Are micro-campuses a new model for international HE?

With an estimated 400 million people in developing countries lacking access to a higher education, United States universities seeking to internationalise have only scratched the surface of the opportunity to help meet the world’s need for affordable, globally accessible and high-quality education.

A few US universities have set up international branch campuses. But most students from other countries who want to earn US degrees must still come to the US to do so.

The cost of a US education, however, vastly exceeds the per capita income in most developing countries and most US universities offer limited scholarships to international students, generally expecting them to pay full fare. The advantages of a US education are thus primarily available to the global elite. For the vast majority of the developing world, a US education isn’t remotely within the realm of possibility.

Answering the call of providing greater access to a US education, the University of Arizona or UA has developed a new model for transnational education, which it calls a micro-campus.

A global network of micro-campuses

Micro-campuses leverage technology to deliver cutting-edge education to students wherever they are in the world, while preserving an in-class, on-campus experience. With two micro-campuses already in operation and 11 additional micro-campus agreements in place, the UA aims to build a global network of micro-campuses, with more partner universities added to the network over time.

Under the ‘micro-campus’ model, the UA partners with international universities that provide the UA a designated space within their campuses. Partner universities also provide their physical campus and classrooms for UA courses, which alleviates the need for new infrastructure and allows the UA to focus on affordably delivering educational instruction in collaboration with the partner institution.

The ‘micro-campus’ model employs technology-enabled ‘flipped classrooms’ to deliver international degree programmes to local students, together with partner universities and their faculty. In these flipped classrooms, students watch lectures outside of class and use class time to work collaboratively with a professor and each other to apply what they have learned.

Moreover, micro-campuses engage both partner and UA faculty, who develop and deliver the dual-degree programmes together, often co-teaching courses. Students can also take partner university courses at the same time they take UA courses, allowing for fully integrated dual-degree programmes, where students can take courses from both universities throughout their multi-year course of study.

Education based on more than one country

As Professor Jenny Lee, an expert on international education at the UA Center for the Study of Higher Education, notes: “This collaborative approach to programme development and teaching allows students to learn about course material situated in the local context of their home countries, unlike studying abroad, and from an international perspective, unlike taking traditional courses at home. Micro-campuses thus exemplify what ‘international’ education should be, education based on more than one country.”

Students at a micro-campus maintain their full student status at the partner university while enrolled in for-credit UA courses, offered locally.

This greatly increases access and affordability by eliminating the substantial costs of living abroad and because the cost-savings of the model enables the UA and the partner to set tuition at local market rates.

Moreover, students continue to pay tuition at the partner institution, meaning the partner does not suffer financially for every dual-degree student, as is the case for traditional dual-degree programmes where students stop paying local tuition when they study abroad.

The UA also shares its tuition with the partner, further aligning financial incentives and benefits.

The micro-campus structure also reduces financial risk to the UA, allowing it to cost-effectively deliver degree programmes at multiple locations across the globe, including in countries that are often underrepresented in international collaborations. The micro-campus model can operate nearly anywhere with basic technology infrastructure.

Sustainable internationalisation

Beyond fostering international education, micro-campuses can also act as hubs for joint faculty research and grant proposals, collaboration that will naturally extend from a teaching model that cultivates close working relationships between UA and partner university faculty.

Additionally, because micro-campuses are financially self-sustaining, they promote sustainable internationalisation, providing a platform and physical location for faculty training and exchange, service-learning, internships and other forms of engaged learning.

Micro-campuses also enable mobility, as micro-campus students are free to study at the UA main campus in Tucson, or at any other UA micro-campus, during their course of study. Similarly, a student at the UA in Tucson could earn part of their degree abroad, studying in four locations in four years.

Micro-campuses offer a holistic, multi-layered model for sustainable international education and collaboration between universities. To help ensure that micro-campuses effectively deliver on this promise, the UA’s Center for the Study of Higher Education will assist the university in continually assessing, developing and refining the model in practice.

Through this iterative process, the model will undoubtedly evolve to incorporate new understandings and realities of its operation in practice. Whatever the final form of this evolution, the micro-campus offers a new model for providing affordable, cutting-edge higher education to the globe.

Brent White is vice provost of international education in the Office of International Education at the University of Arizona, USA.