The announcement that University College London is to open UCL-Q – a branch campus in Qatar – was something of a coup for the Gulf state.
The education-focused Qatar Foundation has been courting British universities for some time, and securing UCL’s signature last month was no mean feat.
However, the development of regional hubs for higher education is not without its challenges. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of higher education projects among the Gulf states, which are seeking to diversify both their economies and societies.
Some of the challenges are outlined in a paper by Stephen Wilkins, a doctoral student at the International Centre for Higher Education Management at the University of Bath.
It says that of all the countries in the Middle and Far East that have established higher education hubs, the United Arab Emirates has the greatest number of international branch campuses: around 40 in all.
Given that the UAE has a population of about 5 million, this has already led to local concerns that supply may be exceeding demand.
Mr Wilkins reports in his paper, titled “Higher Education in the UAE: an Analysis of the Outcomes of Significant Increases in Supply and Competition” and published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, that some institutions have failed to achieve their recruitment targets for branch campuses.
In May last year, for example, George Mason University, based in Virginia, US, closed its campus in the Arab emirate of Ras al-Khaimah less than three years after it opened.
It had managed to enrol only 180 students, Mr Wilkins says.
The difficulty that some universities face in recruiting students to their branch campuses is not the only risk.
Christopher Davidson, deputy head of the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, said that other factors included the dangers to a university’s brand of operating in countries where exploitation of migrant labour was commonplace, where there was danger of regional conflict, and where question marks remained over academic freedom. He also suggested that many Western universities, especially those operating in the undergraduate market, would find it hard to recruit the same quality of students at their branch campuses as they do at home.
With so many potential pitfalls, discretion may be the better part of valour for universities considering overseas outposts.
With this in mind, it could be wise to seek advice from those who have gone before.
“Being [in Qatar] will mean that we can give advice to other UK universities about the challenges of negotiation,” Professor Worton said. “It’s a very different world and we want to help other British universities when we can.”