Overseas campuses can be both meaningful and viable

Western universities’ desire to go abroad and multiply, in a variety of models, is not always ill-advised

November 3, 2016
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Mauritius, Hong Kong, Cyprus: name an exotic island and there’s a fair chance it’ll be home to an outpost of at least one Western-university, whether from the UK, the US or Australia.

Of these three, it is perhaps the UK and Australia that have embraced the idea of higher education as an export most enthusiastically, recognising the insatiable demand for their product and brand.

Some have been successful, although they are rarely real money-spinners. Others have been embarrassments, quietly closed with red faces and even redder balance sheets.

The models vary: full campuses that claim to replicate the experience back at HQ, franchise operations, partnerships, validation deals and state-sponsored “education city” developments, where a dozen different universities operate side by side.

In only some of these is research a serious part of the mix, which rather undermines the idea of replicating the experience on the home campus.

But that’s not to suggest that these outposts are always a mistake. Many offer something unique and valuable in their own right: a mix of local faculty and visiting scholars, of students from the area, the wider region, and sometimes from the home campus on a semester or year abroad.

Working with local partners can help to bring tried and tested approaches to pedagogy, quality assurance and academic culture to less developed systems, and in those with the best fit, a presence in a country – particularly for those with a postgraduate focus – can give rise to new opportunities for research (museum studies in the Middle East, for example).

But there is a complex array of considerations when venturing forth and multiplying, and the embarrassments and failed projects of the past 10 to 15 years show that many get it wrong.

So, in our features pages this week, with the help of two experts from Isis Enterprise, a University of Oxford consultancy spin-out, we attempt to provide a roadmap to help institutions steer clear of the pitfalls and find a path that leads not to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but to a meaningful and viable approach to overseas operations.

With Brexit looming, one of the interesting questions for universities in the UK is whether they will shift their gaze to continental Europe when planning their next foray overseas.

There’s evidence that, like banks considering whether to supplement London bases with outposts in Frankfurt, universities are already drawing up contingency plans. But while they remain a possibility, it’s unlikely that there will be a sudden mushrooming of bricks and mortar campuses.

The University of Cambridge, which has long resisted the urge to open anything resembling an overseas campus, has instead talked about setting up a science park in Europe.

This seems a more appropriate and viable option than branch campuses, which are more suited to countries with a significant under-supply of higher education.

What’s also clear, as detailed in our news pages, is that there’s the possibility of a new export industry springing up in light of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

Researchers are already reported to be looking to new pastures, including the Continent, in anticipation of losing access to funding from organisations such as the European Research Council.

That’s an export industry the country could do without.


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