Cut the branches, try a safer route

'Transnational' education isn't dying, but it is changing. Jon Marcus reports on Western institutions' moves to mitigate the risks of foreign outposts, thanks to a little help from their hosts

November 17, 2011

There's a little slice of Africa at Suffolk University this autumn. More than 100 students have been brought to the university in downtown Boston from its branch campus in Senegal, which Suffolk shut down this year after losing substantial sums on the 12-year-old project.

"It was heartbreaking to close," says Pierre Du Jardin, associate professor of management and entrepreneurship at Suffolk, who has overseen both the campus and the university's efforts to make good on its commitment to the students there. "But under the present economic conditions, that is not something the university could continue to subsidise. We couldn't afford it any more."

Opened with great fanfare in the 1990s and 2000s, international branch campuses such as Suffolk's - which Du Jardin says lost about $1 million (£622,000) a year because of lower-than-projected enrolment - have been quietly closing for financial and other reasons.

This doesn't mean the end of so-called "transnational education": universities are increasingly taking the more affordable step of teaming up with host partners. And a report by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, due to be published next week, will show that the UK has become the international leader in such efforts. More international students are now working towards UK degrees overseas than at home, the OBHE says.

But much of the momentum behind opening entirely new campuses in other countries seems to have been lost. For example, US universities opened a peak of 11 international branch campuses in 2008. Last year they launched just three, and this year, one. And at least 13 US, Irish and Australian international branch campuses have closed, according to the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany. The OBHE report will also show that international branch campus activity has slowed.

"We had a gold-rush mentality. All sorts of universities thought this would be a new way to increase international market share and gain new revenue," says Jason Lane, the SUNY research team's co-director.

"Part of what has happened with the closures is simply the normal shake-out you see with the creation of a new market. The 2008 business decline also hampered many of these campuses. Some didn't meet their enrolment numbers. Generally the ones that have worked best are the ones that started small and grew."

Graduate programmes, which require fewer academic staff, have proved to be more successful, Lane adds. But undergraduates "recognise the difference between a branch and a home campus".

"One thing we've realised is that international reputation does not translate into a local market. Even though you might have a great brand globally, your outpost doesn't necessarily share in that brand. People are still leery about its sustainability."

In fact, the closures of international branch campuses may affect the prospects of those left behind, Lane says, as students become even more sceptical that they will stick around.

One of the problems Michigan State University faced shortly after it opened a Dubai campus was the closure of a branch of another American institution, George Mason University, in the emirate. Michigan State attracted only a quarter of its projected enrolment and lost $4 million. It was forced to scrap its undergraduate provision two years later, although it continues to run graduate programmes there.

"It did its business plans and due diligence, one would assume, but the numbers were never there, so it cut its losses," says William Lawton, director of the OBHE.

Those losses, he says, include enduring damage to Michigan State's international reputation. "I think the main worry in regard to closure is the brand damage done. It's unfortunate for Michigan State that for the next several years, when anybody thinks about it in terms of international education, they're going to think: 'Oh, yeah, you closed your (undergraduate) campus.'?"

Tessa Dunseath, executive director of the Michigan State University Dubai campus, says it closed its undergraduate programmes "to sharpen its focus in the region and streamline operations in the face of recent worldwide economic challenges".

Selective entrance criteria meant that too few students qualified for admission, and they were spread over too many specialised fields "to provide the academic vitality" of the home campus, she adds.

As a public university that had to cover its costs via tuition fees, Michigan State was not a cheap experience for students, Lane says, adding that the same was true of the University of New South Wales, which closed its Singapore campus in 2007.

These closures are hardly unique. As the Albany team notes, both RMIT Melbourne and Dublin Business School (owned by US for-profit giant Kaplan) have shut campuses in Malaysia. Others reported to have pulled out of overseas initiatives include Australia's private Bond University (South Africa), University of Southern Queensland (Dubai) and Central Queensland University (Fiji).

The Albany centre also says that the privately owned Griffith College Dublin has turned its Pakistan campus into a recruiting centre, and that Carnegie Mellon University has closed its branch in Greece (although a spokeswoman for Carnegie Mellon says that it wasn't a campus, but only a degree programme that fell victim to the Greek financial crisis).

Meanwhile, the University of La Verne, a US institution, closed its Greek outpost, and Schiller International University, also based in the US, abruptly closed its London campus in August, citing tightened visa restrictions.

Officials of many of the universities that have closed international branch campuses are not keen to discuss it.

"I have taken your request up with our vice-chancellor and unfortunately we are not able to provide you with any comment or interview for your article due to business and commercial reasons surrounding contractual lease arrangements," says Aidan Burke, the director of corporate communications and public relations for Southern Queensland.

Lawton says that his research has found that there are many reasons international branch campuses may fail. He adds that US universities in particular have trouble getting staff to work abroad because it can cut into time needed to produce the research required to gain tenure and promotion. It is also more expensive to support university staff overseas.

Du Jardin, however, says the problem may be far more fundamental: people who want a Western education want to get it in the West.

"People who come to the campus of an American university abroad essentially want an American education, which was the case in Senegal," says Du Jardin, who has moved back to Boston.

"If you put yourself in the shoes of an African parent and you want your child to have an American education, then the real thing is coming over here. When foreign students come to study in the US and want an American education, it isn't just because of the curriculum. It's because of the whole package - the culture, and getting comfortable with the language."

While Suffolk's Dakar campus attracted a disproportionate number of women, whose parents may have been more hesitant to send them overseas, most African families that can afford it prefer to send their students to the US or the UK, he adds.

Transnational education hasn't stopped, however: it is just taking a safer route. Major universities have or will open campuses in places where host countries promise to cover their costs (as is the case with New York University in Abu Dhabi and Texas A&M University in Qatar), including facilities, salaries and other outlays.

Yale University announced in April that it will create a campus in collaboration with the National University of Singapore, which will pay the salaries of Yale faculty and even compensate their home departments for their absence. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology agreed last month to help develop a graduate research university near Moscow. It will not carry the MIT name and will be underwritten by a Russian foundation.

Some international campuses are now being opened by Asian nations in other Asian countries and even in the West: Malaysia's Limkokwing University of Creative Technology in Central London and Iran's Islamic Azad University in Oxford, for example.

"The new trends that we're picking up are South-to-South expansion and South-to-North," Lawton explains.

But most transnational programmes are partnerships in which Western universities provide specific programmes and even degrees under the umbrella of host institutions. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas offers degrees in hotel administration in partnership with the Singapore Institute of Technology, for example.

Through such joint programmes, Lawton says, "transnational education is exploding".



Credit: Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany

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