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In Elizabeth Redden’s recent article, The Branch Campus Boom(s), she offers historic perspective on the development of international branch campuses. Quoting Dr. Anna Kosmützky (University of Kassel, Germany) extensively, the article implies that this phenomenon is here to stay although, perhaps, not necessarily a viable long-term strategy for all comers.

As Dr. Kosmützky notes, for many universities the entry costs are minimal, as cash outlays are typically covered by the host government. The venture is attractive to all concerned as it provides the host country with the prestige of foreign degrees awarded on national soil and builds the international profile of the international university. So, a win-win.  But is it?  Several issues still dog this dimension of internationalization.

A challenge for the international university, of course, is finding faculty willing to travel and remain abroad for extended periods of time.  Do the best professors participate?  Can a significant subset of the faculty offer the same quality education and opportunities as the entire faculty. So, can this kind of “off-shore” venture truly provide an experience equal to, or at least, comparable to the education provided on the home campus?  Or is it more like the degree offered by the continuing education divisions of most universities, that always seems to be somewhat “less than”.  A degree from the Harvard Extension School does not have the same currency as a degree from Harvard University.  Nor does a degree from Metropolitan College have the same heft as a degree from Boston University.  Or a degree from University College at the University of Maryland.  The list could go on.  So how is a degree from a branch campus valued?  Is it the same as a degree from the main campus or more like one awarded by the continuing education division?  Does anyone know?

The social climate is most certainly different from that of the home campus.  Most branch campuses are located in cultures that are significantly more conservative than the home country culture.  This could be a blessing as well as a significant advantage of the branch campus.  Given the extensive coverage of the excessive indulgence of alcoholic beverages and sexual abuse on US campuses, the branch campuses would seem to offer a healthier social environment for undergraduates. 

But with many political and social topics deemed “off limits” by the host country, is there a detrimental impact on the personal and social development of students studying on the international campus due to limitations placed on their exploration and discussion of complex contemporary issues?  We were reminded of this only too vividly just yesterday when a New York University professor was intercepted at Kennedy Airport on his way to Abu Dhabi to conduct research on labor conditions.  Although Emirati authorities weren’t specific about the reason for denying travel permission, Professor Andrew Ross had been critical of the UAE government for the exploitation of migrant construction workers.  The incident has rippled through NYU campus in Manhattan as the implications are debated.

As with many internationalization initiatives, branch campuses seem to be driven by opportunity more than thoughtful institutional strategy.  Much like the pursuit of international students as a source of revenue first, and as a campus asset (maybe) later. In both cases, there is rarely sufficient groundwork on the home campus to determine what is necessary not only for the initiative to be successful, but how the endeavor relates to mission and whether it will enhance some quality of the institution or present academic or ethical dilemmas.  Rather, branch campuses offer a low-cost entry onto an increasingly competitive international higher education landscape with the possibility of short-term benefits.  Dr. Kosmützky’s gold rush metaphor seems about right.  It’s important to remember that all ventures do not strike gold and there is always the risk of mining pyrite (fool’s gold). 

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