The rise of ‘educational sovereignty’

For the past several decades, many international branch campuses have operated without much oversight from their home countries and with a sense of diplomatic immunity in their host countries.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

Recently, however, some countries are following the lead of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore, and have created structures to regulate foreign education providers within their borders, often giving them special status in the national education system.

But, as part of this development, we’ve noticed an odd and persistent resistance to the ‘branch campus’ label.

We initially supposed that this reluctance was primarily a marketing tactic, reflecting the way a university wanted to present its foreign outpost. So, for example, John Sexton is adamant that New York University’s campuses in the UAE and China are part of an integrated system – it is therefore inaccurate to label them ‘hub and spoke’ branch campuses.

But it seems there is a bigger issue at play – one that raises questions about the nature of the relationship between a branch campus and the nation where it is located.

For example, in a series of disclosures last autumn, an Indian institution was found to be operating in Mauritius since 2007 without the approval of the Indian University Grants Commission, which oversees most higher education providers in India.

The Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning in Management argued that it was only providing academic support to the independently organised campus in Mauritius. The story is a complicated one, with some debate over whether or not the degree being offered was Indian or Mauritian.

But key here is that the institute, as a private university, faces restrictions under Indian law for operating a branch campus overseas, so it simply rejected the label in order to fly under the radar of the regulators. It is notable, however, that the Mauritius location still refers to itself as a branch campus on its website.

India isn’t the only place where there are potential political implications of the branch campus label.

’Education sovereignty’

Kevin Kinser attended a conference in China last December where the phrase ‘education sovereignty’ was frequently mentioned in talks and hallway conversations.

The expression suggests a sensitivity to any suggestion that a foreign university can operate in China without Chinese control.

More specifically, it is a rejection of the idea that any other country’s quality assurance system should have a say over the quality of institutions operating in China’s borders.

In this context, a branch campus is an illegitimate entity, as it implies that stature is dependent on the foreign parent. Instead, in the Chinese context, the campus is a partnership, which establishes Chinese sovereignty over the educational entity.

The resistance to the branch campus label may extend to the overseas locations that Chinese universities are establishing. Soochow University has a location in Laos that looks to us like a branch campus. But university leaders would not agree to that description, calling it instead a foreign location that operates on its own as a Laotian university.

We have heard this sort of comment before, but the notion of education sovereignty makes us reconsider its significance. It is not just a question of appropriate application of a definition, but rather a statement of what the branch campus label implies.

In the Chinese context, the branch seems to be a suspect organisation, with foreign involvement required to be kept at arm’s length lest the sovereignty of the nation be violated.

In other words, China’s emphasis on its own education sovereignty creates negative connotations of the branch campus label, even though the branch campus is quite common in the country.

The politics of the debate

Although the first example from India suggests intentional disregard of regulatory standards, the second puts the political context of branch campuses at the centre of the debate. Because of education sovereignty, a ‘branch campus’ has questionable legitimacy, so other descriptive labels are preferred.

Regulatory measures, as well as internalised social conventions, seek to limit the foreign nature of these entities: in China by requiring partners and Chinese-led quality assurance reviews; outside of China by developing autonomous outposts that can be presented as respecting the sovereignty of the host – whether or not the host asks for such accommodation.

As nations become more interested in the concept of educational sovereignty and engaged in the oversight of cross-border higher education, there will be more fights about who controls these entities.

The examples here suggest that in some cases nations may avoid the label in an attempt to exert their control while in other cases institutions may seek different labels that allow them to avoid the regulatory radar.

What is apparent, though, is that the dissension over the branch campus label is not just a question of marketing or even parsing of definition; it is a question of control.