What is the future for international branch campuses?

One month prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the merits of international branch campuses (IBCs) were questioned, debated and deemed “unlikely to blossom”. Such dismissal is not surprising. It’s almost expected. It’s also why, as researchers, we have spent the last 10 years gathering data to better understand the sector. And now, nearly a year into the pandemic, we believe IBCs may be better situated for success than ever before.

Of course, IBCs have long confronted criticism from detractors. The high-profile failures have been plentiful, ranging from George Mason University’s quick retreat in the United Arab Emirates to the University of New South Wales’ misguided business model in Singapore to Aberdeen University’s pre-emptive withdrawal from creating a campus in South Korea.

And yet, our data continues to show growth in the sector. We now count over 250 IBCs operating around the world. In the last year IBCs have opened in Morocco, Mexico and Indonesia.

Most recently, India announced new policies to facilitate the importing and exporting of international campuses.

Global enrolments now exceed 180,000. The research contributions are significant in some locations.

In all of this, the Cross-Border Education Research Team’s focus has been on grounding our observations on data. We track the developments of the sector, mostly under-reported, and undertook a global survey of IBCs, and what we have found might surprise some readers (the survey is still open and we invite more IBCs to participate via our website

The data revealed that these branches did not escape the pandemic unpruned. More than half of respondents completing the survey reported at least some decline in enrolment and almost all had major operational disruptions. However, we have seen five themes that portend a possibly more positive future for international campuses.

Stabilising an unstable world

A geographically disbursed network of campuses may provide a buffer for universities looking for ways to mitigate fallout from unforeseen international crises.

In the past two years, institutions in the United States – the largest exporter of international campuses – have had to deal with unprecedented crackdowns on international student migration from a combination of visa restrictions and pandemic protocols.

China recently directed recruitment agents not to send students to Australia.

Some universities with an international campus were able to shift quickly and use overseas locations to serve students unable to travel to the US. For example, in our survey, NYU Shanghai pivoted quickly to serve more than 3,000 Chinese students who were not able to reach the US as originally intended.

The events of the past year have emphasised the strategic value of having a physical presence in multiple countries. In an increasingly unstable world filled with geo-political jockeying and the lingering and looming pandemic threats, universities with international campuses are likely to look for ways to leverage them more strategically.

In addition, universities without international campuses may look to develop physical presences as a strategy to mitigate future threats.

Coupled with tougher immigration restrictions, barriers to travel, unsteady post-study work visa arrangements and unstable labour markets in the West, such international locales may offer promising stability.

Reassessing affordability

Fallout from the pandemic included governments being forced to impose international and domestic travel restrictions, universities unable to assure students with re-opening dates and families of international students being left to worry about the health and safety of their children in a foreign country.

Moreover, families suffering financial hardship during the pandemic were placed in a position of questioning how they could send their children abroad to high-cost countries. This left them considering other options such as looking for a “less expensive study destination closer to home”.

One recent survey showed that nearly half of respondents believed they would no longer be able to afford studying in the US.

It is still not clear how the international student market will recalibrate given the effects of the pandemic. Already, some students see branch campuses as an affordable alternative to studying at the home campus.

What is evident is that students and families are more aware of the uncertainties in the marketplace and likely more aware of transnational education (TNE) opportunities that may bring a foreign education closer to home. Research over the past decade demonstrates the value of TNE for employment purposes.

One study showed that studying at a TNE institution in a student’s home country allows them to accumulate local and foreign cultural capital and that employers viewed the TNE experience as positive.

It is also the case that many international campuses are located in countries seeking to retain foreign students, such as the UAE.

As it turns out, international campuses may be “a highly pragmatic choice, offering the prospect of a somewhat more valuable or prestigious qualification at a lower cost than studying abroad and, for many, in a much more practical way that could be fitted into their life”, as a 2015 study suggested.

Expanding markets

The Arab Gulf and Asia are the fastest growing regions for international campuses. With over 50% of the world’s population living in Asia and demand for higher education increasing rapidly, setting up campuses in or near the region can be a strategic move to reach this market.

Countries in Asia and the Arab Gulf have been proactive in developing international campuses that appeal to the world’s largest student demographic.

These international campuses have mostly served a largely local or regional population of students; often those who want a foreign education but may not have the opportunity to travel to the home country.

Given the increasing concerns about student safety and political instability in traditional study abroad destinations such as Australia, the US and the United Kingdom, it is likely that we will see an increase in the demand for a global education provided locally.

This may be good news for the international campuses positioned to serve this market. Many IBCs already exist in countries that export large numbers of students, such as China and South Korea, and India is working to expand access to allow IBCs to set up shop.

Many of these campuses are already starting to market themselves as a global opportunity in a local marketplace. International campuses, particularly those that already have a local reputation, are well positioned to take advantage of this growth market.

As one observer noted: “For many learners around the world, having a locally relevant degree and a US one would be an especially powerful differentiator in the job market perhaps even more so than a US degree alone.”

Policy shifts towards more online flexibility

Prior to the pandemic, our data showed that classes at international campuses were almost entirely face to face. In response to the pandemic, our survey revealed that fewer than a quarter of IBCs remained face to face.

In China alone, the IBCs there shifted more than 300 courses to online delivery in three weeks; and calls in Malaysia suggest “online learning is no longer an option – it’s a must”.

This is a dramatic shift for a sector that is predicated on attempting to replicate the home-campus experience in a foreign setting and meets host country restrictions on the use of online education. However, as has been learned in countries like the US, students can have an on-campus experience even if they have a mix of online and in-person courses.

To facilitate this massive pivot to online, both institutional leaders and policy-makers had to make adjustments. Internally, there is now broader acceptance of the use of online learning. Externally, governments from Kuwait to China have adjusted their restrictions on online learning.

If host countries retain some level of acceptance of online education, it will mean that IBCs are likely to be able to introduce new modalities that could provide more flexibility in their learning schedules as well as expanding who can teach a course and from where.

The combination of acceptance and easing of restrictions on online learning positions IBCs to introduce new modalities, creating more flexibility in the teaching and learning environment.

Internationalisation of research

While IBCs are often considered only teaching institutions, our research has found that about a third of IBCs are research active, contributing significantly to the research capacity of the host country and expanding the research profile of the home campus.

Moreover, some of these IBCs can effectively compete with the research productivity of local institutions.

In fact, our data also reveals that research-active IBCs significantly expand the international collaborations of a university, establishing different and independent networks from those on the home campus.

The presence of an international campus can also allow a university to take advantage of local research funding streams that may not otherwise be available to the home campus. With uncertainty around international travel, an international branch may allow the home campus to continue and extend its international research engagements.

While some may be looking to predict the wilting of international campuses, the trends above suggest that some pruning at the moment may yield more robust blossoming in the years ahead.

Jason E Lane is dean of the School of Education at the State University of New York at Albany in the United States, professor in the International Education Leadership program, and co-director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT). Jill C Borgos is assistant professor in the School of Education, Health and Human Services at State University of New York College at Plattsburgh in the US, and a C-BERT research associate. Jessica Schueller is a graduate student in the Erasmus Mundus Research and Innovation in Higher Education (MARIHE) programme, specialising in institutional research, and a C-BERT research associate. Semonti Dey is a PhD student in higher education at Pennsylvania State University in the US, with a concentration in comparative international education, and a C-BERT research associate. Kevin Kinser is professor and head of the department of education policy studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is senior scholar in the Center for the Study of Higher Education and co-director of C-BERT. Sarah T Zipf is a PhD candidate in higher education at Pennsylvania State University and studies distance and online education, and is a C-BERT project manager.