MIDDLE EAST: Branch campuses face leadership issues

Branch campuses set up by Western institutions in the Middle East face leadership problems, with political and cultural issues posing the biggest challenges when the head of the university comes from the home institution, the QS-MAPLE (Middle East and Africa Professional Leaders in Education) conference in Dubai heard last week.

With around 70 overseas branch campuses in the Middle East, most of them in the Gulf states and more than 40 in the United Arab Emirates, most universities send a leader for three to five years on secondment to establish and help run the overseas operation, said Ahmed Ibrahim, a researcher based in Qatar from Leicester University in the UK.

"If they are not clear about the environment they are operating in it could even lead to closing down the campus," Ibrahim said.

A number of institutions that fail ostensibly for financial reasons, mainly because they cannot get enough fee-paying students, may actually have gone under because of underlying cultural and political incompatibilities, he added.

"Financial and administrative problems of branch campuses can usually be dealt with but culture is the most obvious concern and can sometimes be a 'deal-breaker',"

For example, all overseas branch campuses are coeducational "but some families would rather send their children to national universities or other universities even if they are not accredited or approved, because they are segregated," Ibrahim said.

This leaves a smaller pool of families who would chose an international institution. "It is a real challenge for the students: how to get conservative families to accept these institutions."

For most branch campuses money is the primary driver while "internationalisation is itself an advantage for these institutions. It helps them compete with other institutions by showing they are venturing abroad," said Ibrahim. But many of them fail to come to grips with the socio-cultural issues that internationalisation entails.

"Some leaders of branch campuses in the Gulf have been very successful in being integrated into the country. They don't set themselves aside from society but are active participants and are not regarded as elites.

"If university leaders are not aware of this and not ready to accept this and make the extra effort, it could have a negative impact on their future in the country," Ibrahim told University World News, adding: "The reasons why they close themselves off is not clear."

"Branch campuses are playing a very important role in this part of the world - not just because they are teaching and delivering degrees but because of important knock-on effects on national universities that find themselves surrounded by international universities."

Ibrahim also spoke of political issues, with the negative impact of news reports and commentaries that have to be handled sensitively by university leaders. "Many leaders of branch campuses are of US origin so they can be affected by US policies and political events in the Middle East," he pointed out.

Local politics vary from country to country but don't affect branch campuses as much as international politics. "Leaders may stay away from politics and try not to be involved but students do react, including students from neighbouring countries, and this can be difficult to handle," Ibrahim said, noting that branch campuses recruit students from across the region.

With the ongoing situation in Libya, for example, issues are playing out on campus. "It is very problematic. Some countries in the Gulf support the Libyan revolution but other governments may not be on the same page and this may cause problems."

Most heads of branch universities have to deal with administrative and financial pressures, with two different fiscal years and two different financial systems as well as the short four-day week because the West operates from Monday to Friday while the Middle East operates from Sunday to Thursday. These can cause a backlog of problems being unresolved.

Sometimes the main decisions are taken at home, thousands of kilometres away with administrators not understanding the environment the campus is operating in. Education officials in Dubai and the UAE are particularly concerned that most decisions are made "back home", Ibrahim said.

"Most branch campuses like to hire faculty qualified to work in their home country, at the same time they want them to understand the local culture. Being able to balance that is hard. The solution is to hire from the region - Arabs who got their degrees or worked in the US and the UK."

Ibrahim said most problems were minor and could be handled between the home administration and the branch campus leadership. "But in future, when countries and institutions are contemplating branch campus agreements they need to think of these issues in advance of awkward situations."