Branch campuses offer a chance to spice up the HE landscape

The increasing interconnectedness of the world has prompted higher education institutions to think outside the box and explore innovative strategies for global engagement. One such approach is the establishment of international branch campuses (IBCs), which allows universities to extend their reach beyond their home countries.

In March 2023, a high-profile delegation from Syracuse University in the United States, led by President Kent Syverud, visited South Korea and drew attention to the viability of IBCs in the region.

Numerous photographs of signing ceremonies and bilateral talks with South Korean higher education leaders were released. In an interview with local media, President Syverud emphasised strategic initiatives to strengthen ties with Korea, and the idea of establishing an overseas campus in Seoul seemed to be one of the important pieces of his grand plan.

The interview inevitably raised the question: is the idea of an overseas campus still viable in South Korea given the current state of its higher education system?

Demographic changes

South Korea’s higher education system faces a daunting challenge due to demographic changes. Many institutions are on the brink of crisis as the total number of college admissions slots awarded by the Ministry of Education has already exceeded the potential college-going population.

The number of prospective college students is predicted to nosedive from 450,000 in 2020 to 280,000 in 2040. In response, the South Korean government launched restructuring programmes in the early 2010s, but actual changes have lagged behind. Importing foreign programmes to South Korea has had a bumpy ride with mixed outcomes, as demonstrated by the withdrawal of two pioneering European institutions.

Despite these setbacks, Korea currently hosts three US branch campuses and one Belgian branch campus, which have experienced steady enrolment growth, enhanced community engagement and increased impact.

For example, George Mason University’s campus in South Korea is reported to have welcomed the largest number of new students in spring 2023 and was named one of three branch campuses in the Asia-Pacific region that is successfully promoting the quality of their home universities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed foreign branch campuses in South Korea into the limelight, making them an increasingly attractive option.

With international travel restricted for students for at least three years, these campuses have emerged as the silver lining for students seeking a diverse educational experience. As a result, fuelled by record-high numbers of new enrolments in 2023, the aggregate enrolment at IBCs in South Korea has surged to over 4,000 in the last decade.

The pandemic has also brought a re-evaluation of the quality, diversity and accessibility of conventional higher education in South Korea. As cross-border travel resumes in the post-pandemic era, even those who previously did not consider globalised experiences are now exploring alternatives to traditional higher education, including attending foreign higher learning programmes in South Korea.

The recent initiative by some foreign universities to recruit students using the Korean College Scholastic Ability Test, the national examination for college admissions, accelerates this trend; it is known that there are already about 30 Anglophone institutions engaged in such activities.

An exemplary case

South Korea shares certain socio-economic and cultural factors with Japan, including an economic downturn and a Confucius-based legacy which has influenced its hierarchical structure of the higher education system. So it is worth looking at what has happened there with IBCs.

Temple University Japan Campus (TUJ) serves as an exemplary case. As one of the few IBCs in the country, it has developed into an international centre for higher education, enrolling over a thousand international degree-seekers in addition to Japanese students.

Notably, 40% of its international enrolment comes from the US, representing a reverse flow of students, as Japan was once a significant source of international students for the US higher education market. In total, over 4,000 students are enrolled and 240 faculty and 130 staff are employed at TUJ.

With a 40-year history, TUJ stands as arguably the most enduring form of transnational higher education in the country today.

Many US institutions have attempted to set up campuses in Japan since the 1980s, with Hiroshima University’s import of Arizona State University’s management programme, accredited in 2022, being the most recent foreign campus in the country. It’s a development that signals that ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’.

What lies ahead?

Japan, of course, also faces demographic changes. Both Japan and South Korea have exceptionally low fertility rates, leading to rapidly ageing societies with significant nationwide impact, including on the higher education sector. Moreover, IBCs face intense competition from well-established local universities and other foreign and alternative service providers, such as MOOCs (massive open online courses).

Given that enrolment is a critical success factor for IBCs, which are heavily tuition-fee-dependent by nature, the shrinking population and associated economic concerns are major sources of concern.

How can South Korea and Japan ensure the viability of IBCs? TUJ’s experience perhaps holds some answers. It has successfully diversified its enrolment pipelines through its ability to sponsor visas for its international students as a result of the Japanese Education Authority’s recognition in 2005. This has helped it reach out to an international population.

In other words, although located in Tokyo, it is not heavily dependent on the local market. Plus, the influx of international students to Japan has significant social, economic and cultural implications which are highly valued by the country.

The 40-year history of TUJ marks a significant milestone and it has managed to build its reputation to the point that in 2021 an influential Japanese politician visited the campus and acknowledged its importance for the country.

By contrast, similar modes of transnational higher education in South Korea struggle with low international enrolment, averaging around 10%, despite the advantages of accreditation from the Ministry of Education from the beginning, start-up funds, annual subsidies, tax exemption and full facility support from local and central government – luxuries that similar joint ventures in Japan have been unable to enjoy.

Local and global legitimacy

The benefits of IBCs are many. In addition to the observable inbound effects in the host country, the presence of IBCs can encourage domestic institutions to think more positively about expanding to overseas markets.

For example, the University of Tsukuba in Japan is making progress in establishing its campus in Malaysia, while Inha University in Korea opened a campus in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, a few years earlier.

Moreover, in 2022 the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology announced plans to establish a base in the US in partnership with New York University, which is also an exporter of IBCs to Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. It is also planning to start an enterprise in the Middle East.

IBCs in South Korea may want to take a leaf out of TUJ’s book on how to increase and diversify enrolment effectively. When it comes to its student portfolio, TUJ educates over 2,100 non-degree enrolees on top of about the same number of degree-seeking students. However, given that they are not allowed to offer such add-on programmes legally, this is pie in the sky for IBCs in South Korea.

Ultimately, however, these campuses have the potential to spice up the higher education landscape in South Korea, as TUJ does in Japan. Therefore, a key way forward is for an IBC to maintain its relevance not only for a local but also for a global market and to prove itself as a valuable investment.

The context since the branches were introduced has changed enormously globally. As the higher education landscape evolves, IBCs must think on their feet, adapt to new conditions and move quickly.

Kyuseok Kim (Mick) is a PhD student in the department of education at Korea University, South Korea, 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 South Korea. In 2012, he was selected as a Fulbright scholar for the International Educational Administrators Program. (LinkedIn:; Blog: