Yes, branch campuses are still worth it

Branch campuses and joint degree programmes give students and staff unique opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have, says Vincenzo Raimo

July 5, 2019
iStock_Elephant reaching for a branch
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It seems apt to be reflecting on the future of international branch campuses and other forms of transnational education (TNE) because recently I was at the University of Reading Malaysia campus, working with staff on plans to refocus our operation there. 

It has been a tough few months for my colleagues in Malaysia, pioneers for the University of Reading who have poured passion and enthusiasm into creating the best possible student experience, sometimes in quite difficult circumstances, facing pressures from both the “home” campus and the local environment in which they operate. 

And last week I was at the NUIST-Reading Academy, a Sino-UK collaborative institute. The academy is a different kind of branch campus, in which we work in collaboration with our Chinese university partner to offer more than 1,000 students Reading degrees in meteorology, mathematics, chemistry, environmental sciences, economics and law. 

After more than 20 years working in international education at the University of Nottingham and now Reading, I remain a committed and passionate advocate for transnational education. Why, you might ask, when others are scratching their heads and wondering if it is really worth it? As UK institutions face an increasingly competitive and uncertain domestic environment, I am asked how we can justify diverting funding to support international operations, particularly in a bricks and mortar development in Malaysia.

First, it is worth establishing the facts. Since creating our subsidiary in Malaysia in 2011 to develop and operate our campus, we have accounted for losses of £27 million up to 2022. That’s almost £3 million a year – less than one per cent of our annual turnover, but still a sizeable sum. 

In common with other British universities, we have spent some time reviewing our operation in Malaysia. This has led to a restructuring exercise, the closure of our pharmacy section and the loss of a number of good colleagues. We have revised our growth plans considerably, reduced our physical footprint and our operating costs. 

But we are also introducing a new law degree – the first and currently the only foreign university in Malaysia to be given permission to do so. 

And we are refocusing the campus on disciplines most in demand by the Malaysian and regional economies, adding professional certifications and work experience placements. 

Our model in China is quite different: investment has mostly been in the form of staff time and expertise, travelling to China to teach, training new colleagues and ensuring that the quality of what we offer in China is equivalent to that in the UK. 

So far our experiences have been very positive, with our academy students outperforming their fully UK-based classmates when they come to the UK for their final year. 

This isn’t to say that operating in China has been easy. Working in partnership means many more meetings and having to make compromises in way you wouldn’t have to when running a campus on your own. 

The case for overseas campuses is often expressed in pragmatic terms: establishing a research base, increasing student numbers, creating a recruitment pipeline to the UK, raising international brand awareness and, among the more optimistic, making money. 

Like in the late 1990s and 2000s, UK universities today are constrained at home with the diminishing value of domestic tuition fees year-on-year. Unlike the last decade, though, when most UK universities saw international student numbers grow, international recruitment today is much more competitive both at home and overseas, and margins on the activity are increasingly strained by higher marketing costs and increasing agent fees. No matter what happens with the funding recommendations from the Augar review, international student recruitment is increasingly seen as the best route to growth.

As a passionate advocate for TNE, I firmly believe that the benefits extend far beyond whatever additional revenue it might bring. In Reading’s case, our portfolio of campuses in South Africa (the oldest UK branch campus), Malaysia and China and our networks of partnerships across the globe, provide our staff and students with opportunities that just wouldn’t otherwise be available.

Over the past five years, for example, we have tripled the proportion of the UK graduating class who have studied or worked abroad as part of their Reading degree. We have created split-site PhD opportunities, allowing students to spend time working in living laboratories overseas, as well as in the UK. And we have secured funding to support research that wouldn’t have been available to a solely UK-based institution. 

Of course, getting TNE right isn’t easy. And we have made mistakes. But learning from those mistakes is crucial to the success of our existing and future international developments. 

My lessons are these: success in TNE can come in many different forms. If money is the only thing a university is looking for, it should consider doing something else. Above all, building universities takes years, and it’s vital to take a long-term view. 

Vincenzo Raimo is pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading.

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