Leaders of UK universities’ international branch campuses often have little managerial experience and rarely receive enough support from their home institutions, a study has found.
Nigel Healey, pro vice-chancellor (international) at Nottingham Trent University, says that, given the “inherent riskiness of establishing and running” an overseas outpost, it might be expected that institutions would “second their most seasoned managers” to become provosts.
But, in a series of interviews with branch campus managers, he found that the top job had often gone to an academic with limited leadership experience.
Serving deans and pro vice-chancellors, Professor Healey was told, regarded such international roles as “career suicide”.
Writing in the Journal of Studies in International Education, Professor Healey says this state of affairs is cause for concern, since his interviewees – who had worked on nine separate campuses in China, Malaysia and Abu Dhabi – confirmed that they had a wide variety of difficult tasks to grapple with.
These included the challenge of working under strict government control, and with local regulatory bodies, that may variously require the curriculum to be exactly the same as at the home university or to include content such as China’s mandatory “patriotic education” courses.
Managing relationships with local joint venture partners was cited as a difficulty, especially with partners in the private sector, since provosts rarely had commercial experience.
Interviewees said that they also had to deal with “friction” and allegations of racism over disparities between the typically generous salaries and benefits enjoyed by academics seconded from the home campus and less generous terms for local staff.
Despite these significant challenges, interviewees said they received limited support from their parent universities, with Professor Healey characterising such relationships as “ranging from ignorance and indifference at one extreme to outright hostility at the other”.
Complaints included universities making changes to courses that could “jeopardise” the branch campus’ relations with host regulators, and departments such as human resources and finance being unaccustomed to working across borders.
Additionally, because international campuses tend to be relatively small operations relative to the size of the home university, professional staff may have “little time or sympathy” for branch campus colleagues, Professor Healey adds.
He concludes that, since less experienced managers “may lack the skills to make good choices and may be insufficiently risk-averse”, there is a case for universities to be “much more considered” in their choice of branch campus leaders.
Strategies could include setting a clearly defined term for a provost position and guaranteeing a more senior post at the home institution on completion, in order to deepen the pool of applicants.
Providing adequate training and continuing mentorship would further minimise the probability of a new manager “being out of his or her depth”, Professor Healey adds.
He suggests that universities consider hiring human resources and accounting staff from multinational companies, or contracting out certain functions to specialist companies, when the required skills do not exist within UK higher education.
“Managing an international branch campus is not just extraordinarily challenging, but it is generally far beyond the comfort zone of even the most experienced academic manager,” Professor Healey says. “This suggests that there are important lessons for universities setting up international branch campuses in terms of better preparing and supporting their seconded managers.”