Universities ‘seek more value’ from branch campuses

RMIT University’s plan to have greater control over Vietnam outpost reflects new ‘phase’ of ‘networked global institutions’, say experts

June 12, 2018
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An Australian university has revealed plans to centralise control of its Vietnamese branch campus, in a move that experts regard as the beginning of a trend of institutions seeking to play a larger role in Asia and to “get more value” from overseas outposts.

RMIT University, which is based in Melbourne, told Times Higher Education that executive leaders at RMIT University Vietnam “will report into functional areas of the university from 1 July”.

A spokeswoman said it was making the change in order to “achieve a much more integrated approach to our operations across Asia”, adding that it hopes to “increase mobility between Melbourne and Vietnam” to “enable us to become more connected than ever before”.

“We are deepening our commitment in Vietnam and looking to build it as a hub for our regional activity,” she said.

RMIT has three campuses in Australia, two campuses in Vietnam, a centre in Spain and offers programmes to students through partners in several locations including Singapore, Hong Kong, mainland China and Indonesia.

Mathews Nkhoma, head of the School of Business and Management at RMIT University Vietnam, said “the changes are part of a new strategy of RMIT’s expansion into the Asia-Pacific region”.

He added that the university has “realigned the responsibilities of some senior management, freeing them up to lead this expansion”.

However, one source at the university told THE that there were low levels of employee engagement and satisfaction at the branch campus, compared with the main campus, and that this may be a factor in RMIT’s changes. Academic studies of branch campuses in general have previously found that leaders tend to feel isolated and unsupported.

Meanwhile, RMIT’s 2017 annual report also shows that student enrolments on the Vietnam campus increased by just 1 per cent to 6,123 between 2015 and 2017.

The report adds that “from a main subsidiaries perspective, RMIT Vietnam delivered a profit of [A]$2 million [£1.13 million], compared to [A]$5.2 million in 2016 as local competition intensified and demand for English courses reduced”.

Richard Garrett, director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, said that the change at RMIT could reflect the “next phase of international branch campuses” as being part of a “networked global institution”, rather than a series of “independent successful centres”.  

He added that the question of “how do you get more value” out of branch campuses “will emerge as a trend”.

The “next phase” could see institutions seek “to get the balance right between overly centralised and overly localised and think about the long-term value or potential of having these nodes that ultimately goes beyond them just becoming an accepted part of the local higher education system”, he said.

Jason Lane, director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York Albany, said that “universities with extensive transnational presences [are] moving toward greater alignment and coordination among their various presences” and “highly autonomous branches do not fit well with this model”.

“Having a physical presence in a country like Vietnam can be an important mechanism for enhancing the overall presence of RMIT in Asia. It’s a bit like having an embassy where you can wave the institutional flag and replicate your institutional ethos in the foreign environment; but you can’t ignore what it means to operate in that local context,” he said.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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