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The following blog is a response to last week's post, 1+1 equals less than 2.


Don’t throw out the baby!  Respect and mutual benefit lead to positive impact and sustainability

Last week’s WorldWiew post highlighted the complexities of cross-border higher education, and argued that these initiatives are mostly unsustainable. Innovation and transnational collaboration in higher education (and any industry for that matter) are complicated, and cross-border education is no exception. And as Liz Reisberg correctly suggests, overseas institutions and their local partners often have different, and sometimes conflicting, purposes for engaging in cross-border education. Fundamental differences between higher education systems in various countries further compound the issue.

That said, contrary to what Dr. Reisberg implies, successful cross-border partnerships do exist. In fact, the overall percentage of unsuccessful projects is very low. The Observatory for Borderless Higher Education indicates that of over 200 international branch campuses currently in operation around the world, only a handful have “bit the dust.” Some may be surprised by this low rate of failure, considering the steady coverage of failed branch campuses, faculty discontent over efforts to internationalize across borders, etc. Stories of successful cross-border initiatives, though far more common, do not make for sexy headlines.

In short, there are a promising number of programs currently in operation; but creating and maintaining successful cross-border initiatives requires significant effort, and should not be entered into hastily. Most importantly, partners must be willing to engage in a time-consuming and continuous process of seeking mutual understanding and perspective, thereby increasing the likelihood of a common and sustainable purpose. Efforts to realize mutual expectations are thus not only about what ends up in the formal agreement between institution and host, particularly in cultural settings outside North America. U.S. universities mistakenly see the contract as preeminent, whereas in many parts of Asia, the Middle East, and Africa it is more about respect and trust in the relationship. In this light, the “driving a hard bargain” characteristic of some Western practice seldom leads to sustainable relationships.

There will be occasions when, despite earnest efforts from both sides to negotiate, cross-border agreements do not work out. As Dr. Reisberg points out, sometimes the issue is purely financial – the branch campus can’t meet its expenses when enrollment projections do not unfold as anticipated. Where the funding strategy includes a significant subsidy from the host environment, or begins generously and declines over time as reputations take root and enrollment stabilizes, there is a higher likelihood of success.

One of the more difficult issues for start-up branch campuses is the perceived value of higher education in relation to its cost. The cost of higher education in the U.S. in particular is far higher than families and students may encounter elsewhere. The implication is that branch campuses in these settings have to demonstrate their worth to host partners and potential students, particularly in relation to addressing local and regional needs. Students who have the means to study abroad may do so because they see an opportunity to pursue both education and cultural immersion. On the other hand, some students may prefer to study in their own country or region, at a high-quality international university in a more familiar and supportive cultural environment.

One final caveat, beyond Dr. Reisberg’s caution about rushing into cross-border relationships: post-secondary institutions wishing to enhance their brand in the international arena, and thus their own domestic credibility, must make sure to bring their best practices and intellectual curiosity to the host environment. An institution that cuts corners, denying branch campus students the full quality and transforming potential of the best education has to offer, will command neither loyalty nor appreciation. In addition, an institution lacking curiosity and a desire to improve will not learn the critical lessons of true international engagement; in a cross-border partnership, that is what makes both the host environment and the branch campus provider better.

The UNLV case addressed by Dr. Reisberg, and the other examples she cites in Singapore and elsewhere, are part of an emerging industry—not fully understood, and certainly not perfected.  There will be challenges, and even failures. That said, we would earnestly like to see more of those who work in these settings, hosts and partners alike, engaged in shaping the analyses, research and literature about cross-border education.


Dennis Roberts is an Assistant Vice President at the Qatar Foundation in Doha, Qatar, and David Stanfield is a Research Assistant and Doctoral Student at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, USA.

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