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Real internationalisation: thoughts after the gold rush

Establishing an overseas campus is very far from straightforward. Universities will better reap the rewards on their investment if they look beyond the short-term financial gains, writes Paul Greatrix.
This article is more than 6 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

A report in THE on a session at the recent Going Global conference focused on the financial aspects of universities’ international activities, and one speaker observed that universities might “kill” internationalisation if their activities are too concerned with commercial benefits:

Nico Jooste, senior director of international education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, told the British Council’s Going Global conference that universities were not “prepared” to put enough money into their global activities and would “rather see internationalisation as generating funds than spending funds”.

The growing public hostility towards globalisation and immigration, Dr Jooste continued, required universities to “scientifically analyse what we do” in areas such as academic and student mobility and then “communicate that to the wider public”.

“The benefits of internationalisation and global connectedness far outstrip being isolated. Unless we bring the right message, we actually are defeating ourselves constantly,” he said.

Also speaking at the session, John Hudzik of Michigan State University said universities:

had to focus on what the public wants rather than on the benefits internationalisation brings to institutions.

He agreed with Dr Jooste that universities should focus on measuring the outcomes of their activities in this area, such as how they improve student learning and problem-solving, rather than simply counting their numbers of international students and programmes.

The bigger picture

It is extraordinary how many misapprehensions there are about universities’ international branch campus (IBC) activity. In particular, there is still a common view that an IBC is or should be a cash cow, but this is very far from the reality. While several universities have had big money dowries, for most there is a need to focus on becoming self-sustaining. Moreover, the essence of the branch campus approach has to embody a spirit of engagement, genuine partnership and adopt a long-term view and not be focused on extracting money. While it is inevitable that there will be a need to repatriate some funds to cover part of the costs of operations, it would fundamentally undermine confidence in the enterprise and credibility if it appears that the aim is to extract money, and this would simply not be sustainable in the long run.

One novel approach was recently reported in University World News and comes from the University of Arizona which says it has developed a new model for transnational education, which it calls a “microcampus”:

Micro-campuses leverage technology to deliver cutting-edge education to students wherever they are in the world, while preserving an in-class, on-campus experience. With two micro-campuses already in operation and 11 additional micro-campus agreements in place, the UA aims to build a global network of micro-campuses, with more partner universities added to the network over time.

Under the ‘micro-campus’ model, the UA partners with international universities that provide the UA a designated space within their campuses. Partner universities also provide their physical campus and classrooms for UA courses, which alleviates the need for new infrastructure and allows the UA to focus on affordably delivering educational instruction in collaboration with the partner institution.

Students at a micro-campus maintain their full student status at the partner university while enrolled in for-credit UA courses, offered locally.

Beyond fostering international education, micro-campuses can also act as hubs for joint faculty research and grant proposals, collaboration that will naturally extend from a teaching model that cultivates close working relationships between UA and partner university faculty.

Additionally, because micro-campuses are financially self-sustaining, they promote sustainable internationalisation, providing a platform and physical location for faculty training and exchange, service-learning, internships and other forms of engaged learning.

Times Higher added that the university’s first microcampus, at Ocean University of China, in Qingdao, is two years into offering a dual undergraduate degree programme in law and a second UA microcampus location, at the American University of Phnom Penh, in Cambodia opens soon.

The university has announced 11 more microcampuses, mainly in Asia and the Middle East, as listed in THE:

  • De La Salle University, the Philippines
  • Harbin Institute of Technology, China
  • Lebanese International University
  • Princess Sumaya University for Technology, Jordan
  • Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, China
  • Soochow University, Taiwan
  • Telkom University, Indonesia
  • Tzu Chi University of Science and Technology, Taiwan
  • Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla, Mexico
  • University of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
  • Vietnam National University

It’s an interesting model, but it is debatable whether these collaborative activities are genuinely “microcampuses” as is claimed. This looks like a programme of dual degree provision using shared facilities. So perhaps it’s an overstatement to describe these in this way, but nevertheless, it is an innovative approach.

Of course part of the reason for this development is that there is a view that branch campuses are no longer the way forward in terms of transnational education and that strategic partnerships (or now microcampuses) are the best way forward. However, the number of branch campus operations continues to grow.

As the 2016 Observatory on Borderless Higher Education’s latest new report on branch campus shows there is still some significant growth here and the total number of international branch campuses has grown to 249, up by a quarter since the last survey, although the rate of growth has slowed a little. However, there are about 20 branch campuses under development, so even if expansion is slower, it is undoubtedly continuing. A reminder that five home countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and Australia – together account for nearly three-quarters of all IBCs and growth and planned developments are largely from US and European universities. The top host countries and areas of growth are perhaps unsurprising:

The top five host countries are China (32), the United Arab Emirates (31), Singapore (12), Malaysia (12), and Qatar (11), which together host 98 IBCs, or 39% of the world’s total. China has overtaken UAE as the top host country. The number of IBCs continues to increase, with concentrated growth in China, Malaysia, Mauritius and South Korea from 2011-2015 and slowed growth in UAE.

The numbers though remain small, and according to the OBHE, there are only around 180,000 students worldwide enrolled in branch campuses which is less than 4% of the estimated 5m mobile students.

Goings on in the Gulf

Many universities have chosen to focus their international branch campus activity in the Middle East. Those which have based themselves in Qatar are having to deal with the possible consequences of a major diplomatic falling out between the state and its neighbours. As Inside Higher Ed noted there could be an impact for some universities:

An embargo on tiny, oil-rich Qatar could have outsize impacts on the international education world. Numerous well-known U.S. universities — Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth Universities — have campuses in the Education City complex in the capital city of Doha that have been financed by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. Officials at some U.S. universities with campuses in Qatar said Monday that they were monitoring the situation and that summer classes and other operations are continuing.

Only last month the Times Higher reported that the University of Aberdeen had opened a new campus in Qatar:

The University of Aberdeen officially opened its multi-million pound facility in Doha on 30 April, in partnership with the Al-Faleh Group for Educational and Academic Services (AFG).

Initially, the campus will offer two undergraduate business degrees to Qatari nationals and those from the country’s expatriate community, with expectations of attracting around a 120-student cohort in the 2017-18 academic year. Aberdeen will control the educational aspects of the degrees – such as entry requirements and curricula – while AFG will fund the facilities and support staff.

Over the next four years, the campus is expected to expand to include additional undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.

University of Aberdeen opening in Qatar in happier times

Genuine internationalisation

There are, of course, many ways for UK universities to respond to the need to retain their international outlook in what will undoubtedly be an extraordinarily challenging post-Brexit environment. The branch campus option is one of these, although I do think the easy way in which they are often discussed usually fails to take account of the extraordinary efforts required to establish a whole campus in another country. There is also the need to look beyond income generation as a motive.

A genuinely internationalised university brings huge benefits for its home country as well as those in which it operates. It is essential to be clear about motivations and objectives though. While some governments may see both economic and soft power benefits from exporting HE and others may welcome incoming universities’ contributions to growth and capacity building, the impact of universities’ international activities is complex and multi-faceted, and the practicalities of delivery are hugely challenging.

Establishing an overseas campus is very far from straightforward. Challenges range from building the infrastructure to restructuring institutional and local governance. Legal issues, financial arrangements and developing local management can take time and significant effort, as can coming to terms with an entirely new academic, political and cultural framework. It also necessitates close relationships based on trust and taking a long-term view with partners. And the new political challenges in Qatar offer a reminder that the local environment can change pretty quickly for international campuses.

To leverage the full benefit of an international campus, though, an institution must have a strategy that goes beyond thinking about cash-generation. The management input required is high, and there are inevitably opportunity costs. The investment is substantial, but it is worth it for a university committed to an international vision that goes beyond generating income from overseas student fees. Such a global footprint, therefore, has real impact on the institution, its students, staff and stakeholders as well as for the governments and society at home and in the countries with which it is deeply engaged.

This real and comprehensive international impact though is therefore about much more than just the money.

3 responses to “Real internationalisation: thoughts after the gold rush

  1. Thanks for this analysis Paul. However it seems a missed opportunity under your heading ‘Genuine Internationalisation’ not to mention internationalisation of the curriculum within the UK. All the while we focus on student numbers and branch campuses we’re taking an institutional view rather than the needs of students. Even if we meet UUKi’s 13.2% target by 2020, mobility is not the answer, since it fails to reach over 86% of the student population. Unless we effectively internationalise curricula, they are missing out on the many benefits for their future personal and professional lives in a multicultural, globalising environment. (Happy to offer refs in evidence).

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