'Mushrooming' branches may turn out to be poisonous

Warnings are sounded over universities' rush to develop campuses abroad. John Morgan reports

February 11, 2010

Universities around the world have trumpeted international branch campuses as concrete evidence that their "brands" can compete on the global stage. They are seen as footholds in new markets and ways to tap into otherwise inaccessible research.

But two analyses that highlight the failure of several branch campuses offer warnings about the potential perils of following the fashion for international expansion.

Philip G. Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, writes in the International Higher Education journal: "Branch campuses may be the 'flavour of the month', but the pitfalls, with resulting damage to academic reputations, financial losses and poor service to students, loom as significant prospects."

In the same issue of the journal, Rosa Becker, senior researcher at the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE), writes that the market is becoming "more competitive" and that recent closures "reaffirm the need for institutions to undertake careful market research before deciding to create a campus abroad".

The OBHE defines an international branch campus as "an off-shore entity of a higher education institution operated by the institution or through a joint venture in which the institution is a partner", which results in students being awarded foreign degrees.

According to the body, there were 162 international branch campuses in September 2009, a 43 per cent increase in three years. Of these, 78 were American, 14 Australian, 13 British, 11 French and 11 Indian.

However, the OBHE says there have been 14 international branch closures in recent years, including De Montfort University's South Africa campus in 2004.

Professor Altbach told Times Higher Education: "Even if the direct costs of developing the branches are covered by the hosts, as is often the case in the Gulf, universities still spend a lot of time on development and planning, and if the branch is not sustainable, then this time is wasted. But perhaps the main point is that failed branch campuses harm the reputation and image of both hosts and sponsors."

He added: "It is hard to tell which are successful since transparency about enrolment levels, financial accounting, staff recruiting and the like are seldom - if ever - available. The best one can say is that some are still here."

Inferior offerings?

In his journal essay, titled "Why branch campuses may be unsustainable", Professor Altbach writes that international campuses are "sprouting around the world, like mushrooms after a heavy rain".

But he adds: "Many of the growing mushrooms may only hold a limited lifespan and a few may be poisonous."

Courses in business management and information technology - which have low start-up costs and high worldwide demand - are among the most popular, he notes.

One key problem, he argues, is the "limited curriculum" offered on branch campuses, which "seldom reflect the home university in terms of facilities, the breadth of curriculum, or the experience of studying at the sponsoring institution".

"As governments, accreditors, overseas partners and students become more savvy about their educational goals, they may demand the 'real thing' in the branches."

Professor Altbach says that the University of Liverpool's Chinese partners have requested that its teaching-focused joint-venture campus in Suzhou "be research-focused because Liverpool is itself a research-led university in the UK".

For a branch campus to be successful, he argues, the "student body must largely match the one at home in terms of selectivity and quality", adding that it is "questionable that most branches accept only students who would be qualified at home".

As local institutions in countries such as China increase their own capacity, the market for overseas providers will become more problematic, he predicts.

In the Gulf, some branches "are already facing enrolment problems, and many are operating under capacity".

He adds: "In short, the future market for branch campuses is difficult to predict."

In her essay, titled "International branch campuses: new trends and directions", Dr Becker discusses the increased competition from developing countries establishing their own campuses abroad, which she says has accelerated in the past three years.

She concludes: "The fast expansion in the number of international branch campuses worldwide is likely to lead to increased global competition for international students, along with several successes and failures.

"Partly in response to recent branch-campus closures, higher education institutions have become more aware of the long-term costs and risks involved and are more often looking for sponsors and entering into public-private partnerships to share and reduce such risks."

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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