Branch campuses: cut or grow?

Contrasting views of the right direction for internationalisation

A recent piece in the Times Higher covered a report from the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education on what looks like something of a retrenchment in institutions’ international activities:

Opened with great fanfare in the 1990s and 2000s, international branch campuses such as Suffolk’s – which Du Jardin says lost about $1 million (£622,000) a year because of lower-than-projected enrolment – have been quietly closing for financial and other reasons.

This doesn’t mean the end of so-called “transnational education”: universities are increasingly taking the more affordable step of teaming up with host partners. And a report by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, due to be published next week, will show that the UK has become the international leader in such efforts. More international students are now working towards UK degrees overseas than at home, the OBHE says.

But much of the momentum behind opening entirely new campuses in other countries seems to have been lost. For example, US universities opened a peak of 11 international branch campuses in 2008. Last year they launched just three, and this year, one. And at least 13 US, Irish and Australian international branch campuses have closed, according to the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany. The OBHE report will also show that international branch campus activity has slowed.

“We had a gold-rush mentality. All sorts of universities thought this would be a new way to increase international market share and gain new revenue,” says Jason Lane, the SUNY research team’s co-director.

This was covered in a previous post on US universities and in a report on the ‘branch campus bubble’. But a rather different perspective is provided in a recent report from the 1994 Group of universities (again reported in THE):

Research-intensive universities in the UK should be considering setting up more campuses overseas to counter the threat of falling international student numbers at home, a mission group has said.

A report on internationalisation from the 1994 Group suggests there is more scope for research-intensives to set up abroad – and that they should consider working with other universities to achieve such a goal.

The study says post-1992 universities had been able to deliver more higher education “offshore” than pre-1992 institutions, but there was no reason why they should not follow suit.

This was also imperative given that they had traditionally relied on being able to attract large numbers of overseas students to study in the UK – a trend now at risk from the government’s immigration reforms.

“There is scope for research-intensive institutions to grow offshore provision internationally as University Alliance and million+ universities have successfully been able to do,” says the report, Strategies and trends in the internationalisation of UK universities.

An interesting contrast. But, as previously noted in relation to another set of views on branch campuses, this has to be a long term strategy for institutions and cannot be viewed as simply an income generating activity (ie to offset any drop in international student recruitment to the UK). A gold rush mentality just does not work here.