Could MOOCs lead to the decline of branch campuses?

MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – have been in the news for their potential to be revolutionary within the learning space, with significant interest coming from outside the US. For instance, nearly three-quarters of Coursera’s course-takers are international students.

Could the growth of MOOCs then lead to the decline of branch campuses?

Branch campus unsustainability

While there are successful examples of foreign branch campuses like the University of Nottingham in China and Malaysia, there have also been embarrassing failures, such as Michigan State University in Dubai and the University of New South Wales in Singapore.

More recently, we have been observing a new wave of interest from big names like New York University in Abu Dhabi and Duke University in China. Overall, a growth in demand for branch campuses exists.

However, this growth may be unsustainable.

Philip Altbach, in “The Branch Campus Bubble?”, highlights various issues relating to enrolment, academics and funding, which put the quality and sustainability of branch campuses under the scanner.

Even domestic branch campuses in the US are in decline.

Jay A Halfond, dean of Metropolitan College and extended education at Boston University, notes: “The barriers, risks and costs are now too high for aspiring, reputation-conscious research universities to casually compete for local students in far-off settings – unless they choose to do so through distance learning.”

Branch campuses are infrastructure-intensive efforts with high financial and reputational risk, which could become increasingly unsustainable.

The MOOCs breakthrough

With an innovative, adaptive, high-quality learning opportunity offered at a low-cost, MOOCs are on the cusp of making a big breakthrough. As Tom Friedman correctly notes in The New York Times: “Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary.”

MOOCs have the capability to overcome several barriers, including cost, reach, scalability, flexibility and reputation.

At no marginal cost for ‘recruiting’ new students from China or Turkey, a reputable institution could deliver courses in a flexible manner to a large number of students without decreasing the quality of learning offered.

This would put competitive pressure on institutions to justify their cost structures and the value of their credentials in times of decreasing resources.

MOOCs will also attract ‘glocal’ students with global aspirations and local experiences. ‘Glocals’ represent the segment of students who typically seek transnational education, including international branch campuses, twinning arrangements and online education.

For example, more than 113,000 students studied wholly overseas for a UK qualification through ‘distance, flexible or distributed learning’ in 2010-11. Likewise, more than 28,000 international students were enrolled in Australian offshore programmes through distance learning in 2010.

So, online learning is not new, but having the reputable brands like MIT and Harvard offering free or low-cost learning opportunities is what’s game-changing.

The MOOCs unknowns

MOOCs are in the infancy stage and there are still many unknowns about how they will make their impact felt on higher education, including their revenue model for offering ‘free’ courses.

Another big challenge is that MOOCs do not award credits. However, as pathways for translating ‘prior-learning’ from MOOCs into credentials emerge, more ‘glocal’ students will start pursuing MOOCs.

Tina Grant, director of the National College Credit Recommendation Service, points out that “credit recommendations for MOOCs could serve as a 'bridge' between the non-traditional and traditional college settings by helping those students who want to take advantage of MOOCs and still earn a college degree”.

A recent article in The New York Times notes: “If it becomes possible in years to come to get a complete college education from an elite institution online, free or at relatively low cost, experts wonder whether some colleges will find it harder to attract students willing to pay $20,000, $40,000 or even $60,000 a year for the traditional on-campus experience.”


Branch campuses are not going away in the short term, especially the ones that have been in existence for a while. However, newer branch campuses will face unexpected competition from MOOCs.

In a world of Amazon and e-books, starting a bookstore is a folly. Likewise, institutions expecting to start or expand full-fledged campuses in times of disruptive online learning models need to think twice about their internationalisation strategies.

Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation and He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at and @DrEducationBlog.