What makes international branch campuses successful?

International branch campuses or IBCs have long been seen as one of the most risky forms of transnational education. The level of investment often involved, coupled with the instability of factors outside the university’s control, have no doubt contributed to the demise of some IBCs and the reluctance of universities to explore this form of transnational education.

Meanwhile, little research has been done to identify and understand factors that have led to the success of mature branch campuses.

The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, together with the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany and Pennsylvania State University, have carried out a series of interviews with leaders from institutions with 'mature' IBCs that have been in operation for over a decade to explore success factors and describe effective models.

The interviews include 10 institutions based in countries including the United Kingdom, Australia, the United States, India and China, with IBCs in host countries including China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Nepal, Singapore, Dubai, Belgium and France. Early insights from these interviews are shared below.

Vision and location

Question: Was creating an IBC part of a long-term vision of the university, or did it seize an opportunity? How was the location of the IBC selected?

There was often an element of luck and opportunity involved with the decision to open an IBC. “The idea of setting up an independent offshore campus was put forth 15 years ago. It wouldn’t have happened without a US$20-25 million philanthropic donation,” according to one leader of an IBC. “In this day and age, this path would be unlikely – it would more likely be a partnership with a local university.”

Locations for branch campuses were chosen in areas that were already education hubs or offered distinct advantages. For example, one interviewee said: “Dubai is unique in that it’s almost entirely expats – close to 90%. Of higher education students, 70% are expats living in Dubai or UAE, and the other 30% come from abroad.”

In another case, the location of Brussels was selected due to the fact that “students come from around the world. We are not simply transplanting programmes to serve a local market, we are transporting programmes to where they can offer an added value – being close to Brussels, the European Union centre, internships and the European community.”

Replication and mobility

Question: To what extent does the IBC seek to replicate the home campus? How much mobility is there between campuses?

“From day one we have looked like the UK campus. When people visit, they immediately feel at home because the processes are the same. Every campus has a tower, every campus has a lake, the website has the same look and feel, and we have the same learning outcomes,” said one interviewee. While not all universities seek to create replicas of the home campus, all seek to have equivalent educational experiences across campuses.

Mobility is a key advantage of having an IBC and many leaders cited the need to increase mobility. “The main frustration is imbalance: we send 1,000 students and they send 100. That’s a shame because Western students could benefit hugely from an experience here at this time, with new culture and dynamism,” said another interviewee.

There was an increasing tendency to hire locally or regionally rather than have seconded appointments. Said one leader: “At the moment, we have only two seconded appointments. The rest of the academic staff comes from all over.” However, noted another interviewee, “students want UK professors – that’s why they pay the fees, so we will never get to 100% local staff. We do want seconded staff, but we have to balance the books.”


Question: What are the advantages of studying at your IBC?

Employability in an international context is a key benefit of studying at a branch campus. “It’s all about the employability and future study of graduates. Because of the type of graduate we produce, multinationals here soak them up. We have 50% more internship requests than we have students to place,” said one interviewee.

Additionally, IBCs allow students and researchers to address local, regional and global needs. “We put GPS collars on elephants; they can’t do that in the UK. We do research on tropical plants; they can’t do that.” To fill local niches, “we started several programmes like the BA in Borneo studies, which attracts study abroad students. We also have a built-in mobility scheme with the business school where students can come and do electives.”

By and large, leaders viewed their universities as global entities, not tethered to any one geographical space. Many reject the term 'international branch campus’, instead simply using the term 'campus'. Says one interviewee: “We don’t talk about branch campuses. We are one institution with many campuses.” Another said: “One thing we got right is that [anonymous] is not referred to as a branch – it is just considered a campus.”

While leaders clearly saw the value of the IBC to the institution as a whole, none had definite plans for additional branches. Said one university leader: “There is always discussion… it could come in the form of IBCs or could be partnerships for exchange, research or articulations.”

In a nutshell: “Any new campus should come from a reason. The focus remains on growing the ones we have.”

Rachael Merola is senior researcher at the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a global think tank on online learning, internationalisation, commercial activity and partnerships across higher education. She is co-author of a two-part report: International Branch Campuses: Trends and developments, and success factors of mature IBCs, to be published in 2017.