Cultural higher education: A new driver of branch campuses?

There has been a general sense in the last several years that the sprouting of new international branch campuses (IBCs) is slowing.

Indeed, with the COVID pandemic hindering most international travel, causing a worldwide economic decline and preoccupying even the most forward-thinking governments, the prospect of setting up new international partnerships seems remote for some time.

Many of the most enticing destinations for partnerships (Qatar, the UAE, South Korea and Singapore, to name a few) are already somewhat saturated with branch institutions. The same lucrative deals that once enticed top higher education brands are likely not available anymore.

A large number of campus closures and sudden host government policy changes have led to increased scrutiny from higher education institutions, especially in the United States. This may deter future activity.

Despite this, though, there is an IBC sector whose activity may be poised to accelerate in the next several years: cultural higher education, namely in the performing and visual arts.

The state of arts-focused branch campuses

By current count, there are six currently open IBCs that focus on the arts, defined broadly.

Three such IBCs out of the total recorded have closed, making a total of nine that have been founded. They come, as most IBCs do, from the United States, with one each coming from the United Kingdom and Canada.

Arts-focused IBCs cover a wide geography, including China, France, Qatar and Spain. And, while not technically an IBC – because it does not offer degree programmes – Berklee College of Music also recently opened an educational centre in Abu Dhabi.

These institutions run the gamut of disciplines at both the undergraduate and graduate level – with programmes catering to music, visual art, film and creative writing. No single artistic discipline or set of disciplines dominates the landscape: each is distributed relatively evenly.

As countries of the once-developing world continue to transition to diversified knowledge- and skills-based economies, governments will increasingly seek to supplement employment-focused higher education programmes with a broader set of cultural and artistic institutions to develop fully realised 21st-century societies.

Nowhere is this more acute than in the Middle East and Asia, whose countries have begun making investments that could portend the establishment of more arts-focused IBCs.

Cultural investments on the rise

According to AEA Consulting’s most recent Cultural Infrastructure Index, the most authoritative report on global arts infrastructure spending, in 2020 over US$8 billion in new cultural capital spending was announced, and over US$5 billion in capital projects was completed globally. These included museums, multipurpose arts facilities, performance halls and cultural districts.

In the Middle East alone, there are already several cultural districts established or in development. Saudi Arabia has been especially active in this arena, with a newly proposed ‘Non-Profit City’ to serve as a hub for innovation and the arts, among several other massive cultural investments elsewhere in the country.

Qatar also recently stated a goal of becoming ‘the art Mecca of the Middle East’ in advance of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, with cultural investments matched to that ambition. And the new Kuwait National Cultural District, with a capital cost of around US$1 billion, includes the largest cultural centre and opera house in the Middle East.

In the same report from AEA Consulting, Asia passed North America for the first time in new capital investments announced for the arts. The number of culturally focused capital projects in the Middle East is also on the rise year on year.

Some art museums have also recently started setting up branches abroad and other high-profile arts and museum brands may see these potentially lucrative deals and soon follow suit.

The Guggenheim has a history of setting up branches abroad, developing branches in Venice and Bilbao. The latter was so well-regarded that it spawned the so-called ‘Bilbao effect’ – where city or regional governments seek fast economic growth through investing in institutions with unconventional and borderline ostentatious architecture.

Leveraging this success, the Guggenheim and the Louvre recently set up branches in Abu Dhabi with strong backing from the local government, seemingly very similar to arrangements made for foreign higher education institutions.

Much like IBCs, however, not all museum branches have proven to be successful. Though no concrete reason was given, Deutsche Guggenheim closed its doors in 2013 after 15 years of operations in Berlin. Before that, Guggenheim’s planned Guadalajara branch never even began construction before the project was scrapped in 2009.

Long-term outcomes may outweigh risks

But, as within higher education, with careful planning and good positioning, the potential long-term economic outcomes may outweigh the risks involved in launching a new branch.

And as these multiplying arts institutions get off the ground and nascent arts ecosystems continue to mature, people with expertise will need to staff them. Arts-focused IBCs may soon follow to prepare such graduates.

In an increasingly complex world with ambiguous solutions, IBC graduates with arts-related degrees may be primed to enter strategic and managerial roles outside of the industry since they can offer fresh, creative perspectives to challenges and new projects.

Higher education institutions, particularly those with a strong arts and culture focus, may see an opportunity to leverage these increasing investments and set up IBCs focused on catering to these new and existing economies.

The absence of live art during the pandemic has been deeply felt by all across the world. Now, as restrictions begin to loosen, people are quite eager to resume gathering and appreciating art as quickly as possible. Governments are once again beginning to plan for a future beyond COVID.

This, in tandem with a faster-than-expected global economic recovery, bodes well for the future of the arts across much of the world. Higher education institutions with a focus on the arts may thus be uniquely positioned for the future of international branch campuses.

John Anderson is a current EdM candidate at Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a concentration on higher education and educational leadership. E-mail: Daniel C Kent is a former senior admissions counsellor at Yale-NUS College in Singapore and is currently a programme associate for research at a philanthropic foundation in New York, United States. E-mail: Both authors contributed equally to this publication.