Branch campus death knell ‘over-exaggerated’, says offshore provost

Head of University of Nottingham Malaysia says too much emphasis placed on small number of closures

July 30, 2015
University of Nottingham Malaysia campus
Source: University Of Nottingham/YouTube
The University of Nottingham's Malaysia campus - a rival to Xiamen University's new outpost

Claims that the attractiveness to universities of establishing overseas branch campuses has peaked are “over-exaggerated”, the head of the UK’s first offshore campus has said.

Christine Ennew, provost of the University of Nottingham’s Malaysia campus, said there is a danger of “reading too much into a small number of small-scale but high-profile withdrawals [from overseas campuses] and seeing that as an indicator of the model being past its sell-by date”.

Earlier this year University College London announced it was to close its Australia branch, and in 2007 the University of New South Wales closed its Singapore campus after just one semester.

Professor Ennew admitted that overseas branch campuses are “a little bit unfashionable at the moment”, but predicted that the majority of institutions making “significant commitments” will see “intensive growth” in their outposts and there will also be a “small number of new players” choosing the model.

Speaking ahead of the Malaysia campus’ 15th anniversary in September, and as the British prime minister David Cameron visited the country, Professor Ennew said: “It seems to me what you’re actually seeing is continued commitment across a range of markets and a range of models for operations of scale”. She cited Monash University Malaysia, Heriot-Watt University Dubai and Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University in China as examples of other successful offshore campuses.

“I think some of the claims of the death of branch campuses are probably over-exaggerated,” she added.

A survey conducted by the European Association for International Education earlier this year found that opening branch campuses is now the lowest internationalisation priority for European universities.

Professor Ennew said offshore campuses typically fall into two categories, and it is the larger-scale outposts that tend to survive.

“There are the small, niche players who are offering programmes to 100 to 200 students in one or two areas, and I’m never convinced they qualify as branch campuses because they’re so small,” she said.

“Then you see the larger scale operations, and there I think scale does matter. If you have any diversity in provision and you want to be able to give a genuine student experience, then you need to be able to operate at a certain scale to make it economically viable.”

She added: “If you look at some of the high-profile withdrawals, they have been associated with the ending of a period of subsidy or funding. What I think places like Nottingham and Monash have done is build something that isn’t dependent on subsidy and is viable and sustainable in and of itself.”

Professor Ennew said the Malaysia campus has never been reliant on financial aid, instead receiving support from the university and its local partner before it “broke even” in 2007, meaning it is not dependent on an organisation “for a handout that can disappear”.

Although student recruitment had been harder than expected, she said, the campus now has more than 5,000 students and this number is expected to grow to between 6,000 and 6,500 by 2020.

The Malaysian campus also delivers programmes in Singapore and Sri Lanka through partnerships with local educational institutions that provide infrastructure but do not have their own degree awarding powers.

Professor Ennew said she is looking to increase the number of “off campus provisions” and there are also discussions about launches in the Maldives and Vietnam.

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