While branch campuses proliferate, many fail

Opening a branch campus in a foreign country can be a problematic exercise – if the experience of University College London is any guide.

According to the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany, USA, nearly 220 international branch campuses of foreign universities are currently operating around the globe with another 22 planning to open. But 29 are known to have closed and now University College London, or UCL, will lift the number to 30.

Earlier this month, the university issued a statement in London that it would shut the campus that it had opened to much fanfare five years ago in South Australia’s capital, Adelaide. It seems, however, that the 21 staff and senior management had not been informed, including chief executive David Travers who was considering expanding its postgraduate programmes and pursuing partnerships with other Australian universities.

UCL established the campus in 2010 as a school of energy and resources to become part of the South Australian government's strategy to create a university hub in the city. The government promised to provide A$4.5 million (US$3.5 million) in support over the first seven years, while Santos, a leading oil and gas producer, offered A$10 million over five years.

This made the UCL campus the only international university offshoot in Adelaide to attract corporate investment and, observers say, much of its success was a result of the work by Travers, a former Australian deputy agent general in London, who has now resigned.

In 2011, UCL signed a A$10 million deal with the giant mining company BHP Billiton to set up an Institute for Sustainable Resources in London and an International Energy Policy Institute in Adelaide. That agreement expires next year and UCL is said to have planned to spend £1 million (US$1.5 million) this year on the Adelaide campus to drive growth.

The university has 100 local and foreign masters of science students enrolled in Adelaide and the campus has been described as “research-led with a strong emphasis on postgraduate education and training in which teaching is informed by the research being undertaken by staff”. UCL says it will honour its commitment to the students.

State walks away from uni-city concept

In its announcement about closing the campus, UCL said “academic and financial risk and a change to its international strategy” were responsible for the decision. But Mathew King, a local writer familiar with the situation, says the real reason was the university’s “utter dissatisfaction when Labor Premier Jay Weatherill walked away from the project”.

“In 2012, former UCL president Professor Malcolm Grant accused the state government of failing to drive the university-city agenda,” King says, adding that UCL had come to Adelaide despite the challenge of entering a new market in lean times because of its central location in Australia.

King says UCL was expecting ongoing political support after being courted by former premier Mike Rann, who had strongly pushed the “Adelaide as a global university city” concept. But his successor Weatherill was not so enthusiastic and closed down a unit in his own department set up to support new university entrants.

A report on the closure by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education says UCL’s other branch campus in Doha, Qatar, “appears not to be affected by this change in strategic direction, nor is its partnership with the Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan”.

UCL not the only one to give up

But UCL is not alone in abandoning Adelaide. In 2010, Britain’s Cranfield University closed its campus. A postgraduate specialist institution, the university had signed a memorandum of understanding with Adelaide University and the University of South Australia in 2007 when it officially opened the Cranfield University Development Centre.

The small campus was launched by the Duke of Kent and the university had planned to attract students hoping to take part in South Australia’s “booming” defence industries. That never happened and Cranfield departed.

In 2011, the global education provider Kaplan announced plans to accredit its online courses in partnership with the University of Adelaide. Kaplan expected to admit 5,000 domestic and international students with many more enrolled online but the deal collapsed. Kaplan, however, subsequently set up business school campuses aimed at the international student market in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.

Carnegie Mellon clings on

The one success in terms of hanging on is the branch office of Carnegie Mellon University which is still operating despite years of trial. The Pittsburgh-based university set up its H John Heinz III College in the city centre in 2006 as the first US higher education institution to establish a campus in Australia.

Carnegie Mellon, too, has struggled to attract students and appears to have lost millions of dollars. But it is reported to have become financially viable for the first time last year, nearly a decade after it opened.

Despite the lack of success for branch campuses in Australia, figures compiled by the Cross-Border Education Research Team show that the US is the largest ‘exporter’ of university overseas offshoots with 83 now operating. Among the top five, the UK comes next with 32, Australia third with 17, France with 16 and India with eight.

Of the 67 ‘importing’ countries, the largest five importers are the United Arab Emirates with a startling 33, China with 27, Singapore 14, Qatar 11 and Malaysia with nine.