Higher education hubs – Why do we want them?

Significant planning and investment have been devoted to developing higher education hubs around the world, but the reasons that drive host countries to set up areas that can attract foreign branch campuses can be diverse, a global higher education conference heard this week.

Among the key motivations are to internationalise and modernise the higher education sector in the host country, develop a skilled workforce and retain students, attract foreign direct investment and increase the country’s economic competitiveness, and enhance geopolitical status using soft power, according to Jane Knight, adjunct professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto.

Hubs can be classified into three types: those that want to attract international students; talent development; and knowledge and innovation.

Knight told the British Council’s Going Global 2013 conference held in Dubai that countries such as Botswana, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) had different motivations.

However, “a shift towards a knowledge economy underlines the rationale in most of the countries”.

In Gulf countries in particular “there is a definite shift towards a knowledge economy from their dependence on oil". Qatar is host to 10 international branch campuses, Bahrain has three, and the UAE has 37 – making it the largest concentration of foreign branch campuses in the world.

Economic development

Lucky Moahi, coordinator of the Botswana Education Hub for the Ministry of Education and Skills Development, said the country was looking to develop as a talent hub, to match its aspiration of moving beyond its status as a middle-income economy.

Botswana has two international branch campuses, but wants more. “We have to ensure the right calibre of institutions set up in Botswana. We are now dealing with the recognition and accreditation processes.”

The country is already using a “Study in Botwana” programme to attract students from neighbouring countries to the hub.

Tengku Azian Shahriman, director of the Education and SRI Human Capital Development, Performance Management and Delivery Unit within the Prime Minister's Department in Malaysia, said that country’s policy of becoming a hub was part of a national development plan to propel it to high-income status by 2020.

“EduCity Iskandar is to provide a feeder system for the economic pillars of Iskandar,” she said, referring to a new hub being built in Johor supported by a slew of strategic projects, such as high-speed rail links.

Malaysia is host to seven international branch campuses, with another 15 investors seeking to establish at Iskandar and elsewhere in the country.

“There is no doubt that transnational education helps us out,” with regard to economic impact, said Rozilini Fernandez-Chung, vice-president of HELP University in Malaysia.

Branch campuses were helping to meet national aspirations, so that fewer Malaysian students had to study abroad, stemming the outflow of currency. They were also attracting international students – there were now close to 90,000 in the country who pay fees and contribute to the economy.

Other benefits

There are also other, socio-economic benefits, as branch campuses provide university places to students in rural areas – Malaysia’s policy is to prioritise new provision outside the major metropolises near Kuala Lumpur.

“Access [to higher education] is the most important impact of transnational education from the Malaysia perspective,” Fernandez-Chung said.

Branch campuses can also contribute to ‘brain gain’. Although many foreign branch campuses are teaching-only institutions, some can stimulate international research collaboration. “We have a lot of collaboration. Branch campuses bring in the experts,” said Fernandez-Chung.

In particular, higher education hubs centred around free trade zones such as in Malaysia, Qatar, South Korea and the UAE can attract significant foreign direct investment for industry and infrastructure development as well as higher education institutions, helping to develop outlying regions.

“Part of the attraction of free trade zones is that there is some relaxation of the regulatory environment,” said Jane Knight.

According to a British Council study into host country conditions for success, "The Shape of Things to Come 2: The evolution of transnational education", countries that have government strategies and bodies, quality assurance systems and qualification accreditation, have the best market environment – or potential demand for transnational education – and have the highest numbers of students and institutions involved.

Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and the UAE were found to have the most favourable environments for transnational education, and its impact tended to match national policies in the 25 host countries in the study.

John McNamara of McNamara Economic Research, who led the British Council research, said: “We have evidence that transnational education is meeting many of the objectives” of host countries.

A range of incentives for providers – such as tax breaks, grants and land – were important. For example, Qatar provides buildings, Mauritius a favourable tax environment, Singapore large financial grants and loans, and Vietnam land grants.


Knight warned of risks and challenges, including whether branch campuses were sustainable. “It is important to know there are some unintended consequences and risk,” she said, adding that sending institutions “have their own rationales” and may seek different benefits.

For example, it is important that degrees being offered are recognised for further study and qualifications in the host country, and that they are relevant to the local labour market.

Fernandez-Chung warned that branch campuses could exacerbate economic and social differences rather than closing divides, as some charge tuition fees that are beyond the reach of many.

And the issue of foreign presence and foreign influence was brought up by delegates.

Nigel Banister, chief global officer of the University of Manchester Business School, which has a branch campus in Dubai, said: “There has to be sensitivity to [local] culture.” This includes using case studies that are relevant to the host country.