Why branch campuses cannot go their own way

American University in Dubai.


International branch campuses (IBCs) are traditionally seen as a means of boosting international outreach and generating revenue for universities. As their name implies, they are supposed to be extensions[i] of their parent institutions.

It has been recently argued that some IBCs could break free and become independent institutions. One example is the American University in Dubai, which is now an independently accredited institution and no longer a branch campus of American InterContinental University.  The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, which has published reports on IBCs in 2002, 2006, 2009 and 2012, classified this institution as an IBC in 2009, but not in 2012. Another example is the United States International University in Kenya, which broke free from United States International University (USIU) when this merged in 2001 with California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) and became Alliant International University.

So can that be a pattern for the future? The answer is probably ‘no’, particularly for IBCs in China, Singapore and Malaysia where the bulk of recent branch campus growth is located.

One reason is that these IBCs are ambitious operations involving substantial investment from parent institutions. Only a massive financial loss could force these to abandon their foreign outposts.

Another reason is that governments in Asia and the Middle East have deliberately invited reputable foreign universities to set up IBCs in order to boost the reputation of their own HE sectors. The Malaysian government for example wants to attract by 2020 around 200,000 students from surrounding countries, such as Indonesia and China. It seems unlikely that these governments would let foreign providers take their global brand names and leave.

Besides, many IBCs are set up through complicated agreements between governments, foreign institutions, local businesses and external partners that contribute all kinds of services, including recruiting, marketing and staffing. The legal and financial repercussions of independence would be too burdensome to contemplate.

Finally, the prospect of independence poses an interesting paradox. Only prestigious and profitable branch campuses can afford to go their own way. But if they are successful, why would parent institutions let them go?

A third way between dependence and independence

So full-scale independence is not a option for most IBCs. But that does not mean that they could not achieve some degree of liberty, for example in terms of curriculum, staffing, fundraising and research.

In fact, some kind of independence seems inevitable. At the Observatory’s 2012 Global Forum, held last April in Kuala Lumpur, several IBC executives reported problems in their collaboration with home institutions. Staffing and curriculum are some of them, as  parent institutions do not always understand the cultural and financial issues involved in the process of running an IBC.

Two innovations could contribute to a state of semi-independence. One is the rise of the ‘multinational university’, brought to the spotlight by a study published last August by Sean Gallagher and Geoffrey Garrett from the University of Sydney Business School. Gallagher and Garrett argue that some universities are taking the branch campus model one step further by establishing ‘multinational universities’. These would

“slice up the value chain around the world through complex systems of supply, production and distribution of higher education and research. This may mean using a developing country to do research, because it is cheaper to build better infrastructure and hire researchers at similar quality to those at home. Or it might mean designing degrees in-country that are tailored to precisely what the market demands, in contrast with the largely one size fits all of the branch campus system. It might also mean developing whole new brands that leverage the home institution but that can develop independently of it.”

So IBCs might be left free to set their own strategies and goals, as they can monitor their local markets more closely than the home institutions. But at the same time they will be part of global networks, as the NYU ‘portal campus’ model suggests.

Another factor is the impact of the e-revolution on IBCs. There is no reason why these should not use teaching materials from other institutions through MOOCs. They could also take part in MOOCs or other forms of synergies that would not necessarily include their parent institutions. The establishment of an association of IBCs for example would allow them to share best practices and effectively lobby governments.

In any case, cooperation seems to be the wave of the future. For a long time the typical IBC was an operation set up and run by a single institution. That model is gradually declining, as more and more IBCs are research operations set up by two or more universities. A recent example is IITB Monash Research Academy in Mumbai. This model not only reduces the reputational and financial risk posed by the establishment of an IBC, but also makes the notion of ‘independence’ almost irrelevant.

Alex Katsomitros

Research Analyst, The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education

[i] This is why the term ‘satellite campuses’ has also been used to describe them.


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