The new faces of transnational higher education

An international joint university, frequently referred to as a binational university, is often confused with an international branch campus. A joint university is an independent higher education institution founded through collaboration between foreign higher education institutions and host country institutions or government.

A good example is the Singapore University of Design and Technology, which was established in 2009 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Zhejiang University and the Singapore Management University. The three partners were carefully chosen to bring different expertise, experiences and perspectives to the new university.

In China, there are several ‘joint venture’ universities. Examples include Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, which was co-founded in 2006 in Suzhou, China, and New York University Shanghai, jointly established by East China Normal University and New York University.

It is important to note that these are independent universities, registered as a public or private higher education institution with the host government. They are not a branch or satellite campus of the foreign partner university and resent being labelled as such.

Different models exist

As with all innovations, different models of international joint universities exist. The German binational model, which has been used to develop new universities in many countries (Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Vietnam, Turkey, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Indonesia), usually starts with a memorandum of understanding between the governments of the two countries.

While different funding models are used, all binational institutions involve a consortium of German universities collaborating with the newly developed institution to establish new programmes, policies and practices.

China uses a different approach. In accordance with the ‘Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Chinese-Foreign Cooperation in Running Schools’, a foreign university must partner with a local Chinese institution to establish joint programmes, colleges or universities.

As of 2017, there are nine joint universities in China based on collaborations between existing Chinese universities and foreign partners from the United Kingdom, United States, Israel, Hong Kong and Russia.

The Vietnam government has actively pursued the joint university model and has used different partnership and funding arrangements with France, Germany and Japan. It is safe to say that there is ‘no one model’ for an international joint university, but it is clear that a new independent institution is developed by the collaborating partners.

Why joint universities?

The motivations for establishing joint universities differ across the various foreign partners and host countries.

The driving rationales for host countries can include:
  • • Increasing access for students;
  • • Providing niche programmes;
  • • Geo-political purposes;
  • • Using joint universities as ‘lighthouse institutions’ for innovation and good practice around governance, knowledge production, quality assurance, funding and pedagogy;
  • • Overall modernisation and internationalisation of the higher education system.
Foreign partners are motivated for different reasons, including:
  • • International branding;
  • • Opportunities for faculty and staff mobility experiences;
  • • Establishing a foreign base for research and innovation;
  • • Recruitment of postgraduate students;
  • • Internationalisation of programmes and teaching and learning;
  • • Geo-political relations.
Joint universities require significant investment by all partners and thus the prospect of revenue generation is a long-term proposition even though it is mistakenly cited by many as a primary motivation.

Whose programmes or degrees are offered?

The first question often asked is whose programmes and qualifications are offered in a joint university. Again, a variety of approaches are being used as policies and regulations of the host and partner countries differ.

At this time there are a combination of three approaches used. The first and most common approach is a joint or double degree programme; the second is a programme or qualification offered solely by one of the founding partners; and the third type is a programme or qualification offered by the newly founded joint institution.

These three approaches clearly illustrate the difference between a joint university and an international branch campus as the latter normally offers the programme or qualification of the parent university only.

How many partners are involved?

The answer to this question is not straightforward. The establishment of international joint universities is still in the early stages as most are less than 10 years old. To date there are less than 25 operating around the world with several in the planning stage.

The nine Chinese joint universities involve one foreign and one host country partner.

The German binational model does not usually involve an existing host country partner institution. Instead, ‘joint’ means between two countries and the new university is established in collaboration with a consortium of German universities chosen on the basis of having relevant programmes and research expertise.

The cited Singapore example involves two foreign institutions and one host country university.

Vietnam uses a combination of these approaches for its three joint universities, as does Egypt for its two.

Even more confusion

Just as international joint universities are mistakenly called international branch campuses, they are also confused with institutions that use a foreign country name in the host country.

The British University Vietnam is one example of many. This is not an institution that has been developed in collaboration with a Vietnamese partner, nor is it a branch campus of a single UK university. It is registered as a Vietnamese private foreign university and franchises programmes from different UK universities.

In Europe, regional joint universities are being developed to allow students to take courses in a network of affiliated institutions, but these too are not joint international universities.

Looking to the future

Transnational education – which is now called international programme and provider mobility or IPPM, to clarify the misunderstanding about the differences between transnational, cross-border, offshore and borderless education – is rapidly expanding in scope and scale.

Twinning programmes are morphing into double or multiple degree programmes; franchising programmes are consolidating into franchise universities; international branch campuses are maturing and may in time become independent from the parent university; and joint universities are a recent development. There is no question that innovation in IPPM will continue and is welcomed.

But with increasing IPPM enrolments, new modes of cooperation and emerging unintended consequences, more attention needs to be given to IPPM in terms of national and institutional policy development, data collection, joint governance, monitoring and quality assurance, to name only a few areas.

There are more questions than answers, but it is clear that more research and trend analysis needs to be given to IPPM by scholars, policy actors, practitioners, PhD candidates, teaching faculty and academic leaders to ensure that international joint universities are not confused with other modes of IPPM.

Jane Knight is adjunct professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Canada, and a distinguished visiting professor at the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Photo: The Singapore University of Design and Technology, created in 2009 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Zhejiang University and the Singapore Management University, is a good example of an international joint university. Credit: e-architect.