The pandemic could be the making of branch campuses

When students can’t or won’t cross borders, universities can do it instead, says Wing Lam

January 24, 2021
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The transnational education revolution for UK universities began many years ago, but the present global situation could yet prove the making of a movement.

It is clear that higher education will never again look quite as it did in 2019. Even before online learning was forced upon universities and students almost overnight back in March, the idea of hundreds of students dragging themselves to a lecture theatre for a one-off presentation by a droning professor felt old-fashioned. Now that we know there are so many better alternatives, why should students accept that traditional approach in the future?

But the pandemic has also raised other more fundamental questions. Among them is “why do young people want to go away to university in the first place?” This question is particularly relevant for international students. When they no longer need to physically travel to learn from subject experts, why would they choose to fly halfway around the world to hear a lecture – particularly when they could hear the same lecturer – or a better one – from their own home?

Yet the past 10 months have also shown us what we lose out on when all our interactions are online. Virtual meetings and classes may now be mainstream but have highlighted to many more people – including students – the magic of human contact.

So face-to-face teaching and interactions will never be entirely replaced. But blending virtual elements with the traditional university model opens up the possibility of teaching across borders.

This is where transnational education – and, in particular, branch campuses and partnerships – come in. Students attending regional branch campuses could get all the benefits of a physical university that the pandemic has shown us they really appreciate: face-to-face interactions with academics and fellow students, access to libraries and study facilities, and high-quality teaching. At the same time, they could potentially be plugged into a wider variety of institutions or courses of their choosing.

This vision was undoubtedly in the minds of the owners of the EduCity complex in Malaysia – which hosts my own institution, the University of Reading Malaysia, along with nine other institutions from the UK, Singapore and Malaysia – when they proposed last week that Asian students temporarily continue their studies using facilities at EduCity if they are worried about travelling to areas with higher Covid infection rates.

Fresh thinking and flexible approaches to branch campuses are very welcome. The proposal meets a new and immediate demand in the short term and could provide a blueprint for a future university model for international students that does not require a frequent flyer membership to get a world class education.

Academics could routinely deliver lectures from 10 yards and 10,000 miles away simultaneously, ensuring that students can learn from leading experts wherever they are. Meanwhile, in-person demonstrations, class activities, group work, and practical assessments – which we know students value – could continue to be provided on the physical campus, but more locally and conveniently.

This flexibility works both ways. Many students already spend some of their time in other parts of the world to gain an international experience. Under a permanently blended model of learning, they might spend a placement year overseas but still attend courses back home.

The ending of Erasmus+ for UK students may reduce options in Europe, but its successor could revolutionise overseas placements. Like the mathematician after which it is named, the Turing Scheme could step up in tumultuous times, think differently from the rest and end up doing something better.

Of course, branch campuses are only one option, but they could facilitate hybrids of different forms of transnational education. Partnerships between universities could allow branch campuses to serve as conduits for students to travel to one of a number of overseas universities during their studies. This is one way that universities without branch campuses could capitalise on those that do, and it is something the University of Reading Malaysia is open to exploring.

Opening an overseas campus carries risk and is therefore not for every university. It takes a sizeable investment, there are often complications around gaining accreditation and growth is often not as easy to achieve as expected. International students have, at times, been viewed as a source of income by UK universities, but vice-chancellors should know by now the folly of this rather short-sighted and postcolonial view. They know that it is foolish to explore or expand transnational education solely to increase institutional income – certainly in the short term.

The perspective from UK branch campuses overseas is very different. In common with my Reading colleagues everywhere, I work not to bring in cash but for the values of excellent study, engagement with the world, and a belief in building communities. If transnational education is not helping to empower the regions it serves with skills, greater global understanding and connection to research innovation then it has failed.

This time of great disruption and socio-economic stress is exactly the time to really innovate to realise that vision. Far from being the death knell for branch campuses and physical teaching, the pandemic could be the making of them.

Wing Lam is provost and CEO of University of Reading Malaysia.

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