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Branch Campuses and Cross-Border Education: Asking the Right Questions
February 4, 2013 - 7:31pm


Recent entries on The World View from Liz Reisberg and Dennis Roberts and David Stanfield debate whether or not branch campuses are sustainable while agreeing about the complexity of cross-border activities that make them challenging to manage.  Both entries assume that a primary objective of universities that launch these initiatives is to generate revenue from increased demand for post-secondary education in countries with transitional economies.  Another purpose cited is to enhance the international visibility and brand of the home university.

While the issues of sustainability and visibility may seem important, I would argue that the more fundamental question is one of purpose.  Is the project essential to achieving the mission of the home university?  What kind of impact does it have on the home university in terms of its core functions of teaching and learning, research, and service to the larger society and the world? Does it change the campus culture and operations back home?

Unfortunately, branch campuses appear to be only loosely connected to the home campus, with limited impact on the core functions of teaching, learning, scholarship, and scientific research.  Worse still, there is evidence that faculty at the home campus are not often consulted and in some cases have expressed outright opposition to what they perceive as a marginal activity of dubious quality that puts the university’s reputation at risk.  Examples include public opposition or expressions of concern by faculty members at Yale University concerning a campus in Singapore, at Duke University about a Shanghai campus and New York University regarding campuses in Dubai and Shanghai.

The single most limiting factor of foreign campuses and cross border programs is the scarcity of regular faculty members willing to spend extended periods abroad.  Many cross-border programs necessarily rely on adjunct professors and lecturers for the majority of the teaching.  Often they have temporary contracts at salaries well below those paid to faculty at the home campus.  Very few if any links to the home-based faculty are typical.

It is difficult to argue that the cross-border programs add much value to the larger institution when students from the home campus are rarely aware that they exist and are not encouraged or (sometimes) allowed to visit or study there.  Although the marketing and public relations departments of institutions operating abroad make reference to the campus in Qatar, Dubai, Singapore or Shanghai as evidence of the global or international character of the whole institution, it is mostly image making and at best aspirational.  Most often the language used is either an exaggeration or an embellishment and not a reflection of reality.  Claims of being a “global university” or a “global network university” are, for example, quite common. 

Of course there are noteworthy exceptions to this scenario and I don’t mean to suggest that all branch campuses and cross-border education are marginal in quality, not valued or not strategically well integrated into the larger university.  Rather my key point is that the activity abroad must add real value to the core functions and culture of the larger university for it to be sustainable overtime.  For institutions with a primarily undergraduate or first-degree focus, cross-border activities must somehow be linked to and add value to the teaching/learning mission of the whole university.  If graduate and professional studies are a major part of the mission then links to the larger professional community, to alumni as well as the quality of teaching must benefit from international projects. For research-intensive universities with many doctoral programs, opportunities for research, field studies and unique environments and data sets would likely be important.

Developing networks and relationships with universities, governments and professional peers abroad are increasingly seen as crucial to success for most higher education institutions.  This objective is hopefully a major part of the rationale for engaging in cross-border education.  There are few branch campuses or major research initiatives that don’t tie the activity to a larger desire to internationalize the university.  My view is that many if not most American, British or Australian universities that have launched cross-border programs have wasted opportunities to explore the possible benefits to the larger institution by more strategically and effectively integrating the international satellite into the home campus and culture.

Perhaps this demonstrates the lack of seriousness or motivation at these universities to integrate an international if not global dimension to their mission, objectives, activities and culture.  Though many university presidents collect memoranda of understanding (MOU) to demonstrate their desire to create new partnerships abroad and build an international network, we know that very few if any of these MOUs result in real collaborative projects that impact students, faculty or alumni.  The reason, of course, is that substantive and successful international activities require major commitments of resources (both human and financial) and significant changes in the organization and culture of the university.

For these reasons I am not optimistic about the sustainability and quality of most cross-border initiatives founded primarily with objectives to provide revenue and enable greater international visibility. Let me conclude by acknowledging that the focus of my analysis has been on the interests of the foreign university rather than the perspective of the host country governments, institutions and students.  The previous blogs are manifestly correct to argue that mutual respect and mutual benefits are crucial to the success of any successful and sustainable partnership.   This requires high degrees of transparency, good will and perhaps most importantly, knowledge about the other culture and the nature of the institution with whom you are collaborating.  Host countries would do well, I think, to better understand the nature and motivations of foreign universities and what is required to increase chances of success not only locally but at the home campus of their prospective partner. 

Richard Edelstein is a Research Associate at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California, Berkeley and Managing Director of Global University Concepts, a consultancy.



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