Lancaster University has confirmed that it is considering opening a European branch campus as Brexit approaches.
The possibility of establishing continental outposts has been debated by vice-chancellors ever since the UK voted to leave the bloc, with physical presences seen as a means of maintaining cross-border partnerships, mitigating a potential fall in student recruitment from continental Europe and, perhaps, protecting access to Brussels research funding.
However, few universities have yet to make serious moves in this direction, with most preferring to strengthen partnerships with established institutions.
A Lancaster spokesman told Times Higher Education: “We are exploring options in Europe, which is a potential natural extension to our campus developments in China, Ghana and Malaysia, but it is early in the process so we don’t have anything definite to say at this stage.”
Vincenzo Raimo, pro vice-chancellor (global engagement) at the University of Reading, who oversees the institution’s Malaysia campus, said that universities would need to be “very clear and honest with themselves about the costs and benefits” of overseas outposts.
“Working in partnership, whether that’s on the Continent or elsewhere in the world, is often the preferred route to campus developments, ensuring appropriate local knowledge and expertise is on hand,” Mr Raimo said. “Dealing with regulatory frameworks in other countries and understanding local markets is much easier if you have a local partner.”
One key question is whether students would actually want to attend a branch campus of a UK university located on the Continent, particularly when growing numbers of local providers offer English-medium courses.
The latest International Student Survey conducted by QS Enrolment Solutions found that 62.5 per cent of respondents from the EU said that they would be interested in studying at a branch campus of a UK university in a European country that was not their home nation.
However, this represents a drop from the 2017 survey, when 76 per cent of respondents expressed an interest.
Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin were the favoured locations for UK branch campuses in the survey, based on the responses of about 3,400 EU students.
Other UK universities may look to establish on the Continent physical presences that cannot really be considered branch campuses. Last month, the University of Glasgow said that it had signed a partnership agreement with Leuphana University of Lüneburg to jointly establish a European Centre for Advanced Studies in Lower Saxony.
The announcement comes after the University of Warwick formed a partnership with the University of Paris Seine and Vrije Universiteit Brussel, aimed in part at accessing European funding for cross-border higher education networks.
Imperial College London has opened a joint mathematics laboratory with the French National Centre for Scientific Research, while the University of Oxford has signed an alliance with four universities in Berlin.