International students ‘less satisfied’ in branch campuses

International students enrolled at international branch campuses (IBCs) have lower mean satisfaction with academic and teaching quality, the academic environment and academic engagement than international students enrolled at the home campuses with which the IBCs are associated.

This was the main outcome of the study entitled “Making the Grade: Do international branch campuses and their home campuses differ in international student satisfaction with the academic experience?” published in the September issue of the Journal of Studies in International Education.

The study investigated differences in academic satisfaction among undergraduate international students studying at IBCs and their home campuses, considering student stage of study, gender and institution.

It draws on data from 2,145 undergraduate international students enrolled at four home campuses and their six affiliated IBCs (two of the universities had multiple IBCs included in the sample).

The study indicated that the identities of the home campuses and IBCs are not revealed, to “protect their anonymity”. All of the institutions were based in either the United Kingdom or Australia, and all of the IBCs were hosted in countries in Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore and China.

The study suggests that “universities must carefully consider and prioritise the academic experience of both their domestic and international students to ensure their satisfaction”.

However, the study conceded that there are sampling biases and limitations in the survey. “The experience of international students at universities in this sample is not representative of the experience of international students at all universities,” the study stated.

Also, the study used the International Student Barometer (ISB) which only tracks satisfaction levels of international students across specific areas of key importance, including the academic, living and support experiences.

However, a study entitled “Deconstructing the Student Experience: A conceptual framework” posits that the factors identified in the literature that appear to influence the student experience can be grouped broadly into four dimensions, each encapsulating a variety of dimensions.

These dimensions include institutional systems for managing students’ learning experience and individual student characteristics along with sector-wide trends that emerge as a result of competition or cross-institutional collaboration, as well as external trends and changes such as government policies, technological innovations and economic pressures.

“The ISB instrument captures only the first dimension comprehensively,” the study indicated.

This study says it opens pathways for several areas of future inquiry.

“For example, what role does cultural distance play in international student satisfaction, and does it help explain the apparent difference in satisfaction? It would be intriguing to compare data from new IBCs with mature ones, as this might shed light on what factors lead to long term success. Finally, the effect of COVID-19 on international student decision-making and experience must be explored,” the study pointed out.

‘Compelling results’

Nigel Healey, professor of international higher education and vice-president for global and community engagement at the University of Limerick in Ireland, told University World News he found the results of this large-scale quantitative study “compelling”.

“The reasons for these findings are likely to stem from a less developed range of academic, pastoral and other support services at the IBCs, compounded by the short-term contracts offered to IBC teaching staff,” Healey said.

“In addition, it is likely that the home campuses have a long track record of recruiting and supporting international students, while the IBCs are entering the market far more recently and may have support services focused on local students.”

‘Not surprising’

Dr Vincenzo Raimo, a higher education consultant and former pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading in the UK, told University Word News it was no surprise that students’ experience of study on different campuses was different.

“I think some universities make the mistake of thinking that the experience can or should even be same on a campus in the UK and a campus, say, in Malaysia. They’re not and can’t be the same,” he said.

“What’s important is not that student experience is the same but that the experience is of comparable quality, suitable to the environment and to the students studying on each particular campus.”

Raimo said that clearly more needs to be done to ensure that students on overseas campuses do receive a comparable experience, but the research report does suggest that there are significant differences across different branch campuses – just like there are some significant differences in student experience between different universities in the UK.

Interesting results

Professor Kevin Kinser, head of the department of education policy studies and senior scientist in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University in the United States, told University World News that ‘satisfaction’ can mean a lot of different things, but he wondered if in this context it implied that attending the branch campus was not the first choice for these students.

“Their lack of satisfaction could reflect the fact that they would have preferred going somewhere else, all things being equal,” Kinser told University World News.

He said perhaps because of money or travel restrictions or family considerations, they had to attend the branch campus. “They also know that they are attending a branch, which may be perceived as lower in status compared to the home campus,” Kinser said.

“Alternatively, the students in the home campuses may be using satisfaction to justify the decision and perhaps sacrifices they made to attend.”

He also said there may be status associated with attending university in the UK or Australia relative to attending in the other countries – and that too may be translated into the ‘satisfaction’ construct.

“If we take the findings at face value though, it can also suggest that simply operating under the same name is not enough. The real differences in facilities and staff are understood by students and can impact the broader view of the education provided in predictable ways,” Kinser said.

Qualitative differences

Professor Jason Lane, dean of the college of education, health and society at US-based Miami University, and co-director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT), which investigates the scope and impact of international branch campuses worldwide, told University World News: “There is no doubt that there is always a qualitative difference between the educational experience on a home campus and branch campus. However, whether it is better or worse is difficult to discern.

“I appreciate the efforts of the researchers to attempt to quantify the difference through a student satisfaction survey and it is not surprising that there are some branch campuses where students may report being less satisfied than on the home campus.”

However, he said this data should not be used to draw broad conclusions about branch campuses. “Some will have students who report greater satisfaction and some less,” Lane added.

He said there are more than 300 such entities operating around the globe and the survey includes only a small number from Australia and the UK.

“While those two countries are two of the largest exporters, they represent only 20% of the total number of IBCs and, combined, they export fewer than the lead exporter the US, which has a very different quality control system in place,” he said.

However, he did think the study raised questions for leaders of those institutions and the responsible quality assurance agencies, although he did not believe that student satisfaction was the best metric for evaluating success.

“If an institution is looking to improve student engagement and academic quality, there are a few key things to focus on, such as hiring high-quality faculty, providing robust student support services and ensuring the curriculum balances the requirements of the home campus with a local orientation that ensures relevancy for the students,” Lane said.

‘Don't generalise results’

Dr Fabrizio Trifirò, an international expert in quality assurance and international education and head of Quality Benchmark Services at Ecctis in the UK, told University World News that it was not possible to make general observations applying to all existing IBCs.

“Based on my experience of quality assuring transnational higher education (TNE) and looking at the TNE student experience, students studying at international branch campuses are generally satisfied with the academic side of their experience, ie, the academic content of their programme of study and how they are taught.

However, he said, there are issues such as the availability of elective modules, being taught more regularly by home campus teachers or opportunities for work experience that students at branch campuses might be less satisfied with.

“The areas where students at branch campuses are generally less satisfied are, however, related to the broader student experience, in particular the broad range of student services and extra-curricular activities that students at the home campus would normally receive,” said Trifirò, who is also chief advisor of the International Association of Education Hubs.

“This reflects the fact that while comparability of academic standards is (or in any case should be) an uncompromisable expectation with regard to transnational education, when it comes to the student experience, comparability is not only difficult, but also not necessary to achieve.”

Trifirò said the important thing is that students are provided with the necessary support to enable them to achieve the expected learning outcomes and academic standards and anything beyond and above that is “a matter of managing student expectations, while striving to continuously improve the student experience”.

Integrating home campuses and IBCs

Dr Vicky Lewis , founder and director of UK-based Vicky Lewis Consulting, which specialises in international strategy development for higher education institutions, told University World News that the most successful IBCs tend to be those where the campus is integrated into the wider ecosystem of the parent institution and treated as a crucial part of that system, rather than a satellite operation kept at arm’s length.

“Conceptualising the IBC in this way means that academic systems and processes, as well as the support systems and communication channels available to students, tend to be better aligned across both (or all) campuses, which can have a positive impact on the consistency of the student experience.”

Lewis, who is the author of an April 2021 report entitled “UK Universities’ Global Engagement Strategies: Time for a rethink”, said it can also strengthen students’ sense of belonging to the “university family”.

She added that the enhanced capacity to leverage virtual learning environments and digital technologies since the global COVID-19 pandemic represents “a great opportunity to address some of the discrepancies between the experiences of branch campus and home campus students”.

For example, this makes it possible to make available across all locations or campuses the same range of electives, and to allow students at branch campuses to be taught by lecturers at the home campus.

“It is also possible to foster engagement between student bodies across campuses, supporting the internationalisation of the student experience of all students, therefore moving towards integrating the academic experience of all students, regardless of where they are studying,” Trifirò pointed out.

He said particular attention needs to be given to employability, making sure that branch campus students receive comparable career advice support and have comparable opportunities to engage with local employers through work experience, for instance.

Healey said that “the universities that have made IBCs work best have done this by integrating home campuses and IBCs, via the regular exchange of teaching faculty and students and by shared virtual learning environments and the joint delivery of online teaching materials”.

“The secret is to make the IBC a delivery node of a multi-campus university, rather than a stand-alone venture.”