ASMALL campus in the American Midwest is opening branches on five continents in a bid to become the world's first international university.
Webster University in St Louis already offers American-style higher education at satellite facilities in London, Geneva, Vienna, Bermuda, Shanghai and Leiden in the Netherlands and has plans for more in Thailand, South Africa and Latin America. It now has 25,000 students from 87 countries on campuses in six countries.
Richard Meyers, president of Webster, which has a long tradition of operating branch campuses offering mid-career graduate courses in other American cities and on military bases, said: "A lot of it was just being at the right place at the right time. But a lot is also based on a philosophy we saw early on, that diversity in a university education was better for an institution and better for the students in it.
"The concept of international education for us is basically to intermingle diversity and ideas and to completely avoid any large single national group of students so that, wherever we are, we have a large broad mix of students and ideas."
The university began its international expansion with a continuing-education programme for English-speaking professionals in Geneva in 1978. Many said they wanted US-style undergraduate education for their children, so Webster established an undergraduate campus in Geneva where enrolment has since grown to 700 young people from 104 countries.
Vienna was next in 1981, Leiden in 1983 and London in 1986. Shanghai opened last year and will soon admit its first non-Chinese students. A campus in Thailand is scheduled to open in the autumn, followed by others in South Africa and Mexico or Chile.
Other US universities have branches overseas, but they function largely as study-abroad destinations for Americans or as revenue-generating English-language programmes.
Most of Webster's foreign students come from affluent families that sent them to private English-language high schools and can afford fees 14 times more expensive than those charged in their own home countries.
But the school's administrators reject the suggestion that their internationalisation is a move to milk this lucrative foreign market.
"You don't go to any foreign country to make money," said Dr Meyers, who said his non-profit university's overseas operations only break even. "You go there because you're an educational institution that can offer a product somebody wants and needs, and you go there because that's your business."