The future is bright for branch campuses, but not as we know them

As transnational education matures, so too must the branch campus model if it is to remain relevant to the local community it serves, argues Christopher Hill 

June 12, 2018
Tree chopped down

International branch campuses enjoy more than their fair share of the TNE limelight. They represent a fraction of the overall activity in this area but often appear to be the most relevant and valuable. They are certainly the most expensive and perhaps the most interesting.  But are they here to stay and, if so, what does the future look like?

 

Evolution

The curious reality of TNE is that it is often understood to be a single thing that can magically solve educational woes. “What do we want? TNE. When do we want it? NOW.”  The branch campus is no different and frequently seen as a badge to display. As the TNE landscape continues to evolve and mature, the role, and very identity, of branch campuses must respond and adapt accordingly. The development of a branch campus is a costly and risk-intensive endeavour. Long-term goals should outweigh short-term gains, if for no other reason than that it can easily take a decade to break even and turn a profit.

New models of the traditional branch campus are appearing, such as the edu-hub or edu-city. This approach serves to reduce costs and provide a sense of connection to the local community. Facilities are often undercut or shared; risk is lowered and provision is often specific to local demands. Alternative models are also emerging, which bridge the gap between the traditional branch campus, fully operated by a foreign provider, and the partnership delivery model of franchising programmes. One example of this model is Westminster International University in Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Founded in 2002 as a partnership between the Presidential Foundation, the Ministry of Higher and Secondary Specialised Education and the University of Westminster, it is the country's first international university.  WIUT is in essence both a local university and a TNE provider and one of the longest running such international academic alliance branch campuses in the TNE world. 

Meanwhile the British University in Dubai, where I am a professor of education, is a private Emirati university with four UK alliance partners – the University of Manchester, University of Glasgow, University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University.  BUiD is not a TNE provider or a branch campus in any traditional sense of the word but the model of collaboration and exchange marks the potential for TNE evolution.

These new models provide new opportunities but are they simply more efficient and less costly ways of achieving the original goal? The questions that should always be asked are: why are we doing this? Who does it benefit?  And in what ways can we contribute to and learn from our host environment?

Perception and Measurement

Branch campuses are often in a host nation by invitation but they are there as guests nonetheless. TNE has the potential to develop a national system and also to damage it if managed incorrectly. A recent article by Wagdy Sawahel clearly outlines the associated risks of branch campus development that are rooted in understanding and acceptance.

The perception of a branch campus largely rests on the identity and reputation of the home campus. This is a natural connection and one understandably exploited by branch campuses, but it does not represent reality, of course.  The name is the same and the degree equivalent but the experience is different. How then should branch campuses be judged or ranked? When folded into the home campus, they are perceived to be much more than they are; when ranked individually, they cannot hope to compete.

For example, in Malaysia, home to a considerable number of well-established branch campuses, foreign providers were perceived to be of greater quality than national institutions. The response was to develop a national ranking system that sought to redress this balance and view branch campuses as separate entities reviewed in their own right. Unsurprisingly, in the initial ranking process, the branch campuses fell behind the national providers but in the most recent 2017 SETARA rankings, Monash University Malaysia ranked in the top six star tier, joining seven Malaysian institutions. The motivation behind this ranking approach was much criticised, as it was rightly seen as a means to create a sense of national value in the absence of international rankings and in response to the foreign influx. The need, however, to have a system in place that adequately and accurately ranks branch campus activity is vital and should be welcomed as an opportunity to firmly demonstrate value and connection to place.

Integration

Employability is key to integration and relevance to the local environment and increasingly demonstrates how and why governments seek to incorporate transnational education. The varying approaches undertaken by Malaysia and the UAE, two key TNE host nations, demonstrates the true value of location, location, location. Transnational education begets transnational education but market saturation is a factor to consider if the value and impact of the TNE degree and experience are not evident. While it has historically been challenging for international students to work while studying and after graduation in Malaysia, the UAE is looking to firmly connect education and employment. Integration is a two-way street and both the host and sender should look to develop the relationship for mutual benefit.

We still understand relatively little about the impact and legacy of TNE, or the role that it can play in the employability agenda. The branch campus, in its traditional standalone sense, is evolving so much so that the term can now be used to include any foreign presence for delivery purposes. If treated purely as a means to recruit students who would not otherwise make it to the home campus, this is a flawed model because there are cheaper alternatives to pursue.  But when used as a vehicle for integration, internationalisation and collaboration, the branch campus model has every opportunity to continue to thrive and contribute.

Christopher Hill is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at the British University in Dubai. 

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