Branch campuses produce business leaders, not research

Canada’s University of Waterloo announced this autumn that it will close its Dubai campus after only three years of operation. The withdrawal is due to financial uncertainty as a result of low student enrolment.

But the university does not plan to withdraw entirely from the region; it will stay in the United Arab Emirates, but with a redefined role. According to one report, this revamped agenda may focus on “research linkages and graduate studies”.

Research and graduate education are anything but a new role for Western institutions like Waterloo. For decades, a large portion of university internationalisation has happened in these sectors. Returning to these mainstays may not be a viable fallback option for globally aspiring universities that want to compete in the world’s high-paced education hubs.

Waterloo’s dilemma has been shared by about a dozen Western universities that have established campuses in emerging economies only to pull out later when the programmes were not as lucrative as anticipated. The majority of these are long-established Western universities with rich traditions of research and scholarship.

When these institutions attempt to enter the highly competitive post-secondary scene in education hubs, they are caught between their traditional missions – pursuing truth through research and excellence in teaching – and flexible, market-driven programming.

As the number of branch campuses in emerging economies climbs steadily, research universities are forced to get out or get in the game by designing programmes to meet the demand of the world’s business leaders.

Key features of Western branch campuses

What then are the features defining branch campus activities in education hubs? A recent study conducted into the marketing messages of branch campuses in Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore found that foreign post-secondary education providers are centring their operations on five essential features.

Few institutions stray from these qualities, attesting to the highly competitive atmosphere of post-secondary education provision in education hubs.

The first feature of branch campuses is the exclusive provision of business degrees. Half of all foreign providers offer solely business programmes, often highlighting the MBA. This is not surprising given the importance of locations such as Hong Kong and Singapore to world finance and trade. Institutions are keeping their operations simple and tailoring their programmes to meet the location demand.

Second, branch campuses are appealing to prospective students’ leadership aspirations. Websites are awash with promises that programme graduates will become influential leaders in the growing regional economies. Programme delivery is designed for working professionals and interpersonal networking is indispensable.

A third feature is the high-tech facilities of branch campuses. Classes are held in shiny new buildings with the latest ICT that ensures programmes are cutting-edge. This is a world away from the classic images of limestone pillars in the West.

But connections to the West are still an essential selling point for branch campuses. The fourth feature is the prestige of international connections. Institutions are promoting themselves based on their reputation overseas and the importance of their home country. The majority of these are Anglophone nations, and many programmes come with the promise of some time spent abroad.

Lastly, branch campuses are working diligently to prove their legitimacy amid the sea of providers. The first message on nearly all websites attests to the quality of the provider, the length of time they have existed and their position in world rankings. Post-secondary institutions literally face a world of competition in education hubs and must impress students with their authenticity.

These features have come to define branch campus operations in education hubs. To remain tenable, institutions must appeal to tech-savvy business leaders who want the prestige of a Western degree.

A place for research

To be fair, universities such as Waterloo may not be entirely excluded from education hub activities should they choose to focus on research and graduate education.

But their activities will need to align with the above features to ensure success. In particular, they will need to build on their main strengths – the quality of their scholarship, rooted in long-established traditions. They’ve done research for a long time and they do it well.

They may, however, need to find a new market for these skills and it may not be the individual student paying top-dollar tuition. Instead, they should look to the governments and industries that are shaping education hubs. These parties could greatly benefit from the research expertise of Western institutions.

Ultimately, a focus on research is in line with the core vision of many Western institutions. Maintaining this focus when sending programmes overseas may help universities to weather the market-driven frenzy of education hubs.

* Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada.