Contradiction behind Egypt’s embrace of branch campuses

As Egypt builds a ‘new Cairo’ – a government and business hub in the desert on Cairo’s outskirts – the government wants international branch campuses (IBCs) to be a part of it.

Governments increasingly view internationalisation as a means for advancing national policy priorities, driven by a combination of enhancing economic competitiveness and global reputation. Such government attention towards internationalisation can be a welcome advance, as well as fraught with potentially troubling policy and practical implications.

Egypt is not the first country to declare IBC recruitment a component of a national strategy. Examples stretch from China to Qatar. Approaches vary. Some nations provide significant subsidies; others take a more free-market approach. A unifying aspect is leveraging ‘internationalisation’ to import foreign academic investment to build out local educational capacity.

While yielding some benefits, the efforts also raise questions about sustainability and potential trade-offs for IBCs.

Leading hub of mobility

Internationalisation of Egyptian higher education, mainly through student mobility, has ballooned. In 2017, approximately 47,000 foreign college students enrolled in Egypt, a significant increase from fewer than 2,000 in 2010.

The country emerged as a leading hub of student mobility in the Middle East due to public institutions being open to non-citizens, which is not the case in most Arab Gulf states; and affordable tuition rates relative to many other regional institutions.

IBCs are now viewed as an opportunity to extend the benefits of internationalisation for the country. The effort to import IBCs symbolises the seemingly contradictory positions of the Egyptian government. It seeks to embrace foreign investment and build international relationships as a means of strengthening the nation’s role on the global stage, while also seeming to curb local freedoms of central importance to the IBCs it seeks to import.

Higher education in Egypt

Egypt has 24 public universities and 23 private universities, including the American University in Cairo (1919) and an outpost of the Technical University of Berlin, opened in 2012. Enrolment in higher education has grown from approximately two million students in 2010 to nearly 2.8 million in 2017.

Recent government policies have set a new agenda for higher education. These include increasing the number of college students by nearly 50% by 2030; improving the quality of provision through a new accreditation process; requiring new private higher education institutions to partner with highly ranked foreign partners; enhancing international competitiveness by increasing the number of universities ranked in the top 500 globally; increasing the number of international students by 50%; and better aligning educational offerings with labour market demands.

Balancing state authority and institutional autonomy

The growing student demand and new policy context may be alluring to potential international partners. It is important to look at the details, though.

A new law on IBCs seeks to balance state oversight and engagement with the need for academic independence. Which IBCs will be allowed to operate remains under strict government control; those approved will be allowed a high degree of flexibility in advancing their mission. The intention is to raise Egypt’s international education profile and attract global students; and IBCs are required to admit a certain proportion of Egyptian students.

IBCs are granted administrative autonomy; and must employ a number of Egyptian staff and faculty. The Egyptian government will provide the facilities and some of the ongoing administrative support; and they will tax tuition income at not more than 1% to recover those investments. The law provides for freedom from academic interference from the government; yet the fuzzy edges of a university can make it difficult to operate freely when the surrounding environment does not have the same freedoms.

Further details are uncertain; but there is a clear sense of active government engagement. Moreover, Egypt’s policy context is like the shifting sands of the desert. What may seem reasonable trade-offs now may further evolve as IBCs become a reality. What that evolution will look like is hard to predict.

Egypt’s interest in IBCs

The reasons to invest in education are well established. Why a nation pursues a foreign university – as opposed to, or in tandem with investing in its domestic sector – is not as clear.

A recent statement from the Egyptian minister of higher education provides some insight: “The opportunity for UK universities to establish [IBCs] in Egypt will support Egypt’s internationalisation ambitions and labour market demands … IBCs will contribute to the fabric of Egypt’s higher education landscape and be catalysts for broader international partnerships between the United Kingdom and Egypt in research, innovation and mobility.”

Recruiting a well-known foreign university to set up shop signals something interesting, if not important, happening in the importing nation that warrants attention from outside actors. Similar investment by (or in) the domestic system would likely not send the same signal, or at least not as loudly.

The effort to build a new capital is an attention-seeking effort; and having well-known IBCs, particularly from global powers, further supports the attention worthiness. IBCs can be an important means for strengthening geopolitical relationships and a foundation on which to recruit other forms of investment.

Possibly considered a new form of public diplomacy, an IBC creates a physical and cultural link between two nations. The hope of the Egyptian government is that the IBC can be a catalyst for further partnership.

Recruiting outposts of well-established universities can be a mechanism for importing the academic capital created in the foreign country to help develop the local education system. In many ways, this academic investment – comparable to foreign direct investment in business – can be a means to leapfrog educational development that would likely be slower by only investing in domestic institutions.

As such, it could advance Egypt’s effort to be home to several top-ranked universities.

Implications for IBCs to consider

Proponents argue that New Cairo is an important symbol of Egypt’s future and a beacon for new investment. Critics worry that relocating the wealthier members of society to the new city and focusing IBCs in New Cairo will accentuate social class inequity. Egypt is also a fluid and dynamic policy and political environment. Policies created today can be undone tomorrow.

Recruiting an IBC can expand capacity, be structured to align with economic initiatives and serve as a means to raise global rankings and recruit international students.

However, what happens when the academic ethos of critical inquiry and free expression that contributed to the success of the home campus run into conflict with efforts by the host country to curtail such freedoms in the broader environment?

Universities setting up IBCs elsewhere have accepted such compromises when choosing to operate in similar environments, often arguing that it is easier to help change a society from within than from without.

Indeed, IBCs can be embassies of knowledge and demonstration sites, permitted to experiment with and foster academic freedom separate from the constraints in the broader environment. However, such activities must be taken on carefully and often at some risk to the individual and the institution.

This risk becomes heightened in a dynamic policy environment that allows for unchecked bans on parts of the internet and where foreign establishments can quickly go from being welcomed to being banned. Whether elite institutions will risk Egypt’s shifting sands is hard to say; it may all depend on whether they see rewards outweighing risks.

Jason E Lane is chair and associate professor, educational policy and leadership, and co-director, Cross-Border Education Research Team, State University of New York at Albany, United States. Email: This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.