Overseas branches serve it sunny side up

Christopher Bigsby on the pleasures and pitfalls of internationalisation

July 17, 2014

The first overseas student on record, Emo of Friesland, went to the University of Oxford in 1190, doubtless believing it to be the quickest way into the British Cabinet. Eight hundred and twenty-four years later, it’s a rare university that doesn’t lay claim to be “internationalising”, a word with the flexibility of graphene. Sometimes it seems to mean little more than a Vietnamese student working in the union bar. Sometimes it means sending recruiters to gather in students as Nabokov once captured butterflies.

Each university publishes a helpful map for the benefit of overseas students showing their city’s proximity to London in a way that would surprise the Ordnance Survey. Inner-city campuses tend to feature photographs of sylvan landscapes rather than boarded-up shops, the latter being a more recognisable feature of their immediate environment. Summer schools spring up like bindweed, promising to combine academic rigour with visits to West End musicals and Stonehenge.

Meanwhile, the sun never sets on British universities abroad. If you find yourself in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest, you are likely to come upon the ruins of a branch campus of a British university whose students, on the advice of local agents, were allowed to pay in the local currency of bat spit.

University College London has a campus in Qatar, an absolute monarchy in which there is only one off-licence (and a long queue)

As Theresa May continues her efforts to discourage overseas students from coming to this country, universities have taken the logical step. Overseas campuses, joint degrees and franchising proliferate until more international students take UK courses abroad than in this country.

The University of Hertfordshire, to take one example, has a franchise arrangement with Informatics Hong Kong, whose website currently offers advice on “how to booking the video session” (sic). It is a subsidiary of Informatics Holdings Ltd, whose own students qualify for Oxford Brookes University awards. Informatics Education Ltd is an investment holding company registered in Singapore, where it is quoted on the stock market. And already I’m getting lost. Oh what a tangled web we weave. It’s good to know, though, that there is some corner of a foreign field that is for ever if not England then wearing an English decal and being quoted on the Hang Seng Index.

It is preferable for overseas campuses to be in places with a better climate than our own. Aberystwyth University is joining Middlesex University in establishing a campus in Mauritius (temperature range in Aberystwyth 2°C to 19°C; temperature range in Mauritius 21°C to 29°C). London Business School has a campus in Dubai (13°C to 41°C), while University College London has a campus in Qatar (22°C to 41°C), an absolute monarchy in which there is only one off-licence (and a long queue).

When I say that Aberystwyth has established a campus, what I mean is that it is working with, and using the facilities of, the Mauritius-based Boston Campus Limited. Meanwhile, Campus Abroad Mauritius sends students to the UK. And where do they go? Aberystwyth. It also sends them to Kaplan colleges in the UK, private providers, whose degrees are awarded by the University of Wales, among others.

Kaplan is a subsidiary of the Graham Holdings Company, a US conglomerate with a “long-term investment horizon” that “delivers quality products…to today’s students, viewers, customers and advertisers”. Its properties include care homes. Do keep up. There’ll be a test at the end.

As of May, UK universities had established just under 30 branch campuses, including one in Uzbekistan, an authoritarian state. And there lies another problem. The University of Central Lancashire was criticised by the United Nations when it established a campus in the buffer zone in Cyprus, but it was also attacked by Amnesty International UK over its plans for expansion into Sri Lanka, so that rather balanced things out. Uclan attempted to open a campus in Thailand, working with the president of a duty-free storage company (one up on Qatar’s single off-licence), its failure leading to a loss of up to £3.2 million.

Meanwhile, in 2007 the University of Connecticut abandoned plans for a campus in Dubai following criticism of UAE policies on Israel. Last year Syracuse and Brandeis universities pulled out of Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem amid claims that it failed to respond sufficiently vigorously to anti-Israel protests on campus.

In 2012, Yale was denounced by Human Rights Watch for establishing a campus in Singapore where students will not be allowed to protest or form political parties, although you can drop peanut shells in Raffles Hotel (dropping any other litter attracts a fine of as much as S$1,000).

International students, of course, study on full-time degrees in the UK. At the London School of Economics, where 42.3 per cent of students are from overseas, they have to fight them off with a stick. The figure for Glyndwr University is 35.8 per cent. Founded in 2008, it has four campuses, with its biggest site in Wrexham and a technology hub at St Asaph. I know, neither had I. It’s in Denbighshire and has a population of 3,500.

Glyndwr’s partner, the London School of Business and Finance, has had its right to sponsor international students suspended, as has Glyndwr, a number of whose foreign students have been found to have invalid English language test results.

So it is that today’s Emo of Friesland ends up in Mauritius or Glyndwr (6°C to 20°C) – at least he does if he hasn’t faked his test.

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