The fad for extensions is cooling

The move away from overseas branches attests to the fact that such operations are hard to get right and offer no quick returns

May 28, 2015
Simon Baker, news editor, Times Higher Education
Source: Eleanor Bentall

Over the past decade, many universities have assumed that to be taken seriously on internationalisation, they had to have a presence overseas in the form of a branch or a joint campus. Fired by that notion, many institutions blazed trails across the globe, with the most popular destinations for UK universities being China, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, according to a list produced by the State University of New York Albany.

But this push has been bogged down in trickier terrain of late. Some have hit snags in setting up branches: think of the University of Central Lancashire’s difficulties in Thailand, Sri Lanka and, most memorably, Cyprus (where its campus is built in a UN-policed buffer zone).

Others already established overseas have had to address ethical concerns raised about their operations: anger about the exploitation of migrant labour in Gulf states is just one issue that has put branch campuses in the line of fire.

Most recently, we have started to see institutions abandoning the branch campus model altogether, most notably University College London, which is closing its branch campus in Adelaide and recalibrating its international strategy with the focus on partnerships.

This trend appears to be confirmed by a report we feature this week from the European Association for International Education, which suggests that more than half of internationalisation staff have seen no change in branch campus activity in the past three years. That is echoed by feedback from experts outside universities: there is now “limited attention” being paid “to the expansion of branch campuses”.

At the same time, according to the EAIE study, just about every other aspect of internationalisation is surging ahead in Europe, especially strategic partnerships and the inward/outward flow of students and staff. Indeed, figures from a British Council report released ahead of next week’s Going Global conference in London suggest that even in the UK – where getting students to go abroad has been the weakest area of the country’s internationalisation effort – the outward flow of students is growing at a healthy rate.

As with so many aspects of globalisation, to understand these trends it can help to follow the money. In terms of income, it is certainly true that branch campuses can fall short of a university’s expectations compared with the cash that rolls in when it recruits international students to its UK base. But perhaps the most striking finding from the EAIE study is that those institutions considered to have the best international strategy are those that do not simply have pound signs in their eyes. Meanwhile, universities “perceived as lagging behind in internationalisation are commonly indicated to have a stronger focus on [seeking] the financial benefits”.

It is probably this difficulty of balancing the financial and the academic and cultural returns that makes the utility of branch campuses clear, and also explains why they are now falling out of favour. Well planned and executed, they can enhance a university’s reputation, expand its global reach and increase the cross-border traffic of staff and students. But get it wrong, and the effect can kill a university’s internationalisation strategy stone dead – a risk that for many is clearly no longer worth taking.

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