Branching out

Via study-away sites, local partnerships, portals and fully fledged overseas campuses, ambitious universities in the West are increasingly keen to take root elsewhere. John Morgan asks how the overseas market will develop

February 3, 2011

As the UK shivered through its coldest December since records began in 1910, how many of its academics would have swapped a chilly suburb of northwest London for the sun-kissed beaches of Mauritius?


Even admirers of Middlesex University's main campus in Hendon might have been drawn by the attractions of its overseas campus, opened in 2010 in a bid to pull in students from Africa and the Indian Ocean region.

Middlesex also operates a branch in Dubai, and plans for a campus in Noida, a suburb of New Delhi, are well under way.

For universities around the world, last year threw up some contradictory trends in the growth of overseas campuses. Michigan State University pulled out of its Dubai campus as the emirate's economy took a nosedive - highlighting the fragility of some existing ventures - as other US institutions cancelled or delayed their involvement in the South Korean higher education hub at Incheon.

In contrast, the University of Nottingham confirmed that it was in advanced talks to open a campus in Shanghai, following successful ventures in Malaysia and the Chinese city of Ningbo.

And the Indian press suggested that about 50 foreign universities were lined up to open campuses there, as the Foreign Education Providers Bill began its passage through Parliament - angering some elected politicians, particularly on the Left, who warn of exploitation by overseas institutions.

So how is the market for international branch campuses likely to develop? And what are the implications for parent universities and the growing numbers of staff on overseas postings?

Many believe that the growth in satellite campuses is about to accelerate.

David Greenaway, the University of Nottingham's vice-chancellor, sees its overseas branches becoming an increasingly reliable source of research funds and, potentially, a draw for UK students as tuition fees rise at home.

Christopher Ziguras, associate professor of international studies at RMIT Australia (formerly the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) and co-author of Transnational Education: Issues and Trends in Offshore Higher Education (2007), believes economic and demographic trends are key to understanding the universities' motivation to look abroad.

"Most countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development have highly developed higher education systems, declining or static university-age populations and constrained funding for the foreseeable future," Ziguras says.

"On the other hand, many developing countries have much less well-developed higher education sectors, growing university-age populations and high levels of public and private investment in education. These fundamentals have driven the development of international branch campuses in the past, and I expect they will continue over the next decade."

But new institutions will not necessarily follow established patterns. The traditional branch model has been "North-South", chiefly US and UK universities setting up in Asia and the Gulf states. But Indian and Malaysian universities are also showing interest in establishing their own overseas campuses, which could lead to "South-South" and "South-North" offshoots in countries as diverse as Kazakhstan (where University College London has a partnership agreement with the New University of Astana) and Colombia.

This vision of the future has profound implications for universities and their staff. The UK's University and College Union has already heard of problems from employees working at branch campuses, and it is now drawing up guidance to help its UK officers deal with difficulties. With campuses springing up in places such as the United Arab Emirates and China, there are concerns about academic freedom, the treatment of female and homosexual staff, and working conditions for academic staff employed by private partners.

There is also the question of the right of foreign staff working at Western university campuses to trade union representation.

Just how many overseas branch campuses are there, and why are universities setting them up?

The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education has published reports on trends in overseas campuses since 2002. The most recent report found that there were 162 international branch campuses in September 2009, a 43 per cent increase in three years. Of these, 78 were American, 14 Australian, 13 British, 11 French and 11 Indian (see box, page 38). There were also 14 closures of international branches in recent years.

Veronica Lasanowski, senior research and marketing officer at the organisation, says that universities opening branch campuses are primarily interested in attracting local students who, for financial and other reasons, are unable to enrol at the home campus; earning extra tuition fee revenue; gaining prestige as a university with global ambitions; and building links with universities and businesses in other countries.

Global reputation is now a bigger motivating factor than fee income, she says.

"Clearly, revenue remains a significant driver. But as governments of countries such as Qatar, Singapore and Malaysia increasingly initiate invitations to import overseas campus provision or partnerships, it may now be the case that universities (and governments) are looking to cement longer-term partnerships driven more by research - and longer-term benefits - than immediate revenue-making."

Lasanowski predicts that full campuses, such as New York University's offshoot in Abu Dhabi, NYUAD (see box below), will be the exception. The norm will be more similar to Qatar's Education City - "a so-called boutique model where governments partner with universities running well-known programmes".

She adds: "Where universities do look to establish full-scale versions of themselves overseas, expect them to be well-known internationally and research-driven."

As tuition fees rise in some Western countries, Lasanowski believes that increasing numbers of American, British and Australian students will consider attending an overseas branch of one of their local universities. She points to Yale University's plans to establish a liberal arts college in collaboration with the National University of Singapore, supported by funding from the Singapore government. This move could "potentially give (Western) students the opportunity to study at a very well-known institution for a lower cost".

The 2010-11 undergraduate fees for non-local students at the University of Nottingham's Ningbo and Malaysia campuses are roughly equivalent to £7,800 and £8,300, respectively. And while the expense of travel and moving must be taken into account, the costs of living and local accommodation are likely to be much lower than they are in the UK. Also, students who have gained international experience might find they get an edge in the employment market.

Nottingham's overseas campuses are one of the West's biggest success stories.

A university from a medium-sized city in the Midlands is now on the verge of having three international offshoots - potentially including a branch in Shanghai, at the cutting edge of the world's most dynamic economy. The campus would have between 5,000 and 6,000 students, and a strong focus on science and technology.

Nottingham's enthusiasm for creating an overseas presence can be attributed to a number of factors.

Among these are the opportunities it provides for UK students, who can now study at the Chinese or Malaysian campuses via summer schools, and who may soon be allowed by the university to spend a term overseas.

Greenaway also notes that overseas campuses are "an interesting and reliable source of graduate students", as well as offering "unique leadership opportunities and far more new research opportunities" for UK staff.

Through the campuses, Nottingham can access research funding from the Chinese and Malaysian governments. It has already won Malaysian government finance through a UN-backed non-governmental organisation, Crops for the Future. For Nottingham to get its bioscientists involved in studying new crops "in situ, in the tropics" is "a fabulous opportunity", Greenaway says.

Chang'an Automobile, one of China's biggest car makers, set up its European research and development headquarters in Nottingham after working with the university in China.

"That is generating about 250 jobs here in Nottingham," says Greenaway.

Some universities are clear that branch campuses represent a chance to generate extra revenue. However, Greenaway says: "That has never been Nottingham's agenda. We have never gone in to bring money out." Surpluses, he notes, are reinvested in the branch campuses.

Greenaway predicts that increased interest in overseas offshoots might initially be on a niche basis.

"A lot of what we have seen is institutions committing in a specific area," he says. "For instance, Newcastle University has gone to Malaysia, but just to do medicine. I think we will see more of that. And maybe once institutions are involved in a particular discipline, they will look to develop that into a full campus. I do see interest in it growing."

While Nottingham, a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities, pursues one vision of the overseas branch model, former polytechnic Middlesex has another.

According to Terry Butland, Middlesex deputy vice-chancellor and director (international): "There is a whole mass of students overseas who wish to have a British higher education but can't come to the UK for various reasons - cost, family circumstances, or wanting to study in a different environment (from the UK). At our Dubai campus, we get a lot of local students who want to have a British education but want to study in a Muslim country. We are a widening participation university. We see our mission as applying to the world, not just the UK, and we see British higher education as a very significant export."

Many universities' initial overseas presence is via partnerships with foreign providers, offering their degrees overseas without the cost and risk of setting up a campus. However, Butland observes, a full campus offers greater "brand visibility" for a university and more potential to attract students back to the main campus.

Dubai and Mauritius, he says, "put in place a stream of students to London, which is beneficial financially the experience in London". He refers, for example, to an Indian student who has studied at the Mauritius and Dubai campuses and now plans to spend his final year in London.

In his view, a potential factor in the growth in popularity of overseas campuses with UK students is the government's cap on student numbers.

"There will be students who just can't get a place in the UK," says Butland. "They can go overseas, pay the local fee and the cap doesn't apply. Of course, they won't have access to the UK government student loan system. They will have to finance themselves.

"But our fees for studying in Mauritius are £4,000 a year. Living in Mauritius is significantly cheaper than living in London, and travel to Mauritius is not extortionate if you get the right flight."

Butland's perspective on revenue from satellite campuses is different from Greenaway's.

Middlesex expects to see a financial surplus from these ventures, Butland says. "The money would be available to be used in any place."

But he adds: "We are setting these things up for the long term because we want to contribute to education in that country. We're not there to exploit, but to be viable."

Mauritius was chosen because of its proximity to Africa, a continent often left out of higher education internationalisation.

"This is a country just off the coast of Africa, but it has a very stable legal structure and is very stable generally. Operating in parts of Africa is more difficult."

The campus has also attracted European students, despite what Butland describes as "zero marketing" on the Continent.

As to where the next markets lie, much attention has focused on India. Currently, foreign universities are allowed to run campuses in partnership with Indian institutions. But a law now making its way through Parliament will allow non-Indian institutions to establish their own campuses.

Still, William Lawton, former policy adviser at the UK HE International Unit, does not foresee a rush to establish branch campuses in India. He was part of a UK delegation to India in November 2010 that included universities and science minister David Willetts, who met with Kapil Sibal, India's human resource development minister.

Lawton says: "Branch campuses were not mentioned at all. There was talk of linking up partnerships with the new Indian innovation universities - that was the crux of the discussion."

India represents an appealing market, given its rapidly expanding middle class and Sibal's stated desire to increase the number of graduates. But Lawton says that "every time I have heard him speak", Sibal has emphasised India's desire for partnerships with foreign universities and has not encouraged Western universities to open fully fledged campuses.

And if Western universities really wish to expand into India, they can already do so - as Middlesex's Noida plans demonstrate.

"The current law doesn't prevent overseas universities working with partners in India," Butland says. The catch, however, is that Indian students must complete their degrees at the foreign institution's home campus.

Middlesex, he says, has much to offer India. "We are very experienced at dealing with students who come from poorer backgrounds, who haven't any experience of higher education. There are thousands of students who are qualified to go into higher education in India but who can't find a place because there isn't enough provision and they can't afford to come to the UK for the whole three-year period.

"And when I say thousands, I mean close to half a million."

In general, Lawton feels, branch campuses remain a "minority pursuit". He agrees that more universities will look at "providing their education elsewhere. But you can do it without building a campus. There are lower-risk, more attractive ways of doing it."

Overseas partnerships - where a university offers its degree abroad and the foreign university provides teaching infrastructure - are also lower-cost options.

But it is also possible that non-Western universities will be at the forefront of the trend.

"It is likely to be the case that as economies shift and countries look to solidify new, longer-term, socio-political partnerships, the institutions and countries exporting or importing provision will change alongside them," Lasanowski says. "While North-to-South patterns are likely to remain, South-to-South and South-to-North are becoming more common."

Malaysia's Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, for example, has a campus in London, and Indian universities are active in Dubai.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see, within a decade - pending acceptance of frameworks in place to guarantee quality provision and a welcoming regulatory framework - universities considering the establishment of campuses in countries such as Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Colombia and, perhaps, Russia," she says.

Branch campuses in Latin America tend to be provided by universities in other Latin American countries, Lasanowski notes. In Africa, "foreign-based campuses and/or campuses from Chinese, South Korean and Indian universities might become an emerging trend in the next decade."

While many senior manager welcome such prospects, some academics are more sceptical.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released a statement in 2009, in conjunction with the Canadian Association of University Teachers, on the conditions of employment at branch campuses.

The statement notes that "international initiatives are proving attractive both to private investors and to colleges and universities...As a result, globalisation has become one of the principal means of privatising and commercialising higher education."

Private firms are involved in many UK universities' branch campuses. Nottingham's Malaysia campus, for example, was built by Boustead Holdings.

"They put the capital in, and we put the intellectual property in, so to speak," says Greenaway. He believes the firm opted to be involved for reasons of corporate social responsibility and prestige.

Middlesex's partner in the Mauritius campus and the proposed India campus is JSS Mahavidyapeetha, a private educational firm.

The AAUP statement warns that seeing higher education as a globally traded commodity, as the World Trade Organisation does, "risks weakening governments' commitment to and investment in public higher education".

It adds that "as the US and Canadian presence in higher education grows in countries marked by authoritarian rule, basic principles of academic freedom, collegial governance, and nondiscrimination are less likely to be observed".

For Greenaway, working to the requirements of bodies such as the Chinese government is not a problem.

"You are in a different cultural context," he says. "You have got to respect that context."

But the UCU says its members have encountered problems working abroad.

Stefano Fella, a national industrial relations official for the union, says there are concerns "around equality principles being upheld, academic freedom being upheld (and) respect for professional autonomy".

On academic freedom, he says, "there would be a particular concern about institutions trying to influence the teaching or research of certain subjects that might run counter to the political or cultural sensibilities of the host country", including criticisms of the political regime.

"We would expect staff to be able to carry out teaching and research activities in the same way, and with the same autonomy, as if they were in the UK."

Some university staff may be unwilling to work in the United Arab Emirates, where homosexuality is illegal.

Complaints have mostly come from UCU members working in China and the Gulf states, but Fella observes that these countries are also "where the (greatest) numbers are". There have been "requests for information" from staff at the University College London programme in Kazakhstan, a nation with a poor record on human rights, he said.

Other problems may arise for those working in countries such as the UAE, where trade unions are banned, or China, where trade unions are "entangled with the particular regime", and in places where conditions are poor for local staff employed by private partners in the campus.

"I think generally the conditions (of local staff) are inferior to the conditions of staff posted there from the UK. That seems to be a concern," Fella says.

He adds: "A very important principle is that overseas work should always be voluntary, so that (UK) staff who have concerns about these issues would be able to refuse to go."

Ben Wildavsky, in his discussion of branch campuses in his 2010 book The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, argues that academic freedom is a key issue in this corner of the sector.

The University of Warwick, for example, withdrew from a proposed Singapore campus in 2005 amid concerns over "maintaining academic freedom in a nation that limits freedom of speech, assembly and the press".

Wildavsky also questions whether academics with Israeli passports would be able to reach NYU's Abu Dhabi campus, as they are officially denied entry to the UAE (back-door channels rather than direct confrontation with the government seem to be the answer). He also asks whether NYU's statements on the non-negotiability of academic freedom at NYUAD represent reality or "evasion".

NYU president John Sexton, who occasionally teaches theology at NYUAD, calls academic freedom at the campus a "windshield issue" - meaning that you must deal with it if you want to move forward.

"There are core values that have made UK and US universities great," he says. "I could not allow myself to place NYU in a situation where it had to lose the core values of my classroom."

But he is willing to make other concessions on behaviour outside the classroom.

"We shouldn't behave there the same way you behave in Greenwich Village or Piccadilly in London...It's about being sensitive to your cultural environment. That does not mean compromising your core values."

Sexton adds: "I am not going to say we will never have a problem with academic freedom (in Abu Dhabi). We have problems with academic freedom in Greenwich Village and Washington Square, too."

But perhaps grappling with the issue of academic freedom could bring branch campuses - or in Sexton's grander vision, "portals" - to maturity.

There is a common perception that many universities have been too focused on commercial interests in their overseas branches. They have not necessarily sent their best academics to their offshoots, and occasional involvement with private companies has raised concerns about their motivations.

However, if these campuses begin to challenge the academic and cultural norms of their host societies, they may spark a debate about what the internationalisation of higher education can achieve in academic - rather than merely commercial - terms.

If a university with a campus in China were to start teaching courses offering critical analysis of the nation's history, or the role of the Chinese Communist Party, for example, that might put higher education at the forefront of cultural and political change.

At the moment, however, such a prospect seems unthinkable, given that most branch campuses remain primarily commercial enterprises focused on a limited range of courses.

But if overseas campuses continue to spread as expected, and fully fledged replicas of home universities emerge, the free exchange of ideas could become harder to contain.

Straight out of Greenwich: New York leaves the village to build global ideas capital in Abu Dhabi

New York University's international plans are probably the most ambitious of any university in the world.

The institution has "study-abroad sites" across six continents - among them Accra, Buenos Aires, London and Prague - that offer its students a semester's study overseas, taking established NYU courses taught by its own academics.

Sixty per cent of the institution's students spend a semester abroad.

And in September 2010, the university opened a facility in Abu Dhabi. It offers full four-year liberal arts and science courses taught by NYU faculty, with academics also carrying out research. Its initial cohort includes students from 40 countries.

John Sexton, the president of NYU, sees the new campus as the first of three or four international "portals", with the next likely to be in Europe and Asia.

"We will probably be in China over the next five years," he says.

Sexton argues that what NYU is doing is unique.

"This is a circulatory system, not a branch campus system. These are not outposts. We have Nobel laureates, Pulitzer prizewinners, and some of the most excellent members of our faculty in NYU Abu Dhabi. This is not the French Foreign Legion."

Asked about NYU's international aims, Sexton points to the broader societal context. The key question for the world today, he believes, is whether we end up with a "community of communities or a clash of civilisations".

Sexton sees NYU's network of campuses and study-abroad sites as breeding grounds for the future leaders of society, the "new cosmopolitans", where their international aspirations can be met and they can be taken "outside their comfort zone".

NYU established a portal in Abu Dhabi because, Sexton says, the university "needed to be in the Arab or Muslim world". It was first envisaged as a study-abroad site, but following what he characterises as "remarkable" support from the UAE, NYU scaled up its plans to a full-scale campus.

The UAE government made a $50 million (£31.5 million) "unrestricted gift" to NYU, which Sexton has previously described as a "gesture" rather than part of the agreement.

Veronica Lasanowski, senior research officer at the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, thinks the money "is most likely to go towards announced expansion plans for NYU's New York City campus".

Sexton sees benefits for Abu Dhabi in hosting "one of the great universities in the world", becoming one of the "eight to 12 global ideas capitals of the world", and ensuring that NYUAD students will have strong links to Abu Dhabi as they rise to positions of influence in their own societies.

But is the campus just a Western university parachuted into another country, or a broader engagement with other cultures?

"In every one of our study-abroad sites or portals, there is a personality that comes from the local environment and culture," Sexton says. "We are very much in Abu Dhabi because we want to engage with the Arab and Muslim worlds."

Sexton is impressed with the quality of the students at NYUAD, describing them as "kids who turned down Princeton and Oxford to come", and who are "such cosmopolitans that they had the courage to walk away from some of the leading universities in the world to go to Abu Dhabi in their freshman year".

He argues that NYUAD "enriches New York", recalling with enthusiasm the experience of having dinner with 30 students from the emirate on a study trip to the US.

The project, Sexton says, gives rise to "ecumenicalism - not in the religious sense, but rather in the notion of developing the capacity to look at the world not through a single window but through the many faces of a diamond".

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