Are branch campuses improving students’ employability?

Of the different forms of transnational higher education, international branch campuses or IBCs are arguably the riskiest and most vulnerable but also the most visible. An estimated 180,000 students are enrolled at IBCs globally. This includes higher education institutions that confer double degrees by their parent university and the local partner.

Often universities that have established overseas campuses claim that all their campuses produce graduates with similar attributes, that is, ‘global citizens who are highly sought after’.

Such claims imply to a certain extent that all campuses under the same brand, regardless of geographical location or local culture, provide students with a similar teaching and learning experience which results not only in the same degree being awarded but in them acquiring a global outlook and a good position in the labour market.

One way of testing this is to look at how students who are enrolled at an IBC and also spend a part of their study period at the parent university perceive their student experience and how they relate that to their future employability. Recently, concerns have been expressed about the long-term sustainability of IBCs due to recent closures or a change in the status of 15 IBCs since 2011, so this question is crucial for their future.

Student experience

My qualitative research project focused on identifying the ‘student experience’ that mattered most to IBC students in terms of ‘developing their employability’.

Participants made a distinction between attributes that can be acquired within the university and those that can be acquired outside it. Teaching and learning, international experience, non-academic on-campus experience and practical work-related experience were areas they identified as significant.

Some students, influenced by their parents’ perceptions, viewed the study abroad experience as being more valuable than gaining subject knowledge; and personal development as more important an investment for their future than employability development per se.

The role of universities in promoting employability was generally recognised with reference to academic credentials, communication skills and knowledge gain and sharing, inter alia, but some questioned the extent to which universities could genuinely develop certain attributes such as teamwork. Therefore, experiences that mattered to their employability while at university were not confined to the campus.

Unsurprisingly, participants with internship experience were inclined to express doubts about what the university could do to enhance employability.

According to one participant, subject knowledge gained at university could become obsolete quite rapidly, but outcomes such as learner autonomy were important in the fast-changing world of work: “The knowledge you gained from studies is actually not very important. The skill used to gain the knowledge is more important.”

In general participants exhibited a lifelong learning perspective regarding employability development.

Teaching and learning

In participants’ responses on what ‘developing employability’ meant to them, there was a general acknowledgement that an academic qualification was an essential ingredient, but that in itself it was insufficient. However, it was clear that it had some impact since students assumed that employers used qualifications as a filtering and signalling device in the job recruitment process.

Students from different IBCs emphasised different elements of teaching and learning as having an impact on their employability. The characteristics of particular IBCs and the relationship between the parent university and the partner institution from the host country have an impact on students’ perceptions of their learning experience and consequently their interpretation of the question about employability.

The responses of students from two IBCs (both belonging to the same family of institutions) show their awareness of the differences in teaching faculty at the IBC and the parent university. While they were more positive about the access to and relationship they had with the IBC teaching faculty, their responses reflect the problems of attracting more experienced teaching faculty from the parent university to its IBC.

Their responses suggested that the teaching faculty at an IBC have less teaching or industrial experience than their counterparts at the parent university. One student commented: “Most of the lecturers from the IBCs, I'd say they are new PhD graduates. They've never worked outside. They have been bred from the academic field so I think this is one of the negatives of the branch campus.”

In comparison, students from another IBC that has attracted a number of academics from elite universities were more positive about their IBC teaching faculty.

Undergraduate students interviewed who were enrolled at IBCs in China were on a four-year programme as required by China’s higher education regulations. The first year covers intensive ‘English for Academic Purposes’ modules together with some subject specific introductory modules.

Some mainland Chinese participants made particular reference to the foundation or the first-year programme as an acculturation process which developed their academic literacy and empowered them to manage their studies long after they progressed further in their study programme.

Their recognition of the role of the foundation year programme attests to its importance in fostering autonomy in terms of language, learning and living.

One participant described an indirect consequence of choosing to study at an IBC that had a lasting impact on him, contributing to both his academic success and personal development: “There's an indirect consequence especially in the foundation year. We learned about academic English, but not everything was about the English language. It was also about culture, ideas and changing the ways we think. It was about personal development. I think that most of this can be attributed to the first-year studies.”

It is interesting that students’ responses to undirected, open-ended questions on what they experienced as having an impact on their employability were about issues relating to the teaching faculty at the IBC compared to its parent campus. On the bright side, it is immensely reassuring to see the impact of the acculturation process and academic literacy development overflowing beyond the first year and making a lasting impression on some IBC graduates.

Christine Lee is a fellow of Lincoln Higher Education Research Institute. Her main role is managing the in-sessional programme as part of Student Services at the University of Lincoln, United Kingdom. She spoke at this month’s Society for Research into Higher Education annual conference in the UK.