Empires and allies

The UK sector’s growing involvement in offshore education includes everything from branch campuses and institutional partnerships to validation and franchising. David Matthews weighs the different models’ risks, rewards and rationales

October 18, 2012


Credit: Getty

British universities sometimes seem to be taking over the world. Some half a million students are studying for a UK degree overseas, the number of branch campuses has nearly doubled in the past four years and other forms of “offshore” education - including overseas partnerships involving joint degrees and niche departments within foreign education hubs - are flowering.

But with so many different forms of overseas teaching, which direction should UK universities take? Amid so much rapid expansion, what are the pros and cons of each model and the hidden pitfalls? And what does setting up abroad mean for the identity of a UK university? Sceptical vice-chancellors might ask an even more basic question: why should my university try to teach outside its home country at all?

According to Joanna Newman, director of the international unit at Universities UK, the decision to embark on offering overseas courses or teaching is not a matter of survival for UK universities but a matter of choice; there continues to be a “really good domestic market” for students. Yet, with warnings that the growth in international student numbers may tail off, it could well prove to be a sensible strategy: the British Council has said that universities should be ready to educate more overseas students in their home countries in response to an expected slowdown in the global movement of students.

Competition for the pool of international students - whose fees provide an important source of income for UK universities - is increasing globally, Newman explains, pointing to the amount of investment that the largest senders of students such as China and Malaysia are putting into their own education systems.

Other reasons UK universities can no longer count on welcoming ever-increasing numbers of foreign students include a newly tightened visa regime and widespread political pressure to cut net migration. London Metropolitan University lost its licence to sponsor non-EU students at the end of August and is currently engaged in a legal battle to regain it.

Positive reasons for UK institutions to look beyond the country’s shores include the opportunity to widen access to a UK education, new opportunities for UK students studying on the home campus to gain experience abroad, and the chance to forge new links with foreign businesses and governments, according to advocates.

And the government is certainly keen on such initiatives. In June, David Willetts, the universities and science minister, called on universities to use private capital to establish teaching outposts abroad. “Our universities are well financed for what they do but underfinanced for big expansion. I want to see investors from Britain and abroad helping our universities access these big overseas markets,” he said.

Validation and franchising

New branch campuses in exotic locations have attracted the most attention in recent years. But in reality they are dwarfed by another type of activity: validation and franchising.

With validation, almost all aspects of the course - including recruitment, teaching and marketing - are usually done by a local partner. The curriculum is determined jointly by the university and its collaborator, and the UK validating institution awards the degrees. Franchising is similar in many respects but the courses taught are usually identical to those in the UK, and there is often more control of teaching and assessment by the UK university.

Students on validated courses are not registered at the home university, but those on franchised programmes are, as defined by the Higher Education Statistics Agency. There were 291,595 students studying overseas on programmes validated by UK institutions in 2010-11 and 86,670 on franchised or similar courses, according to the UK Council for International Student Affairs (UKCISA).

William Lawton, director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE), calls validation the “path of least resistance” for institutions looking to internationalise, because it is easy and cheap to set up. But it is also the most risky in terms of reputation, he observes, because validating institutions have so little control over the education at the partner institution. “You’re sticking your brand on the line for sure,” he says. “If it wasn’t a significant revenue stream, universities wouldn’t be doing it”. The scale of such activities also often means that “if it goes wrong, it’s going to go wrong for a lot of providers”.

And it has gone wrong recently. The University of Wales shut down its huge validation business in October 2011 in the wake of BBC reports of an alleged visa scam at a linked college in the UK. By 2009-10, the federal university was earning more than £10 million a year from 140 collaborative centres internationally, and its overseas collaborations had been the subject of several critical reports by the Quality Assurance Agency.

There are “huge extremes in (validation) practice”, says John Fielden of Chems Consulting, which advises on transnational education. He is, he says, “pretty sure there are many more University of Waleses around”.

The QAA has recently put beefed-up guidance on collaboration out for consultation to the sector. It stresses that universities should not simply validate partners that come along with a proposition. Such activity must fit into a wider plan, and there must be the staff available to police these arrangements.

But as Lawton points out, “for the majority of providers it (validation) hasn’t gone wrong”. It can give access to a good-quality education to students who would never be able to afford to travel to the UK, he stresses. From this perspective, validation could be seen as widening participation on a global scale.

Branch campuses

Branch campuses involve far fewer students - 12,315 in 2010-11, according to UKCISA - but they are an established and rapidly growing form of international activity.

In 2006, the UK higher education sector had nine campuses outside the UK; in 2011 it had 25, overtaking Australia (with 12), and behind only France () and the US (78). Ten more overseas campuses are in the pipeline for UK universities, while 13 are being planned by US institutions.

The most populous of UK offshore campuses are Nottingham’s ventures in Ningbo, China (4,536 students), and Malaysia (3,779 students).

The scale of commitment required for such ventures - and the associated risks - are not to be underestimated and there has been a series of high-profile branch campus closures in recent years. Uniquely among the major Western players, however, the UK sector has had no branch campuses shut down, according to International Branch Campuses: Data and Developments, a report released by the OBHE in January this year.

Paul Greatrix, registrar of the University of Nottingham, says that the challenges of setting up an overseas campus include legal issues, financial arrangements, dealing with new academic, political and cultural frameworks and the need to build relationships from scratch. Moreover, the rewards are not financial, given the serious investments such projects require. “If your motivation is to make money then you’re in the wrong business. It’s not cheap to establish a branch campus,” he says.

In many countries, a key concern is the protection of academic freedom. Securing and holding on to good-quality staff can also be difficult. It can be challenging to encourage academics to relocate, and opting to use local staff risks “dilution of the brand”, Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK, argued in a speech about globalisation at the UUK conference last month.

Newman also highlights the problems that can arise from the need to rely on foreign governments. In India, part of the idea behind the long-delayed Foreign Universities Bill (which is currently on hold) is to encourage foreign providers into the country and thereby ratchet up competition for local providers.

But what guarantees do UK universities have that governments will stay friendly? “When their own institutions are sufficient, they might say: ‘that’s enough, we don’t need you (foreign branch campuses) any more’,” Newman notes.

Universities running branch campuses claim that their overseas courses are just as academically rigorous as courses they offer in the UK but accept that the overall student experience will be different. The benefits of being a multi-campus, “multinational university” include new opportunities in teaching, student exchanges and research collaboration, and a route to international markets, according to Greatrix. He argues that Nottingham’s campuses have boosted the university’s “international outlook” and brand recognition.

Writing in THE earlier this year about his university’s plans to open branch campuses in Bangkok and Cyprus, Malcolm McVicar, vice-chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire, argued that the model was far better than franchising.

“We are not simply franchising out our name for short-term gain, which is where ventures like this can easily go wrong: we are making a long-term commitment by establishing campuses that we control and maintain,” he said.

“At the centre of our university’s strategy is a commitment to internationalisation,” he added. “We are convinced that, as a higher education provider, it is our responsibility to prepare our students for the global marketplace and, as such, they need to be exposed to international experiences.”

‘Niche’ campuses

Branch campuses need not house thousands of undergraduates studying a wide range of subjects, however. The OBHE report finds that there is a trend towards what it calls “niche” campuses, “which offer a limited range of courses within a single discipline and have more modest levels of financial and reputational risk”.

A recent example is that of University College London Qatar, an outpost in Doha’s Hamad bin Khalifa University. It opened in September 2011 and is focusing on archaeology and museum studies at postgraduate level. By 2015, it plans to have 150 students in place.

It is part of what used to be called Doha’s Education City, which is currently home to one French and six US university outposts. The end result, so the theory goes, is something similar to a multidisciplinary university that is not prohibitive in cost or risk for any one institution to become involved in.

The EduCity Iskandar shared campus in Malaysia, where Newcastle University has a medical school, is a similar venture.

In the case of UCL, the institution has previously eschewed overseas campuses of all kinds but in 2009 it decided to allow research-focused niche developments. Michael Worton, vice-provost, says the institution will still steer clear of foreign campuses with undergraduates because it “didn’t think that we could relocate the UCL experience and that of London overseas”.

As it is a research-intensive university, it would take an “enormous investment” to establish a teaching establishment overseas that had fully research-active staff, he adds.

He stresses that UCL’s outposts have been established for “strategic” research reasons. Qatar is far closer to the Middle East’s archaeological sites than is London. UCL also has a School of Energy and Resources in Adelaide, Australia, where it can tap in to what Worton describes as a very active scene in energy research.

But niche campuses are not without vulnerabilities. Fielden, who stresses that he likes the UCL model “very much”, points out that without a large undergraduate population such ventures could be dependent on research funding from local governments. “It’s a nice strategy but if you get no local research funding you have completely lost the point of it.”

Worton disagrees. He says that UCL’s Australian outpost is already “virtually self-sufficient” from a combination of commercial contract research, tuition fees and executive education. He says he is also more worried about the stability of research funding flowing from the UK government than from Qatar.

Hamad bin Khalifa University, renamed last May to honour Qatar’s Emir, is now looking to offer its own programmes by drawing on the courses offered by the foreign outposts of which it is composed. The director of UCL Qatar, Thilo Rehren, has said that the “pressure is to blend together”. So are niche campuses at risk of being gobbled up by their hosts? Worton counters that “they may be small campuses but they are (part of) very big universities”, and it would be “quite tough” to corral global universities into an arrangement they were unhappy with.

Strategic partnerships

Offshore education can give both students and faculty in the UK far greater experience of the world, and a number of recent international partnerships aim to encourage that.

The University of Warwick has teamed up with Australia’s Monash University to create 10 joint senior academic posts and offer new joint master’s and doctoral degrees that they hope will appeal to “high achievers” from Asia.

The universities say that students will be able to attend bases in Italy, Malaysia, South Africa, India and China as well as in the UK and Australia.

“You have got to stop just signing memorandums of understanding … you can paper your walls with them,” argues Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of Warwick. While he says he does not wish to “denigrate” such agreements, he believes the global connections between institutions need to go much deeper.

Circulating staff across the world is crucial because “research is becoming increasingly global. The leading academics in the world have international careers. To attract the really good academics you’re going to have to give them international options,” he says.

The priority for the partners now is to increase the number of students participating in exchanges between Warwick and Monash, Thrift says. “What you’re trying to do is produce global citizens.” Students are demanding this, he believes, partly because such experience improves their employability. But this ambition is also “quite an important global project in its own right”.

With this type of internationalisation, though, there is always a danger that the partners will not get on. Although partnerships can split the dangers of joint projects, there are “lots of risks because you’ve got to become good partners”, explains Newman.

In the case of the Warwick-Monash agreement, Thrift says that each university will retain its own strategy but there will be an additional joint strategy for both to follow. A joint pro vice-chancellor should help to resolve any conflicts between the institutions, he says.

If things go well, could the pair eventually merge? Thrift stresses that this is certainly not the aim. “All airlines in the world have quite distinct identities. But they all have arrangements to cooperate,” he argues. It is even possible that a third university could join the arrangement but the priority now is “to get this partnership right before that”.

‘Core mission’

In January, William Hague, the foreign secretary, announced the creation of HE Global Integrated Advisory Service, a new cross-departmental initiative to offer universities the help they need to grow outside the country and increase their “transnational education capability”.

But if the UK’s universities continue to expand their teaching abroad, does this not pose fundamental questions about who they serve and how they hang on to their legitimacy in this country? Newman argues that the “core mission” of UK universities remains “educating the UK population”. Tamson Pietsch, a lecturer in imperial and colonial history at Brunel University who is writing a book on universities and empire, says that “universities have always been caught between the local context and the idea of them (being) global institutions in the world of ideas”.

Asked if Warwick, as an internationalising institution, will continue to identify itself as British, Thrift returns to his airline analogy. British Airways is a worldwide company and yet is “still a British company”, he says, adding that Warwick still does a substantial amount of work in the UK national interest.

Questions about what setting up abroad means for the identity of a UK university were raised by Thomas in his UUK speech. Operating overseas is “not just about setting up a global chain of retail outlets where the product is education”, he said. “Many universities are defined to some degree or other by the place in which they are situated … For most of us, our home town is part of our brand - the city of Bristol is a huge part of people’s perception of the university. I have no doubt that it is a big part of what attracts people to study and work there. How far can that be diluted without the very definition of University of Bristol being changed completely?”

Like Bristol, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge - the two wealthiest, most selective and internationally renowned higher education institutions in the country - have so far conspicuously refused to take their face-to-face teaching outside the UK. Both say that it would be impossible to replicate their teaching experience abroad. The “collegiate system … is simply not an exportable model”, a spokesman for Cambridge says.

So what does the future hold for offshore education? Thomas has suggested that the current rush to expand overseas could be followed by a period of retreat. He accepts that there is “huge” unmet demand for higher education globally but said in his UKK speech that he was “pretty sure” that 20 years from now, “some realities of competition and simple financial or logistical failure will mean that some universities will have decided to retreat from global provision and have returned to educational provision solely from their home base”.

“Maybe a Darwinian struggle will have occurred, with some universities winning in the global provision stakes and others deciding it’s not worth the effort. And maybe that’s not such a bad outcome. No global success is worth domestic failure,” he said, recalling a piece of advice he once received: “Whatever you do, get it right back home, Eric, get it right back home.”

Whatever the picture 20 years from now, as UK universities continue to expand their global reach, they will have to learn to work with more than one government, and more than one society. And, argues Pietsch, wherever in the world they are, universities “lose their legitimacy” unless they serve local communities.

Brits abroad: UK universities with overseas campuses
Home institutionHost countryYear openedSubjects offered
University College London Australia2010Energy
Grameen Caledonian College of Nursing, Glasgow Caledonian UniversityBangladesh2010Nursing
Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool UniversityChina2006Multidisciplinary
Manchester Business School, University of ManchesterChina 2009Business, economics, finance, marketing
University of Surrey China2007Business/tourism management
University of NottinghamChina2005Multidisciplinary
Manchester Business School, University of ManchesterHong Kong 1992Business administration
University of Lancaster India2009Business, engineering, management
Leeds Metropolitan UniversityIndia2009Business and management, hospitality, events management
University of Strathclyde India2011Business administration
University College LondonKazakhstan2010Engineering (mainly)
Newcastle UniversityMalaysia2009Medicine
University of NottinghamMalaysia2000Multidisciplinary
Middlesex UniversityMauritius2010Accounting, IT, law, management, media, psychology
University College LondonQatar2011Archaeology
Manchester Business School, University of ManchesterSingapore1999Management, finance, marketing
Newcastle UniversitySingapore2008Engineering and nutrition
University College London Singapore2010Facility and environmental management
Heriot-Watt UniversityUAE: Dubai2005Multidisciplinary
London Business School UAE: Dubai2007Business administration
Manchester Business School, University of ManchesterUAE: Dubai2006Business administration
Middlesex UniversityUAE: Dubai2005Multidisciplinary
University of BoltonUAE: Ras al-Khaimah2008Multidisciplinary
Cass Business School, City University of LondonUAE: Dubai 2007Business, aviation
University of WestminsterUzbekistan2002Business and management
Source: Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, January 2012


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