Can cross-border partners share a campus?

South Korea’s Incheon Global Campus, or IGC, represents a unique experiment in international education. It is located in the research, development and education hub, New Songdo City, and what sets IGC apart from other campuses is its novel partnership model.

Partners include government agencies that provide start-up funds and interest-free loans and selected foreign universities that offer degree programmes in English.

Programmes are independent but foreign universities share libraries, classrooms, dormitories, faculty housing and aspects of administrative and student services. Managed by their respective campuses abroad, foreign universities at IGC coordinate as much as possible in creating an efficient and collaborative university platform in Korea. Over time, local funding is to be replaced by student tuition revenue and grants.

At a panel discussion on the International Start-up Campus at the recent Association of International Education Administrators, or AIEA, annual meeting three of the speakers were involved in planning the IGC: Michael Hardman from the University of Utah, USA, and Minkyung Park and Matthew Zingraff from George Mason University, USA. Also represented was Belgium’s Ghent University which opened its doors in Korea last year.

Rather than focus on familiar issues common to all start-ups, the speakers offered practical reflections on what is working, what could be improved, and the kind of surprises which crop up along the way.

They underscored the necessity of remaining flexible to cope with unforeseen developments. In IGC’s case, each university began planning five to six years prior to its overseas launch. In those years they dealt with shifting public opinion at home and in Korea, institutional, state and national leadership transitions and recurrent demonstrations showing that, in South Korea, negotiations don’t always end when contracts are signed.


The panellists also emphasised the importance of keeping institutional missions in sight within the context of the sponsors’ goals and visions and creating leadership teams at home that truly understand on the ground conditions and resist governing by committee. They also noted how students’ expectations, energy and creativity play a role in shaping IGC’s curricular and extracurricular activities.

They commented on the disconnect between when they had been told to expect authorisation to offer programmes and when it was actually granted.

Timing mattered because, without official authorisation from local authorities, universities were not allowed to advertise and begin recruiting students.

Authorisation may have been slowed by communications among ministries and offices in Korea that were also facing a novel situation. Universities then found themselves scrambling when, rather than receiving authorisation six to eight months before the start of the semester as anticipated, they received approval as little as three months before classes began.

With faculty poised to fly overseas, local staff in place and ministries and boards watching, the universities decided to launch with enrolments in the low double digits. The fact that IGC has grown from such small numbers to an anticipated 600 students in 18 months is a sign of success and suggests courage may be needed alongside flexibility.

Returning Koreans

Student enrolment patterns brought some surprises. One was that many students drawn to IGC are Korean nationals educated abroad who return home when they learn about the option of an English-language education programme that includes opportunities for networking overseas and within Korea.

The presence of returning Koreans enhances campus diversity.

While the higher price point of IGC tuition in Korea – tuition rates were agreed upon jointly by the foreign universities to reduce internal competition – was not an obstacle for some families, it was discovered that Korean student loans may not be applied at a non-Korean university. The relevant ministry is now working with IGC leaders to propose a legislative change giving IGC students access to such loans.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that whereas foreign universities had expected students to be drawn first and foremost to specific programmes of study, it seems that many are attracted particularly to the idea of a collaborative university and that choosing degree programmes is secondary to this. IGC schools are thus thrust into competition for some of the same students through offers of scholarships and internships.

On a related note, students profess strong interest in taking courses from IGC institutions in addition to the one where they matriculate. Course-sharing agreements make financial sense, but the reality of needing to retain tuition revenue had slowed down the development of a plan to share courses.

Student demand has encouraged universities to move more quickly. Students are also helping to create a joint campus identity in other ways. Some have organised intercollegiate competitive e-gaming teams and other collaborative events that have contributed to building cross-campus ties and probably increased retention.

The growing season

The panellists noted that the foreign universities and Korean sponsors agreed to grow together.

Still, funders' and universities’ predictions about the length of the growing season have varied. If a contract states that a library will be established when needed, for instance, funders may not see the need for a library to service a handful of students whereas foreign partners consider a good library a minimum requirement for a university and a gathering point that fosters community.

Office needs provide another example. Panellists recalled stressing their start-up status to parents of prospective students as being the reason why they did not always have quite enough chairs for visitors. All things may not be equal even in equal partnerships.

Other lessons learned included the importance of developing appropriate strategies to ensure close integration with the home campus while avoiding problems that may come with being managed multiple time zones away. An example is hiring and retaining good-quality local staff.

Just as a funder may suggest that an extended or branch campus doesn’t need particular facilities until a critical mass of students has been reached, universities in the home country should be helped to understand that allowing the overseas campus to hire more staff only when they reach the same student to employee ratio as the home campus can lead to unworkable overloads.

Freshman year at IGC was full of surprises, not least of which was that it is impossible to prepare for every scenario. As one panellist put it, an initiative of this kind is not for the faint of heart.

Given its unique alchemy of excellent location, strong global partners and bright students, however, IGC has enormous potential to become an exceptional campus and model of cooperative cross-border collegiality.

Anne Schiller is professor of anthropology at George Mason University, USA, and served as founding vice-president of the Office of Global Strategies throughout the planning and launch of Mason’s Korea Campus.