The Imperfect University: The End of Internationalisation?

Is it the end for internationalization?

No. It’s not a bubble. It’s not bursting.

A recent Chronicle blog suggested that, in common with some other higher education activities, internationalization was a bubble and about to burst. It isn’t. International student recruitment patterns continue to evolve, some branch campuses are less successful than others and the global economic downturn is having an impact on everyone. This doesn’t mean international higher education is finished.

Unfortunately though it does seem that with all of the hype around MOOCs and the talk of the havoc that this disruptive innovation will wreak on higher education it is beginning to feel that internationalization is last year’s topic for university leaders. Leaving aside the fact that online learning, in whatever form, can largely be offered freely across national borders, the key issue here is the challenge presented by MOOCs to the traditional campus experience, especially when it is on an offshore campus.

The argument goes that if students can access university courses wherever they are why would they need to travel to a campus overseas (or a branch campus in their own country) to do so. At a stroke therefore transnational education and student mobility are eliminated and branch campuses, of which there are now in excess of 200 with at least another 37 on the way (according to the latest OBHE survey from January 2012), will inevitably wither and die.

First, I really don’t think all the MOOC hype sounds the death knell for internationalization of higher education. It remains a huge and growing market across the world with over 3.5m (in 2009) of the world’s higher education students studying in countries other than their own and growth rates in tertiary education and student mobility only expected to slow a little over the next period (according to the British Council’s Shape of Things to Come report).

Second, the campus offer remains a hugely attractive one. Whether it is a UK, US or Australian university or the Chinese, Malaysian or UAE campus of a western institution, the nature of the experience, the quality of delivery and the employment prospects offered by successful completion of a degree all still look like a pretty good option, wherever you are in the world.

University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

Third, in terms of promoting the home institution overseas, whilst a couple of snappy MOOCs might look like they have some decent enrolments, there really isn’t a substitute for a substantive in-country presence for raising profile.

Fourth, when western governments start getting sniffy about visas then the branch campus option nearer home (which is usually cheaper too) looks increasingly like a sensible option.

Fifth, universities are, of course, about much more than just content delivery. Developing a comprehensive branch campus offer doesn’t just mean offering courses, it’s also about engaging with students in a different cultural context, establishing new research and knowledge transfer activity (including bilateral investment opportunities) and playing an active part in a community in another country.

Sixth, as the OBHE report shows, branch campus numbers continue to grow as universities realize the long term benefits of establishing a physical presence overseas. And whilst NYU seems to have run into some difficulties at home in persuading its faculty of the merits of its international ambitions, more and more universities are following its lead and that of Nottingham in building overseas campuses.

Seventh, and this is the key reason that internationalisation will not disappear, it is an intrinsic part of higher education and it is fundamentally a long game. You don’t build a branch campus overnight and it is a huge long term commitment. Not quite the same as a 10 hour MOOC. Demonstrating commitment to a branch campus is hugely important to show that the university is there for the long term and not merely pursuing temporary opportunistic goals. This kind of genuine internationalization is serious, inevitably risky and extremely challenging. But it’s worth it.

Not over yet

Not over yet

So has disruptive innovation displaced internationalization? Will MOOCs kill branch campuses? No. Undoubtedly the challenges in maintaining the quality of campus delivery and the need to blend online and face-to-face will become more sharply focused but the future of higher education remains most firmly international.

The narrative around disruptive innovation is very short termist, its evangelists preach the language of overnight revolution, of avalanches and tsunami. Seductive as this hype might be from those who think that the physical campus is sure to die, they are profoundly mistaken. There will remain a fundamental place for the campus in the high quality higher education experience for many years to come. Steady long term pursuit of international development remains sound strategy. Investment, partnership, relationship building, putting down roots, long term commitment, shared learning, indeed all of the things that run counter to the disruptive innovation discourse, are at the heart of internationalization.

Internationalisation of higher education may have been displaced by MOOCs in the headlines but it is still very much at the heart of strategy of leading universities. It is therefore perhaps a bit early to be writing off internationalization of HE and branch campus developments.

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3 thoughts on “The Imperfect University: The End of Internationalisation?

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The Imperfect University: The End of Internationalisation?

  2. There’s a great deal of sense in this post, I think. One size does not fit all circumstances. In the same way that one business model does not suit all businesses, one educational model does not suit all universities. Indeed – as in our institution – a single university may employ a number of different models, depending on its own balance of strengths and on circumstances in each country. University leaders need both to have a long-term strategy for internationalisation and to consider the tactics of each circumstance carefully.

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