A chance to climb abroad

November 2, 2006

The spread of overseas branch campuses offers UK academics opportunities to advance. Tony Tysome reports.

Opportunities for academics to enhance their CVs with overseas work are increasing as the number of universities setting up international branch campuses across the world grows.

A report from the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education shows that the opening of foreign branch campuses represents an accelerating trend that shows no sign of slowing.

An analysis by Observatory researchers reveals that the number of international campuses has more than tripled to 82 since 2002The report says that at least 41 have opened since 2000.

Although US universities still dominate this movement, UK and Irish institutions are gaining ground rapidly. They have opened ten branch campuses between them, including five in the past three years.

There is little to suggest that this continuing development of branch campuses has peaked, according to the report. It says: "With opportunities for external funding, increased competition in the international education market and an enhanced focus on regulation of transnational education, institutions might find offshore operations in the form of campuses a more and more appealing option."

The phenomenon is creating new and challenging professional pathways for academics who are willing to uproot themselves and their families, sometimes for several years at a time, in pursuit of potentially career-accelerating opportunities that are often hard to find at home.

But despite the possible rewards, academics are frequently reluctant to volunteer to be posted to an overseas branch, according to Line Verbik, the Observatory's deputy director and the co-author of the report.

She said: "My impression is that initially some of the overseas operations have found it hard to get academics to go into an uncertain environment because they are worried about how it will affect their academic work as well as their personal or family lives."

Those who do go, however, usually enjoy the experience so much that they return as enthusiastic advocates of working abroad.

Ms Verbik said: "They come back to their home institution and tell their colleagues about the amazing opportunities."

Ian Gow, foundation provost for Nottingham University's Ningbo branch campus in China, said: "If you go and work at an overseas campus, because your are in a situation that is quite different, people will see that you have staying power and that you are not afraid of hard work. It definitely has different advantages for people at different stages in their career."

Liverpool University has created a new institution in China in a joint venture with Xi'an Jiaotong University. Drummond Bone, Liverpool's vice-chancellor, said: "It does give academics who go out there the chance to gain responsibilities earlier. It is quite an exciting experience and one that provides a break from the usual career path in the UK."

The report warns that there are risks as well as possible big rewards for institutions that set up international branch campuses.

Tom Sastry, senior researcher for the Higher Education Policy Institute, which last year published research findings on the flow of scholars to and from posts abroad, said this also applied to the academics.

He said: "If you are going somewhere that has an established reputation, it is a pretty sound bet. But if you are going somewhere that you think is emerging, then it is more of a high-stakes gamble. You could end up somewhere that is off the radar in ten or twenty years.

"Alternatively, you could become the person who establishes a team that becomes a point of reference - and you are more likely to have the opportunity and freedom to do that working abroad."

* Oxford University's business school is negotiating to establish a research centre in India. A spokeswoman for the school told The Times Higher this week that details were unavailable as funding had yet to be secured.



18 months in Malaysia -  No holiday but valuable experience

Christine Ennew faced a professional and a personal dilemma when Sir Colin Campbell, vice-chancellor of Nottingham University, invited her to help establish a department of business and management at a new campus in Malaysia.

At the time, she was deputy director of Nottingham's Business School, and she knew there would be no guarantee that the position would be vacant when she returned after 18 months overseas.

On the personal side, she was lucky in that her partner was a university administrator who would also be able to work at Nottingham's Malaysia campus, but the couple had a house containing a "large collection of cats"

that needed care. This particular problem turned out to be easier to resolve than she expected.

"Fortunately, a PhD student came to our rescue," she said. She made an arrangement whereby the student would live in the house and look after the cats in lieu of paying rent. "Since part of the deal for going to work in Malaysia was that our accommodation was free, this eased all the obvious personal anxieties."

Professionally, the new position's challenges soon helped Professor Ennew overcome any anxiety she felt about working and living in a new country.

She said: "We were setting up something new from scratch, which meant I was involved with absolutely everything - from developing a business plan through to sorting out the catering and buying furniture."

There was so much work to do that she had to forget any thoughts of taking a long exotic holiday. "It proved difficult to ever take a two-week break.

On the other hand, there were so many wonderful places within easy reach, we were able to make the most of weekends," she said.

On her return to Nottingham, Professor Ennew found that she had to take a "sideways move" because the business school had acquired two new deputy directors. But she is convinced that her experience in Malaysia played a key part in her gaining her current, more senior position.

She said: "On the whole, it was a valuable experience and one that would not be very easy to get in ordinary circumstances. I am sure it helped me in my move to the position of dean."

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs