International branch campuses could break free from the UK universities that set them up and become independent institutions within decades, according to the pro vice-chancellor who oversees the UK’s two biggest overseas outposts.
Christine Ennew, the University of Nottingham’s pro vice-chancellor for internationalisation, said that a branch campus might seek independence if it had “created a brand in its own right that has sufficient independence and distance” from its UK parent.
Professor Ennew drew an analogy with the University of London, which has evolved from a centrally controlled single institution into one where the colleges are entirely autonomous.
Independence was “unlikely” to occur in the next decade, but “in the next 25 years, [the situation] may be different”, she added.
The number of branch campuses owned by UK universities grew from nine in 2006 to 25 at the end of 2011, according to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE).
Nottingham has set up the UK’s two largest branch campuses by number of students.
Ningbo, China is the biggest (4,536), followed by the institution’s Malaysia campus (3,779), where Professor Ennew will take over as provost next spring.
Asked whether Nottingham’s branch campuses could one day break away, Professor Ennew said: “It would be very naive to say no, it couldn’t happen…We wouldn’t want to see that happen because it would be a bit of a loss.”
She added that such an eventuality had not been discussed when Nottingham planned its overseas outposts.
Even in such a scenario, strong research and student-exchange links would likely remain between the two institutions, so the UK parent would still benefit from its investment, Professor Ennew said.
However, she acknowledged that the relationship would be “less attractive” than in its current form.
Independence could take the form of a local management buyout or a sale to a third party, she said, but cautioned that unless both sides agreed with the split, the process could be “very messy” legally.
Prestige and politics
Bill Lawton, director of the OBHE, agreed that “the potential is there” for a breakaway if a branch campus could establish a reputation as prestigious as its UK parent.
“In 20 years’ time, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the branch campuses hadn’t gone their own way,” he said. “But I don’t think many home institutions would want that to happen.”
He said that a system with less hierarchical language than the branch campus model - such as New York University’s “network” of 10 study centres across the world - might create a more “stable relationship” for the future.
Joanna Newman, director of the international unit at Universities UK, said that national governments could encourage or impose the independence of branch campuses for their own reasons.
In India, the long-delayed Foreign Universities Bill (which is currently on hold) is designed to encourage foreign providers into the country and ratchet up competition for local providers, she explained in Times Higher Education last month.
“When their own institutions are sufficient, they might say: ‘that’s enough, we don’t need you [foreign branch campuses] any more’,” Dr Newman said.