Can branch campuses survive in the post-pandemic era?

South Korea has been on the fringes of the growing research and literature about international branch campuses (IBCs) in different parts of the world such as the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Malaysia.

In East Asia, Japan was initially the most popular entry market for IBCs but has only one campus remaining. In contrast, China has emerged as the most sought-after destination for IBCs.

IBCs have been one of the largest contributors to international student mobility and have grown significantly over the last decade. So it is interesting how little attention has been paid to the phenomenon in Korea up until now.

A national plan for globalising higher education

It was in 2012 that the Incheon Global Campus (IGC) was launched with its sole founding member, the State University of New York, Korea (SUNY Korea).

Korea made a significant turnaround in the mid to late 1990s when it came to internationalisation in the field of education. One of the critical ideas of the national plan for globalising higher education relied on two main elements:

• Outbound higher education – ie, Korean students studying abroad; and

• The addition of international components to Korean higher education (inbound internationalisation).

Of many solutions put forward to achieve the latter was the idea of bringing foreign institutions to the country. Korea’s objectives for introducing foreign universities were:

• To advance the global competence of Korean higher education by leveraging foreign entities as effective influencers;

• To create a global-standard educational and research ecosystem for cutting-edge teaching and learning, scholarly and research activities, community service and engagement;

• To provide a broad range of opportunities to those who desire quality higher education in English; and

• To curb the brain drain associated with the substantial outflow of money to foreign countries.

The robust national plan was executed to lay the basic foundations and appeal to an array of foreign institutions. Many Korean organisations and stakeholders were involved in establishing joint ventures.

To cut a long story short, SUNY Korea was the first American university approved by the Korean government and two programmes run by Stony Brook University were offered at the IGC under the name of SUNY Korea in 2012.

At that time, Songdo International City of Korea, where the IGC is now situated, was uncharted territory when it came to higher education. One student enrolled in SUNY Korea back then recalled her time as “reading books at a station on the moon”.

Throughout the 10-year sea change in attitudes to international higher education, the IGC, home of four IBCs and a research institute from Stanford University, was a thriving global location for transnational higher education, educating nearly 4,000 students from 35 different countries.

Demographic changes

The most salient change in Korean higher education over the years has been the changing demographic challenge. It is reported that many Korean institutions are doomed to encounter unprecedented challenges in the years to come due to the plummeting college-age population.

Coupled with increasing doubts about traditional college degrees, the operational dilemmas caused by the political pressure on the government to freeze tuition fees for 14 years and the fact that a majority of higher education institutions are private and therefore heavily tuition-dependent, the higher education landscape in Korea, which has the world’s lowest fertility rate, has already started to change drastically.

In a desperate response, the Korean government has called on colleges to recruit fewer students and has proposed that some badly managed institutions be closed down.

On the other side of the globe, many American institutions are also doing their utmost to tackle their own demographic changes. The economic benefit of having an outpost in East Asia after the 2008 crisis was a key determinant of their strategy.

Moreover, Korea is the third biggest source of international students in the United States. However, the number of Korean students in the US dropped significantly during the pandemic, although the US is still the most desired study abroad destination for Koreans.

Post-COVID plans

The worldwide COVID catastrophe has caused some rebalancing when it comes to the IBCs. They are now more serious about the in-person or residential learning experience, the value of imported degree programmes (through the lens of return on investment) and the importance of a transnational academic pursuit for career success.

The crisis could, however, offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for IBCs to appeal to a wider array of students. Many students had turned their back on traditional education abroad programmes due to fears about the virus and the potential outbreak of similar pandemics in the future.

Therefore, the IBCs’ current mode of communicating with their potential customers should be re-assessed and they should look at how they approach the groups they want to serve, both online and offline.

In the post-pandemic period, online education, which had existed as a complement to the traditional education system that is based on physical presence and mobility, has taken precedence and could ultimately replace its offline competitors.

Consequently, the value of IBCs’ traditional educational services may be under threat. They therefore need to capitalise on how their students and researchers can address local, regional and global needs based on their experience and studies in their local area.

To maximise the advantages of being located in a setting different from their home institution, every IBC should take steps to develop localised extra-curricular activities and resources, such as internship and career opportunities, experiential and immersive programmes and unique and genuine career prospects.


When it comes to sustainability, arguably the most pressing issue for all IBCs, it is vital to focus on improving cost efficiency. As COVID-19 has already potentially posed unprecedented financial threats to the IBC model, it is opportune to assess their current cost structure from a critical standpoint.

One of the most viable strategies for increasing the cost efficiency of delivering their academic programmes comes from exploring collaboration opportunities for educational programmes with service providers and platforms, cutting across online, offline and virtual education.

IBCs will have to redesign their cost structures for their long-term sustainability and live up to both the expectations in their local context and the home institution’s mission. This holistic financial management and operational approach may include addressing outsourcing, staffing, faculty hiring and the relationship with local government.

Korea also needs to look at more regionally specific questions, such as:

• Why are IBCs needed in Korea?

• What does it mean to offer American degrees in East Asia?

• Should the IBCs be considered mission-oriented educational institutions or adventurous business enterprises that seek profit?

• Is what the Korean government envisioned 20 years ago in terms of internationalisation of higher education through IBCs still valid today? If not, why, and what does that mean for the IBCs in Korea?

Other more self-reflective questions include:

• How do the IBCs define their purpose?

• Being hybrid by nature, are IBCs able to sustain themselves independently?

These questions require urgent answers before the pandemic disappears.

The conversation triggered by the first US institution to cross the Pacific Ocean more than 10 years ago should extend to deliberations about whether the status quo is the ‘best’ model for them to achieve their mission and objectives.

No easy answers

This is not a simple question that anyone can answer quickly. No one is certain about what US higher education will do internally and internationally to recover from the pandemic, especially in the face of the severe economic uncertainty it faces in 2022.

In the case of Korea, IBCs should think differently, entirely out of the box, and dare to ask even more provocative questions such as whether what we have held to be the case up to now is still actually the case and what we envision for the forthcoming decade.

The ongoing ruptures of the COVID pandemic have led to a blurring of boundaries in the curricular offerings of universities around the world. In an era in which location constraints are substantially losing their meaning in the midst of rising interest in distance, remote, virtual and online learning, IBCs worldwide are running into a paradoxical situation where they need to emphasise the importance of geography.

The IGC is not an exception. The American IBC in Korea is now at the confluence of huge trends: both nations are facing, in different ways, a restructuring process in the face of the aftermath of the virus. Disruption creates cracks in the status quo and many aspects of international higher education run the risk of being torn apart by the cracks made by COVID-19. Fortunately, we all know that alongside risk there is opportunity.

Kyuseok Kim (Mick) is a PhD student in the Department of Education at Korea University, specialising in Educational Administration and Higher Education. He has contributed articles to the University News Network since 2022 and has worked at the State University of New York, Korea and Sungkyunkwan University. In 2012, he was selected as a Fulbright Scholar for the International Educational Administrator Program. LinkedIn page: Blog: Hyunju Lee is also a doctoral student in the department of education, Korea University.