Seeing the forest beyond the branch (campus)

The past decade has witnessed a surge in colleges and universities operating in more than one country. The international branch campus is an important strategy for some multinational universities, but they have also developed wholly owned subsidiaries, research sites, foreign learning laboratories, study-abroad destinations and outreach offices.

We shouldn’t miss this forest of activity in cross-border higher education by attending only to the trees – or in this case the branches.

Over three years ago, we founded the Cross-Border Education Research Team, or C-BERT. Our focus was initially on international branch campuses, because there were few repositories of knowledge about them beyond individual case studies and overviews that lacked empirical grounding.

C-BERT has sought to change that by publishing information that reflects data gathered through surveys and more than 60 site visits across 16 countries.

But more broadly, it has led us to consider all of the activities universities undertake that are not exactly branch campuses, but nevertheless involve substantial commitments outside of their home country. We came to realise the forest is more than a bunch of branches.

Defining international branch campuses

In C-BERT’s initial research, our working definition of international branch campuses included four dimensions: ownership, branding, physical presence and academic degree conferral.

Ownership, because we wanted to emphasise the ultimate control of the operation; branding because we wanted to make sure the effort was publicly known through a common name between the home and branch campus; physical presence because online delivery of education is an entirely different activity; and academic awards because this implies the home campus educational purpose can be fulfilled through the branch. All elements had to be present before we would include the initiative in our dataset.

In applying this definition, however, it became increasingly clear that institutions were involved in a number of other foreign engagements that weren’t captured by our definition.

We started tracking them informally, but didn’t have a name for them. We also noted that other organisations, such as the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) and the American Council on Education, had included some of these entities in their own lists of international branch campuses even though they didn’t seem to fit their own definitions.

A good example of this is the Yale-National University of Singapore partnership to develop a new liberal arts college, and Johns Hopkins University’s partnership with Perdana University in Malaysia that duplicates its graduate medical programme for local students.

Neither of these is a branch campus according to the C-BERT definition, while OBHE grants branch campus status to only the Yale-NUS initiative. But other than where they decided to set up shop, there is little to separate the two efforts.

Both are working with in-country partners to establish a unique curriculum based on the home campus’ recognised expertise in the field. Each effort is being led by an academic appointed from the ranks of the home campus. Neither is awarding degrees from the home campus, but both will have their names listed on diplomas to acknowledge the links. The financial and administrative models are similar, as is the support from the host country.

The main difference between the two? Yale uses its name to publicly label the initiative; Johns Hopkins does not.

Whether or not these should be labelled branch campuses is almost beside the point; rather we believe that the focus on international branch campuses has masked the growth of the larger (and, to us, more important) phenomenon of the rise of multinational colleges and universities. International branch campuses are just one aspect of this phenomenon.

Foreign education outposts

So when definitions get in the way, we adjust our approach. We began thinking about ‘foreign education outposts’ as a way to be more inclusive.

Foreign education outposts include a greater variety of cross-border activities. They are physically located in a separate policy and regulatory environment from a parent or founding organisation. They offer programmes or services linked academically and-or administratively to the parent. And the parent has an explicit investment in the foreign education outpost through financial ownership, shared branding or a common name.

An international branch campus is a foreign education outpost, but not all foreign education outposts are international branch campuses.

Examples of foreign education outposts are quite varied.

The American University of Antigua in the Caribbean is a wholly owned subsidiary of Manipal Global Education in India. Through the Studio X programme, Columbia University’s graduate school of architecture, planning and preservation operates social laboratories in the heart of some of the world’s greatest cities.

Six universities from the UK, France and South Africa partnered with a research institute to develop the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, where African mathematical expertise is being developed in locations across the continent.

Our own State University of New York operates outreach offices in Mexico and Russia, which help facilitate research and academic partnerships between SUNY campuses and institutions in those nations.

Branch campuses remain an important aspect of the cross-border higher education phenomenon, and C-BERT will continue to track their development.

But we believe that they represent a minority of the activity occurring today. It is time to venture beyond the branch to consider the foreign education outpost forest that is fundamental to the emergence of multinational educational enterprises.

* Kevin Kinser is an associate professor in the department of educational administration and policy studies and Jason E Lane is director of educational studies at the University of Albany.


We are looking forward to researches into the actual learning and teaching processes taken on the ground. Findings and perspectives from those researches might (again) re-conceptualise 'cross-border higher education' and substantiate our understanding about the subject.

Hayes H. Tang on the University World News Facebook page