The only surprise about the abrupt closing  of Michigan State University’s branch campus in the Gulf is the timing — its demise was remarkably quick. The stated reason for the closing was that enrollments were short of expectations, but no doubt the underlying causes are more substantial. There are, of course, lessons to be learned. It would be very helpful if the MSU administration, once the dust settles, would provide a full accounting of the saga so that others might learn the pitfalls and problems of this fiasco.
In the absence of any inside knowledge, the following factors are likely to be at play. For a start many, if not all, of the American and European branch campuses (as well as other initiatives in the region) have been heavily subsidized by the Gulf countries. It is hard to reject such subsidies even if the prospects for success may be a bit dubious. After all, money talks. No doubt, senior administrators think to themselves, “What the heck. If it does not work, we are not losing much.”
Internationalization is, of course, a buzzword of 21st century higher education. Perhaps universities see establishing a branch campus as a way of “planting the flag” overseas and pushing the internationalization agenda. It is somewhat surprising that Michigan State would feel a need to “plant the flag” when it already has a significant reputation for international involvement. The Gulf may appear to be an easy road to “big splash” internationalization — little financial risk and high visibility. The problem comes if the bet does not pay off — high visibility also occurs with failure.
Some university presidents seem to want to build overseas empires. MSU’s Simon seems to be one, along with NYU’s Sexton and others. The problem is that the hubris of empire building might get in the way of rational planning and building consensus on campus. Reports have it, for example, that many on the East Lansing campus of MSU were unhappy with the Gulf initiative and argued against it. But the top leadership plunged in anyway — apparently without the due diligence required.
MSU experienced the same problem that sunk George Mason University’s Gulf initiative not long ago and that currently threatens many of the existing branches — low enrollments. It is highly unlikely that there are enough potential students to make most of the branches viable. The population base in the Gulf countries is relatively small, and most local students who have the ability to enter the American branch campus also have the option of studying in the United States or Europe. Some think that these branches will be particularly attractive to women students whose families do not wish them to study far away and to some extent, this is true. There are also efforts to attract students from the wider Middle East and from South Asia — again, most will prefer to study in the “real” United States rather than the branch campus. In addition, a number of the Gulf countries are improving their own higher education institutions — these will attract some local students when they are perceived to be as good as the branch campuses. Indian academic institutions are also establishing branches in the Gulf, generally without the generous subsidies given to the Westerners, but they will inevitably siphon off many South Asian expatriates working in the Gulf. In short, it is not at all clear that there is a sufficient number of potential students.
All of the Gulf branches claim to uphold the same academic standards as on their home campus. While there is as yet no evidence to the contrary, it seems quite unlikely that this can be the case. The need for enrollments probably trumps standards. There may also be problems with English proficiency.
There is little transparency around the operation of the branches. The full terms and conditions of the subsidies, direct and indirect, provided are not always clear. The direct and indirect costs shouldered by the home university are often not fully disclosed. In general, there is little open discussion at home concerning all of the issues involved with setting up and maintaining the overseas campus.
MSU did not have the chance to experience the problems of sustaining a branch campus. These include convincing home campus faculty to teach abroad for longer than two weeks at a time.
MSU failed at almost the same time that New York University’s new campus in Abu Dhabi began operating — apparently with great success and certainly with widespread publicity. To this observer, the hoopla does not pass the sniff test. How can so many students with such outstanding test scores want to study in the Gulf when many other American universities have had problems accomplishing this? So far, the reports from NYU—all from the university’s very efficient publicity machine — are positive. We shall see what the future holds. If someone asked me to invest in this venture, or for that matter in any others, I would continue to keep my money under the mattress.
Philip G. Altbach is Monan University professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.