Integrity risks and accountability in collaborations

Universities must address risks to their integrity when embarking on overseas branch campuses and collaborations, and should involve their faculty throughout the planning, delegates at the Worldviews conference agreed.

While institutions normally had other motivations beyond immediate profit from such ventures, there were still financial risks, and risks to their reputations and brands, speakers in the session “Financial opportunity over institutional integrity? The accountability of university participation in branch campuses and overseas hubs” agreed.

Responding from the floor, David Porreca, president of the Faculty Association of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, cited the example of Waterloo’s failed venture in Dubai, which had been developed and closed “under a veil of secrecy” from the faculty. The university’s money invested in the project, including to recruit staff, had “disappeared down a hole”.

The branch campus was closed last autumn after three years of operation, having recruited just 142 students, against a target of 500.

The faculty association was not disappointed when it foundered, because of the compromises involved, for example, for lesbian and gay faculty, students and staff, Porreca said.

“Any gay person who gets off a plane in the United Arab Emirates is committing a crime, subject to prison and deportation. No one could claim credibly from the administration that the same set of policies and procedures could operate in Dubai as they can at the home campus. With that in mind, we cheered the closure.

“I would urge anyone considering foreign campuses to assess the legal environment very, very carefully before making any major investment.”

Jon Western, professor of international relations at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, USA, urged faculty to take an interest in plans for overseas activities from an early stage, given that American administrators were queuing up to develop programmes in China.

“Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, nobody knows exactly what they are doing,” he said. All institutions – public and private - in the USA were under financial pressure and often saw international activities as a remedy.

“The pay-off is not immediate. But most people expect some long-term benefit. It may be to recruit students out of China. It may be how you market and brand yourself to domestic students and parents.”

Opportunities for exchange for American students, and for academic exchange and research collaboration, were other motivations for more successful models.

Western cited challenges for integrity. As an individual academic, he did not hesitate in pulling out of a publishing deal in China when asked to remove two chapters – on political legitimacy and corruption – from the book he edited, Global giant: Is China changing the rules of the game? But in negotiations about academic and student exchange with Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, questions related to academic freedom were kept off the agenda.

“The implications are if you speak too loudly or are too critical of China you will lose access as an institution, and as faculty to research opportunity. That is a real, serious concern,” he said.

“It is important to engage all the stakeholders, and make sure there is a certain level of transparency, not just in the outcome but the process,” he said. “You have to persuade them, but that requires engaging them early.” He argued it was easier to go for a fait accompli, but that was not sustainable without faculty buy-in.

Sheila Embleton, Professor of Linguistics at York University, shared experiences from her involvement in York’s two-year MBA programme, with one year currently delivered in Hyderabad, India.

“The first lesson is to be very clear on why you are doing it at all. That will keep you thinking about accountability and integrity all the time,” she said.

“You have to know your goal, which will also help you know the compromises which you will make and the compromises you won’t make – for example, around quality – and the various lines you won’t cross,” she said.

“We decided in advance we would not lower standards in order to make numbers. We didn’t have to confront that problem because there was huge demand.” York, which is partnered with a non-academic foundation, also stuck to its principles on English standards, teaching and learning and assessment styles, and fees. “The fees were to be the same in both places so there was no sense of a cheap version somewhere else,” she said.

It also sought to ensure comparable quality by using the same professors with the same curriculum, modularised so they could fly to India for a few weeks to teach their courses. Faculty benefited, bringing back their experiences to the home campus, she said.

The compromises the university did agree to were over the visibility of research and the fact that contact between the students in Hyderabad and the larger cohort was not there. Library facilities were also an issue, though later resolved, Embleton said.

“There was multiple accountability: to the board and senate, and accreditors and government in two jurisdictions, and in the end to your own brand, reputation and moral compass. And also there was no profit motive,” she said, adding that no public funding or fee revenue from Canada was invested in the venture, which was funded by local benefactors and income from executive education delivered in India. “We think we have done OK, but only time will tell.”

Waleed Khan, marketing and media manager at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, said: “In going abroad and setting up a branch campus, brand recognition is very important for anyone. The second is tapping into a market you didn’t have before.”

One of Georgetown’s Jesuit values was to educate others. “That is what it is trying to do in setting up a campus in the Middle East – especially with the political role Qatar is playing.” The School of Foreign Service sought to educate future diplomats and world leaders.

Khan said the degree offered in Qatar was the same as that offered on the home campus, and graduates were recruited to similar graduate programmes in universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Duke, or employment with major multinationals.

“We have not diminished the value of education or brand in any way,” he said.