The overall number of international branch campuses continues to rise steadily. Despite this positive trend, however, campus closures still gain the most publicity, quelling the excitement of new ventures. This media spin tends to exaggerate the fragility of overseas operations, but it also sparks important questions of why campuses fail.
As new universities attempt to play in the international field, they should look less at their host country and more at the management and mission of the home institution to strategically plan against failure.
Host country challenges
Although the key to long-term success lies mainly at home, few branch campuses are able to thrive when faced with dramatic social and political changes. The Arab Spring had lasting effects across the region as several institutions ceased their branch campus operations.
Less volatile but of equal consequence are significant changes in government policy towards branch campuses. Fluctuations in government subsidies, initially designed to encourage investment, can make unprepared institutions vulnerable.
While these threats are real – and do strain the viability of a campus – they are unlikely to be sufficient to close an institution that has been adequately planned around a sound choice of programmes for overseas deployment.
Home campus planning
The key to branch campus success is careful planning at the home campus.
Clear harmonisation of accreditation, faculty involvement, administrative processes and academic mission will solidify the branch campus’ trajectory and decrease its vulnerability to changes in the host country.
Aligning accreditation between the home institution and host country is perhaps the most serious challenge a branch campus faces. Requirements of local accreditation agencies, combined with the academic standards of incoming students, present an uncertain environment for foreign institutions.
In the absence of clear planning, the delivery of overseas programmes can jeopardise home campus accreditation and the representatives at the branch campus will not be fully aware of what areas of programme delivery are flexible to local adaptation to market demands, student ability and host country regulators.
Support or ‘buy-in’ from academic departments at home is also a must before overseas operations will thrive.
Academic departments at the home campus have a significant role to play in overseeing the quality of academic programmes delivered overseas by staff members – a situation that is intensified in arrangements in which instructors are recruited locally rather than brought in from the home campus.
Typically underrepresented during the planning of an offshore campus, deans and their staff are an essential part of the planning process and need to be willing before they are forced to expend valuable resources to protect their accreditation status.
Typically underestimated during the planning stages, the administrative work required at the home campus to accommodate the unique conditions of the branch campus can seem disproportional to its outcomes.
Departments of human resources, campus libraries and training for instructional staff often become trapped in problem-solving for the relatively small operations at the branch campus.
Particularly involved are institutional effectiveness or research departments that must expand their scope to include, at a minimum, coordination efforts with the international campus.
More often, they are charged with developing a full new set of evaluation tools to be administered remotely, and monitoring the activities of the branch campus.
As a group, the increased administrative duties at the home campus require high levels of coordination with and support for a branch campus that must be taken into account when planning an offshore branch campus.
Although not as noticeable as enrolment figures for the success of tuition-dependent operations, administrative and academic elements can introduce drag on both campuses, influencing the long-term value of an overseas campus.
Therefore, the root of failure, even when external variables play a significant role, is the initial planning of a campus.
Clearly implementing contingency plans, strategic linkages between the campuses, flexible frameworks of governance and realistic expectations for the new venture are essential to ensure an institution’s viability.
Money or mission
Ultimately, branch campus success or failure depends not on how a university ventures overseas, but why.
Regardless of the rhetoric used by university presidents and spokespeople for an institution, the most common motivation for establishing foreign branch campuses entails some combination of increased revenue (sometimes couched as portfolio diversification) and increased international recognition (that is, branding at the global level).
The former rationale – often the unspoken reason for a public institution to serve populations outside of its mission population – is less likely to endure repeated financial losses presented to its board of trustees.
In contrast, the ambitious motivation to create a global footprint allows an institution to better weather financial losses and be likely to develop coordinating offices at the home campus for international developments.
Too often, however, institutions can fall into the trap of expanding for the sake of expansion. When this occurs, the sowing of global campuses can lead to an undervaluing of the uniqueness of local markets and conditions, which in turn can endanger the entire overseas portfolio.
* 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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