
It is clear, however, that academic autonomy is only a partial measure of international branch campus maturity.
An institution that is too removed from its home campus and makes few research contributions or innovative student programming will be unlikely to garner respect from the broader academy or present a sustainable partner for international collaboration.
Reciprocal administration and quality assurance
Perhaps a stronger measure of maturity, and one that many international branch campuses would welcome, is the extent to which administrative processes are reciprocal.
For example, quality assurance processes could involve academics at both the home and branch campus reviewing each other's performance as a two-way system, rather than the one-way, supervisory function by which home campuses typically maintain oversight of branch campuses.
Another ideal for reciprocity would see high-ranking administrators with a degree of influence over the home campus located at the international branch campus. Claims of maturity will remain unconvincing until branch campus academics are able to contribute to decision-making for the university as a whole.
Several branch campuses around the world have seen more than two decades of programming and it is understandable that they should wish to be accepted as mature members of the academic community.
Yet, measuring maturity - whether governance structures, decision-making processes or quality assurance arrangements - is a complex task that largely depends on the reputational opinions of various stakeholders.
Home campuses will need to intentionally empower their branch operations if they are to convince the world that international branch campuses are an equal partner in a multi-campus international university rather than an income generator targeting emerging economies.
* Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada. Dr Daniel Kratochvil is director of the office of planning and performance at the University of Wollongong in Dubai. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org.
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