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New sources of cross-border HE are emerging

In recent contributions to University World News, I have written about the rise of internationalisation in emerging and developing countries, the stronger regional and intraregional mobility of students and staff between those countries and the emergence there of new models of internationalisation at home and of internationalisation of the curriculum.

I have also mentioned the accelerating impact of the anti-global and anti-immigration climate in Europe and the United States on these trends.

I have also noticed a rise in international higher education activities from the emerging and developing world: cross-border delivery of higher education, also referred to as transnational education.

This phenomenon has received increasing attention in international higher education fora over the past three decades. It takes different forms and follows various models, like franchising, online education, continuing education, joint programmes and projects and finally branch campuses – probably the best known and most studied mode of transnational education.

Several research teams and websites address transnational education, such as the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education or OBHE, and the Cross-Border Education Research Team or C-Bert, to mention the two main ones.

As a result of all this research, we have more knowledge of the diverse aspects of cross-border delivery. At the same time, its practice is becoming increasingly diverse and complex, and for that reason, it requires clearer definitions and typologies, with important work being done in this area by scholars such as Jane Knight, Stephen Wilkins and Nigel Healey.

From developed to developing countries

The perception of cross-border education is that it is delivered by institutions of higher education in the developed world to institutions in the developing world. The main home institutions are located primarily in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, followed by other Western countries, and the main host countries are in the developing world.

Although this still seems to be the case in terms of numbers, if one looks at the data produced by OBHE and C-Bert on branch campuses, the most complete sets of data we have, we can see an increasing presence of home institutions based in the developing world. They operate mainly in their own regions and in other developing countries, but not exclusively.

Among the 310 branch campuses listed on the C-Bert website (updated on 20 January 2017), 65, or 15%, have their home institution in a developing country. Most are from India (10) and China (seven). When you add Russia, a major player with 22 branch campuses, these three BRICS countries account for 39 of the 65 branch campuses. The remaining two BRICS countries, Brazil and South Africa, are absent as home institutions of branch campuses.

The other 26 home institutions come from all over the developing world, including five from Africa (Uganda accounts for two institutions, Egypt for two and Kenya for one), two from Latin America (Chile and Mexico), three from Iran, two from Lebanon and the rest from a broad range of Asian countries: Hong Kong, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Korea and Taiwan.

It is interesting to note that five of these branch campuses are located, or are under development, in the developed world: Canada, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and United States.

One may wonder if the data on branch campuses from institutions in developing countries are complete, as it is difficult to access reliable and up-to-date information from these countries. For example, on 21 March 2017, Wagdy Sawahel wrote an interesting article in Al-Fanar Media, “Ambitious but Secretive Arab Education Provider”, in which he counted nine Iranian branch campuses, instead of the three mentioned by C-Bert, and mentioned there were plans for four new Iranian ones in Iraq.

I also think that the number of home institutions based in developing countries that are involved in other cross-border activities is higher. For instance, Indian universities are active in franchise operations and I see more continuing education, online education and franchise operations emerging in Latin America too.

A global phenomenon

What does this tell us? First, it is clear that the perception of transnational education as something that is based in the developed world and aimed at the developing world is not correct: it is a global phenomenon.

Second, the number of cross-border activities undertaken by institutions in the developing and emerging world is on the rise, illustrating the increasingly competitive power of higher education in emerging and developing countries, in particular, but not exclusively, in the three BRIC countries, China, India and Russia.

Third, we have to do more research on cross-border activities and initiatives in the developing world as we know too little about their numbers, modes, rationales, effectiveness and quality. Are they operating exclusively at the lower end of the market or are they filling a need for quality education in other developing countries, as some Arab experts state in Sawahel’s article on the contribution of Iranian branch campuses to the Arab world?

And are they created for economic reasons or for political and ideological motives? In that respect, the Iranian case, as described by Sawahel, is also relevant. In his conclusion, he observes that the Iranian initiatives have been driven more by a long-term regional strategic agenda than by economic motives.

The picture is probably not black and white, but, in the changing international higher education market, cross-border activities undertaken by the developing world surely deserve closer attention.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. Email: dewitj@bc.edu
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