Do international branch campuses have autonomy?

In the past two decades, the governments of several developing nations including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and China have used public funds to support the establishment and ongoing operation of international branch campuses or IBCs.

They are not sponsoring IBCs to support a foreign institution’s interest in internationalisation or to boost its international rankings. These governments justify the use of public funds because of the contributions IBCs make to their human capital and economic development.

In particular, IBCs help host nations increase higher educational attainment, meet the demands of local labour markets and decrease brain drain. It is about what makes sense for the host nation. The goals of the home campus are secondary. Because these IBCs are expected to serve the objectives of their host nations, there are often specific requirements and regulations that the campuses must meet.

Malaysia, for example, has required IBCs to offer specific academic programmes and work with local partners and has restricted their use of profits.

While the parent institutions may negotiate these terms, some of the IBCs’ most fundamental financial, academic and governance decisions are determined, or heavily influenced, by the host nation.

Parent institutions pursuing IBCs therefore rarely have full autonomy in making core decisions that at the home campus would usually be under their full control. The restrictions on autonomy start with how the opportunity to establish an IBC is constructed.

Partnership requirements bring the interests of another entity into the mix. Financial autonomy is constrained and academic autonomy, despite assurances, always needs to reflect the host country’s agenda.

Opportunity identification

The process by which most institutions identify IBC opportunities establishes a dynamic that limits independent decision-making from the beginning. Countries seeking to host an IBC typically offer resources, such as land, operating expenses or facilities to institutions willing to meet their objectives and requirements.

South Korea, for example, built a full campus with the capacity to serve 20,000 students and to host several branch campuses. Parent institutions were expected to accept the terms and conditions of the campus, including its location two hours outside of Seoul.

While the parent institution actively negotiates to protect its own interests, and may walk away from a bad deal, what the host country brings to the table in the early stages of the process restricts the IBC’s autonomy from the start.

Moreover, if the parent institution chooses to pursue a given opportunity to establish an IBC, it rarely does so without local academic, government or private partners. In countries such as China, local partnerships are even legally required. These partners help parent institutions navigate the complex academic, legal, business and cultural landscapes of the host countries. But they also ensure the host country’s interests in the venture are maintained.

Accordingly, the success of the IBC is often contingent upon the ability of their partner to uphold the terms of the agreement and provide continued guidance. Institutional autonomy is therefore further tempered by the IBC’s necessary reliance on a local partner. Financial Autonomy Restrictions on financial matters also support the notion that IBCs are not fully autonomous.

Some host countries set limitations on how much tuition IBCs can charge or how profits can be used or repatriated. These financial matters are key elements of financial autonomy and are important to promoting the quality and sustainability of the institution.

The financial support host governments and partners provide, moreover, also has both explicit and implicit effects on the institution’s autonomy. Explicitly, the agreement may outline specific requirements and regulations in exchange for funding. Implicitly, funding can encourage complacency that might impact the IBCs’ choices.

In Qatar, for example, the government provides such generous financial support that IBCs do not have to worry about protecting themselves from potential financial losses.

Such situations may create disincentives for IBCs to think independently and proactively identify ways to enhance the quality and sustainability of the IBC.

Academic autonomy

Perhaps one of the most concerning areas of limited decision-making capacity pertains to the IBCs’ academic affairs. This is particularly the case when host countries solicit parent institutions to establish IBCs in specific fields of study.

The Qatar Foundation, for instance, invited Georgetown University, Texas A&M University and Virginia Commonwealth University to offer programmes in foreign service, engineering and the arts, respectively. The Qatar government – not the parent institutions – drove the selection of academic programmes.

In other cases, host countries restrict the IBC’s ability to offer new academic programmes or have an independent admissions process. China treats many of the branches it hosts as a division of an existing university and allows that institution to determine the programmes and students that enrol.

Under such scenarios, IBCs have only limited opportunity for curriculum development and can never become fully-fledged universities. This limits their growth and makes them more vulnerable to changes in the academic and labour landscape.


The restrictions highlighted here violate several key forms of autonomy that academics have come to expect at a world-class institution. IBCs will continue to have difficulty attracting and retaining high-quality faculty and administrators if they are perceived as being lesser institutions. Because of this, the IBC will struggle to achieve quality at par with its parent institution.

Restrictions on autonomy may pose problems for the host country’s goals as well. While host countries are focused on promoting quality and ensuring alignment with their objectives, they may find potential partners declining to open a branch campus because of a lack of sufficient autonomy. This could actually threaten the success of the host country’s overall vision.

Most notably, diminished autonomy threatens the sustainability and quality of IBCs. Limiting their flexibility to make operational or academic changes in response to the needs of their students and the local economy may increase their susceptibility to failure.

Given these challenges, IBC leaders should consider an approach that emphasises a shared set of goals, with flexibility in how to achieve these goals. Otherwise IBCs may become mere providers of education, dependent on their hosts, rather than institutions of higher education capable of setting their own path.

Megan Clifford is an independent consultant based in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA. Email: Kevin Kinser is professor and head of the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University, and co-director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team or C-BERT, USA. Email: This article was first published in International Higher Education.