Student experience is core to an offshore strategy

Recently the University of Arizona in the United States announced plans to embark on opening more than 25 ‘micro-campuses’ over the next three years. Tagged for Asia and the Middle East, it will create a network that Arizona hopes will cater for more than 25,000 students around the globe.

Two are already up and running – a two-year-old dual degree programme with Ocean University of China in Qingdao and a new location that opened late last year in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

The University of Arizona’s plan is ambitious. It aims to have each of the 25 micro-campuses housed at the partner university with branded space and classrooms. It plans to offer at least one, in most cases several, dual degree programmes in which both Arizona and a partner university will confer degrees.

It’s Arizona’s deft alternative to the financial and reputational risks of a branch campus. No huge capital investments. No enormous cost outlay into facilities, services and employed teaching staff. Most are provided by the partner institution. It is as agile as it gets.

Dual degree students

Arizona’s plan is not, however, unique. In Australia, several universities already deliver similar models, though with many variations and less ambition. RMIT University in Melbourne stands out. Others include Monash University, Curtin University and Swinburne University of Technology.

RMIT University is particularly noteworthy. It has thriving campuses in Vietnam, located in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. It is also a long-standing and successful provider of transnational education programmes. It teaches a striking 10,000 dual degree students in four cities: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta – all in partnership with local universities and educational institutions.

In Singapore, RMIT’s partnership with the Singapore Institute of Management is 30 years old. It teaches 7,000 students across nine programmes, all taught by RMIT and contracted local teaching staff.

The numbers are impressive. In fact, some observers jest that there are more Singaporean students studying in RMIT programmes than there are studying in all Australian institutions.

In Shanghai, its 20-year-old partnership with Shanghai University of International Business and Economics enrols nearly 1,000 students in four dual degree programmes. Its three-year-old Indonesian partnership with the Jakarta-based private university, Universitas Pelita Harapan, enrols more than 200 students, making it arguably the largest foreign-local dual degree programme in Indonesia.

Establishing a partnered programme is a less risky path. But the path is becoming a lot harder and more complex. Having a solid relationship with a local partner is a given. But when government policy and foreign competition is added, the risk rises.

In Singapore, the government behaves like a competitor. It is creating more public funded places and reshaping its post-secondary system, threatening to crowd-out private education providers. In China, government policy continues to restrict such transnational activities. In Indonesia, the higher education policy continues to straggle while demand grows relentlessly.

Foreign competition in these countries intensifies as more education institutions find new ways to compete for growth.

The student experience

Another important layer of complexity is the changing expectation and needs of students. With a wider array of study choice, students are more discerning. With a tightening and competitive job market, they become even more discriminating. The education quality and brand remain important. But students want more.

Broad, deep international and transformative education experiences and issues including how a formal curriculum is taught, assessed and researched are becoming important in the decision-making process. Universities with existing transnational education presence or those planning to expand abroad must consider the student experience as integral to their offshore strategy or market repositioning.

There are four stand-out areas which matter most to transnational education students.
  • • First, students want more foreign institutional engagement and more ‘face-time’ interaction with lecturers. In most cases, the traditional model of ‘fly-in fly-out’ – where lecturers spend a short time, between three days to two weeks or more, teaching per semester – is losing its relevance and appeal.

    New models will need to emerge in response to greater demands for student engagement. Bolstering ‘fly-in fly-out’ with locating in-country lecturers (a mix of foreign and local) and having a more digitally enabled curriculum are just some additions.

  • • Second, students want more opportunities to connect to industry. As the labour market becomes more competitive, students want work-ready experiences. Exposing them to industry early in their programme helps.

    Having, for example, industry guest lecturers teach or hold seminars dramatically changes the way students learn. Having site visits, internships or embedding ‘real-world’ business challenges into appropriate courses become important elements to creating work-ready skills.

  • • Third, fostering a sense of belonging is another area that matters to students. In the in-house research conducted by RMIT, their Singaporean students expressed a desire to have a stronger association with RMIT and its brand. They want to be proud of their credentials.

    Creating a variety of ways to connect to students becomes important, yet a challenge. Branding space and classrooms or merchandising helps. But students want greater campus profile, more student activities, more public engagement programmes or even a mobility stint at the home campus.

  • • Finally, students want skills development relevant to their career aspirations. Creating opportunities beyond the classroom, such as getting involved in enterprise creation through hackathons and in business ideas through boot camps, mentoring and coaching.

    Even encouraging students to access MOOCs – massive open online courses – related to soft skills or learning how to create an online business or do digital marketing and business planning adds value to the experience. It’s about helping students develop, demonstrate and articulate their skills, knowledge and experience to a varied audience.
Transnational education models are changing. The University of Arizona, RMIT University and others are examples of the different approaches. Such models may be a better alternative to branch campus presence. However, they still rely on a fundamental focus on the student experience.

As student expectation continues to grow, institutions must think of new ways to respond. The student experience must become core to any offshore strategy. It also needs to be backed by serious funding, not just branding.

Dr Eugene Sebastian is director of the Australia-Indonesia Centre.