China overtakes UAE as top host of branch campuses

The number of international branch campuses or IBCs worldwide reached 249 by the end of 2015, a 26% increase since 2010; and China has overtaken the United Arab Emirates as the country hosting the highest number, according to a new report.

China’s rise is part of a trend of concentrated growth in IBCs in China, Malaysia, Mauritius and South Korea in 2010-15 and slowed growth in the UAE, says the report published by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education and the Cross-Border Education Research Team or C-BERT at the State University of New York at Albany and Pennsylvania State University.

In absolute terms the growth of IBCs across the world has been steady, with 66 new ones founded in 2011-15 compared to 67 in 2006-10, and by the end of 2015 there were an estimated 180,000 students enrolled in IBCs in 76 countries.

“While there are increasing questions about the sustainability of globalisation efforts, these trends suggest that many countries still see cross-border education as a way to build capacity within their country,” said Jason Lane, a co-director of C-BERT and chair of the educational policy and leadership department at State University of New York at Albany in the US.

Among the top five host countries, China hosts 32 IBCs, compared with UAE (31), Singapore (12), Malaysia (12) and Qatar (11). These countries host 98 IBCs between them, or 39% of the world total.

New host countries include Cyprus, Egypt, Finland, Ghana, India, Malta, Nicaragua, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia.

The IBCs come from 33 different source or 'home' countries, up 18% since 2011. The top five home countries are the United States with 78, the United Kingdom (39), France (28), Russia (21) and Australia (15), which together account for 181 branch campuses, or 73% of total IBCs.

Where there is growth, it “continues to be largely driven by providers based in the United States and Europe”, says the report, International Branch Campuses: Trends and developments, 2016. “Of the IBCs currently under development worldwide, around half are planned by institutions based in the US and UK.”

However, new home countries include Belgium, Estonia, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Taiwan.

Developing countries continue to become both home and host of IBCs, but growth is very uneven and there remains little activity in Africa and South America: from 2011-15 only four new IBCs were developed in Africa outside of the MENA – Middle East and North Africa – region and just one in South America, the report says.

However, the report says developing and middle-income countries “will play a significant role in both originating and hosting the next generation of IBCs” if existing plans come to fruition: eight campuses believed to be under development are the vision of institutions in China, Egypt (two), Iran, Lebanon and Russia.

This would mark the first IBCs from institutions in Egypt. Of the eight IBCs planned, most will be hosted by developing or middle-income countries with the exception of Iran’s Islamic Azad University, which plans to open a branch in Canada, and India's Amity University which recently acquired a campus in Long Island, New York, the report says.

The motivation for these branch campuses “may be linked to a desire to operate capacity-building institutions that can work collaboratively with the governments and institutions of the host country, as well as a desire to create linkages and pathways with student populations in the host country”.

Overall, there are at least 14 IBCs known to be under development in countries with developing or emerging economies, including Bahrain, Brazil, China (4), Costa Rica, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and UAE (3).

The report says China remains a major centre of IBC growth, with four campuses under development, by Russia’s Lomonosov Moscow State University, the US’s Juilliard School in partnership with Tianjin Conservatory of Music (Tianjin Juilliard School), France’s EMLYON Business School in partnership with East China Normal University (Asia-Europe Business School), and South Korea’s Chungbuk National University.

In many cases IBCs under development will be helped by public and private support from the host country, whether via funding or provision of physical space, the report says.

’Gold rush’ period

IBCs are seen as a recent phenomenon but transnational education actually dates back to the 1800s when the University of London began setting up franchise arrangements across the British Empire, the report notes.

The modern IBC, apart from one example in the 1920s, emerged in the 1960s. It reached its ‘gold rush’ period in the 2000s when more than 100 IBCs came into operation. Many institutions began to much more actively look for international opportunities and a trend for creating 'educational hubs' emerged – with many IBCs located in a single location such as Qatar’s Education City.

“The open question is whether over time IBCs of a certain type or within certain countries will achieve a stronger reputation for capacity and quality at scale, influencing national policies and institutional brands. IBCs, in all their diversity, have much room for growth,” the report said.

The estimate of 180,000 students enrolled worldwide in IBCs is equivalent to less than 4% of the five million international students worldwide and a fraction of 150 million+ higher education students globally. While in a few countries such as UAE, IBCs constitute a significant proportion of total higher education enrolment, in most they are niche players, the report says.

Against that, there was a slight decrease in opening of IBCs in 2011-15, and the relatively few openings in 2015 could indicate that IBC activity has reached its peak and is beginning to slow, the report says. A recent survey of universities by the European Association for International Education found that IBC development was the lowest priority among 15 listed internationalisation strategies.

However, the report says this may reflect a lack of scope as well as limited interest. “In some countries there is little incentive for state-funded universities to pursue an IBC, and in some cases it is illegal. For example, the recent change in legislation in the Netherlands marks the first time Dutch universities are formally permitted to ‘go abroad’."

International branch closures

Since 2011, 14 IBCs have been shut down, including two each in Singapore, UAE and the UK. At least five of them were more than 10 years old, suggesting changed circumstances were affecting operations. The reasons for closure are diverse but have included low enrolment and financial losses, which may be indicators of poor business planning and risk management.

Another common cause is conflict with the government and regulatory bodies of the host country. “Support from the host country can make or break a campus,” the report said.

Another important factor is the effectiveness of quality assurance. Ad hoc models of quality assurance when IBCs first emerged let to questions about the legitimacy of IBCs as higher education institutions.

But as they have developed, most host countries have established external quality assurance procedures that address the delivery and award of degrees by a foreign institution. This can mean being regulated as a local institution, or as a local institution but with additional requirements, or as a foreign institution.

The effectiveness of internal quality assurance may be challenged by the limited autonomy that some IBCs have in terms of self-governance and curriculum development, the report says, and by tension with the host government over academic freedom.

Kevin Kinser, C-BERT co-director and professor of education policy at Pennsylvania State University in the US, said: “Quality assurance is adapting as the IBC phenomenon expands into more countries. We are seeing the emergence of new systems for managing and regulating truly multinational universities.”

The report, International Branch Campuses: Trends and developments, 2016, is free for Observatory on Borderless Higher Education member institutions and organisations and available for purchase by non-members at or email