Branch campus leaders told to be ‘more patient’ to taste success

Debate follows news that two UK universities are struggling with projects

December 11, 2017
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International branch campuses that have closed might have survived had their leaders been “more patient”, a researcher has claimed after one UK university shut its overseas outpost and another’s plans for a foreign site were left in doubt.

But while such projects are “difficult creatures to manage”, the latest developments do not necessarily signal the start of a decline in the activity, according to academic experts.

Earlier this month, the BBC reported that Aberystwyth University was planning to close its Mauritius campus just two years after it opened and would not enrol any new students from March 2018.

The campus was built to accommodate 2,000 students, but just 106 enrolled in its second year.

Aberystwyth declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Yonhap News Agency recently reported that South Korean officials had claimed that the University of Aberdeen’s plan to open a campus in the country was “highly likely to fall through” because the institution had been “reluctant to proceed with the project”.

A spokeswoman at the university told Times Higher Education that the downturn in the oil and gas industry had led to “reduced demand for the types of degrees in offshore engineering originally envisaged” for the South Korea campus.

She added that “despite many efforts to adapt to the downturn and change the focus of the campus…we have not yet received the necessary support in Korea to achieve this”. The university was nevertheless continuing to seek a “mutually agreeable way forward”, she said.

Meanwhile, last month, Malaysia’s minister for higher education said that there would be “no more building or opening” of new university campuses in the country because saturation point had been reached.

There were 263 worldwide branch campuses in late 2017, according to the latest report on the topic from the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education and the State University of New York Albany’s Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT). As of the start of this year, a further 42 international branch campuses that were previously operational had closed, research from the two organisations indicates.

Stephen Wilkins, associate professor in business management at the British University in Dubai and a researcher on international branch campuses, said that most “start-up campuses need at least four to five years to break even and at least 1,000 to 2,000 students to be financially viable in the longer term”.

“It is possible that some of the campuses that have closed might have become successful eventually if they were more patient,” he said.

But Nigel Healey, vice-chancellor of Fiji National University and an expert on branch campuses, said that some universities “continue propping up [branch campuses] long after it has become clear they are not viable” because of a “fear of failure and public humiliation”, adding that overseas outposts are “difficult creatures to manage”.

While branch campuses can be “very successful in raising international profile and diversifying revenue”, some are merely the “pet projects of vainglorious vice-chancellors, underpinned by cursory business planning and inflated estimates of student demand”, Professor Healey said.

Jason Lane, director of C-BERT and co-author of the OBHE report, said that he did not see the latest developments at Aberystwyth and Aberdeen as “signalling an overall decline” in branch campuses, but he noted that they “represent the volatility that affects the sector and remind us that success is not guaranteed”.

“It may signal concern about the ability of the two countries, Mauritius and South Korea, as locations for future [branch campus] growth,” he said.

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