The dos and don’ts for setting up an international campus

Tobias Kliem offers insight on what to prioritise and what to avoid when setting up a branch campus overseas

Tobias Kliem 's avatar

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Arden University

Arden University
9 September 2021
Advice on the key considerations for setting up a branch campus overseas
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It’s not enough to simply find four walls, put up a shiny new university sign and expect international students to find their way to your pop-up learning centre or campus abroad. Investments of time, capital and, most importantly, care and consideration must be made at each step along the way to develop a successful overseas campus.

Arden University set up its Berlin campus in 2018, and since then it has offered a worthwhile education pathway for myriad international students alongside access to the European market. Here, we consider fundamental dos and don’ts we’ve learned along the way.

Don’t…expect to make immediate profit without a major investment

It is easy to think of a foreign campus as a money-making machine. Depending on the location, a campus abroad promises many lucrative factors: access to large numbers of students, lower local salaries for staff, lower rents, and lots of synergy effects with your institutional headquarters. However, things almost never turn out that way. Students on the foreign campus need attention and might create different challenges from domestic students: language courses, skills support, student support officers with mental health awareness and training, social space and so on. Even experienced local staff could have gained their experience in a different academic culture and will need training and time to adjust.

…underestimate local traditions, rules and culture

British higher education is world leading and widely recognised around the world. However, this does not necessarily mean that your institution will have a red carpet rolled out for it. You will be competing with local institutions who will not only be established but will also have their own strengths. Your local competition will be aware of the conditions, rules and frameworks, and will often be well networked with the local regulators. And even if they have good intentions, the regulators and other authorities might not always understand the way British universities operate.

…treat the campus like just another extension of your university

No matter how firm your university is in its traditions, rules, core values and culture, a foreign campus will develop its own identity. Sooner or later, you will need to adjust your rules and policies to suit this reality, and sooner or later, you will realise that you are in for more than just another teaching location.

Do…choose your location carefully

Before settling on a country and city, consider all the variables. Are students and staff safe? Is that the case for members of the LGBTIQ+ community or those who have opinions critical of the local government? How welcoming is the city and the regulatory environment for foreign universities? How welcoming is the city for foreign students and staff who might not speak the local language? Is there a realistic chance that your students will find part-time jobs and that your alumni can get employment there? Can you recruit local staff? You will probably need to compromise on one or more of these issues, so think carefully about whether you are willing to make those compromises and whether you have good reasons for doing so.

…embrace the different cultures

An international campus attracts a large variety of staff and students. Speaking from my own experience in Berlin, we are not only dealing with British and German cultures, we have students from 51 countries and staff from 15. While this can be confusing and challenging, it also makes the classrooms (and the social events) wonderful and exciting exchanges of ideas. Make sure that the staff you hire enjoy working in this climate and that they can use this diversity to create a fun atmosphere where everyone learns from each other.

…ensure that the teams work across the borders

As with every remote location, there is a danger of developing a “we against them” culture and of a “they don’t even know we exist out here” mentality. Blaming the faceless bureaucrats on the home campus is always an easy apology for delays and difficulties. Make sure that staff from the campus abroad are involved in central committees, initiatives and projects, and that they feel welcome to participate. One-and-a-half years of remote working and online conferences have shown that this is possible. And make sure staff at these campuses have similar chances to be promoted as staff at home.

As well as removing a traditional barrier between individuals and first-rate education, transnational education is no longer seen as little more than a vanity project for vice-chancellors. A learning centre or campus abroad is now a tangible, worthwhile exercise that provides welcome additional funding. It can also, if done right, offer universities and their students a dynamic cross-pollination of cultures and ideas and new ways of learning and educating.

Tobias Kliem is head of the Berlin campus at Arden University.

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