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Branch campuses – The ethical questions

International branch campuses were mentioned several times in national and international media over the last couple of years. These campuses are the overseas branches of universities that are typically based in countries such as the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.

In 2014, New York University, or NYU, was forced to apologise to workers mistreated at its Abu Dhabi campus, even though these workers were not directly employed by the university but by contractors such as construction firms.

Nevertheless, NYU was accused of turning a ‘blind eye’ to the mistreatment of these workers. Then, in 2015, the same university had a professor banned from entering the United Arab Emirates after he criticised the country’s labour practices.

Both incidents caused damage to NYU’s international reputation and encouraged commentators to question the extent to which international branch campuses are able to operate ethically in countries that may not uphold Western values, such as civil liberties.

Scrutiny at home

International branch campuses have been opposed by a range of home country stakeholders, notably students and faculty. Students have argued that operating branch campuses overseas deprives the home campus of resources and leads to ‘brain drain’, with professors sent or lured abroad.

Faculty have argued that branch campuses are unable to deliver an education and student experience that is comparable with the home campus and that most academic staff are unwilling to teach abroad for professional and personal reasons.

Indeed, several leading universities globally have decided against establishing an international branch campus on the grounds that quality standards could not be guaranteed.

Student and faculty opposition to international branch campuses is to a large extent based on self-interest, but many home country stakeholders oppose the establishment of overseas campuses on ethical grounds.

China, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates are among the largest hosts of international branch campuses, but concerns over human rights and academic freedom exist in all of these countries, for example, regarding the equality and fair treatment of females, homosexuals and non-host country nationals, particularly those from developing countries.

In several cases, stakeholders have successfully put pressure on universities to abandon plans for establishing a campus in a country with an authoritarian government or one with a poor human rights record.

Host country choice

The choice of country in which to establish a campus is one of the major decisions facing institutions that want a foreign campus.

The University of Central Lancashire chose to open a campus in Cyprus, but the United Nations has described it as “unauthorised” and “a security worry” because it is located in the buffer zone that separates the Greek Cypriot and Turkish sides of the island. Furthermore, the institution accepted a large financial investment from a pension fund that has since been accused of corruption and possibly illegal actions.

Even Carnegie Mellon University, which established a campus in Rwanda as an aid project, has been widely criticised for supporting an autocratic regime that has a mixed record on civil liberties.

Quality and student experience

Quality assurance has been widely identified as one of the key challenges facing international branch campuses. These campuses are often accused of admitting students who would not have been accepted at the home campus, typically because of insufficient ability in English, which is the most common language of instruction at international branch campuses.

Host country regulators have closed a number of branch campuses on quality grounds, but these have not included any Western universities. Most institutions deliver identical programmes at their home and international branches, but these programmes are often irrelevant and inappropriate in the host country and so they might be unsustainable in the long term.

Many commentators have argued that it is unethical for Western institutions to profit from selling standardised education in developing countries, or those with insufficient higher education capacity, as it does not help the host country’s economic and social development and can actually hinder innovation and knowledge creation.

In order to make a profit, some institutions have invested the minimum possible in branch campus infrastructure and facilities, which means that students at the branches are not having the same student experience as those enrolled at the home campus. This encourages students with higher academic attainment, and those from wealthier families, to study in North America or Europe rather than at a local branch campus.

Host country regulations

In some countries, the government imposes many regulations and requirements on foreign institutions. In Malaysia, the Ministry of Higher Education must approve the entry qualifications, tuition fees and the content of every programme.

In Laos, foreign institutions must deliver political classes that satisfy the requirements of the single party authoritarian government. In countries such as China and Malaysia, institution managers and staff are not allowed to criticise the government and in some cases this is written into employment contracts.

Most institutions argue that academic freedom exists at their international branch campuses, but it is clear that this is not always the case.

Implications for institutions

Some institutions have decided that they must uphold their moral obligations and they have decided not to establish foreign campuses; others have decided that opening branches abroad can benefit both the institution and host countries, in terms of promoting economic and social development and widening access to higher education.

Institutions typically feel obliged to fit in with local cultures and expectations, at least to some extent. To implement policies or strategies that conflict with local norms and expectations can lead to a loss of legitimacy in the host country as well as damaging conflict with the local government.

Thus, institution decision-makers face the dilemma of determining the extent to which they should comply with locally expected behaviours and the extent to which they should promote and implement Western ethical values.

Stephen Wilkins is programme manager for the ResM and Integrated PhD in Business and Management at the University of Plymouth in England. He has authored over 40 refereed journal articles, the majority of which are concerned with transnational higher education. This article is based on his paper published online before print in Studies in Higher Education: "Ethical issues in transnational higher education: The case of international branch campuses".
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