After Brexit, will UK universities set up EU branch campuses?

Sector experts debate whether continental outposts would help to mitigate any decline in student recruitment

July 19, 2016
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Continental drift: one sector figure suggested that ‘pop-up’ campuses in Europe were more likely than bricks and mortar

When British universities have set up branch campuses overseas, they have usually looked to far-flung destinations.

But in the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, might institutions place their overseas outposts closer to home: Paris, Brussels or Bucharest, perhaps?

Times Higher Education understands that a number of vice-chancellors are considering whether a physical presence on the Continent might help to mitigate some of the potential negative impacts of Brexit: offsetting falling European recruitment, mending fractured intellectual partnerships, and maybe even retaining some access to EU research funding.

Tim Gore, chief executive of the University of London Institute in Paris, said that the idea of opening European branch campuses was the subject of a “fair amount of discussion”.

“If European students are finding both a more difficult visa regime and a more expensive fee regime, then clearly we offer a viable alternative here,” Mr Gore said. “I suspect universities will look at [branch campuses] very seriously because, as part of their international strategy, it makes sense for universities to think seriously about Europe for the diversity of their home student body as well as making sure they keep in touch with centres of research excellence.”

Many factors will determine how UK universities’ recruitment fares: whether EU nationals move on to the more expensive international fee rate, whether they lose access to student loans, and whether their post-study work entitlement is curtailed.

If recruitment does drop, a branch campus may offer some solutions. As well as providing a way to meet the demand for a UK-accredited and English language-taught degree, an EU outpost could serve as a conduit for recruitment to the home campus.

Whether an overseas outpost might improve access to EU research funding, however, remains debatable, but it would offer a base for continued collaboration and commercialisation. Prior to the referendum, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said that his institution would open science parks on the Continent in the event of a vote for Brexit.

Pins in the map

Beyond the University of London in Paris, the other existing UK branch campuses in the EU are Middlesex University’s Malta outpost and the University of Central Lancashire’s Cyprus site.

Jason Lane, a transnational education expert and senior associate vice-chancellor at the State University of New York, said that it was possible that this number could grow.

“There could be several benefits to UK institutions setting up shop within the EU, particularly in countries where they can be recognised as part of the local regulatory system in such a way that allows them to be part of the EU system,” Dr Lane said.

Where, then, might these campuses be located? Branch campuses tend to fare best where domestic systems are unable to meet the demand for quality higher education, and this suggests that Southern and Eastern Europe might offer richest pickings.

Ucas data show that these regions have the fastest growth in enrolment at UK universities: last year recruitment from Croatia was up 87 per cent, with Portugal up by 36 per cent and Romania 34 per cent.

But vice-chancellors should perhaps hold fire before booking their flights, because many sector observers question the likelihood of UK universities putting down bricks and mortar.

Stephen Wilkins, associate professor in business management at the British University in Dubai and a researcher on branch campuses, said it was “very unlikely” that UK institutions would take this step.

“If we consider the characteristics of the countries where branch campuses are already successful we see that these countries have considerable under-capacity in their higher education systems, British higher education is widely regarded as high quality, students have the ability to study in English, and the students can afford relatively high tuition fees,” Dr Wilkins said. “These are not characteristics that exist in most EU countries.”

UK campuses would have to compete with domestic providers offering free or heavily subsidised tuition, and also with a growing number of institutions teaching programmes in English, Dr Wilkins added.

Nigel Healey, the outgoing pro vice-chancellor (international) at Nottingham Trent University, said that post-study work opportunities were what had attracted many EU students to the UK, and that a branch campus would probably not offer the same entitlements.

“It’s difficult for me at the moment to see a compelling business case [for branch campuses in the EU],” he said.

Vincenzo Raimo, pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading, agreed that there were unlikely to be physical branch campuses, but said that universities may look to run niche master’s courses on the Continent, especially in business.

“I think we’ll see the emergence of more ‘pop-up’ campuses – a university development in another country making use of local facilities and working with a local partner, but without the kinds of investments made by Reading and Nottingham in bricks and mortar overseas,” Mr Raimo said.

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Print headline: After we leave the EU, will UK universities set up campuses on Continent?

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