Universities are one of the key drivers of the UK’s international engagement. In 2015-2016 some 20% of students studying in the UK were from abroad (including a remarkable 46% of postgraduate students). Universities routinely encourage their staff to join forces with colleagues globally on a large number of international collaborative schemes. More broadly universities’ cross-cultural, transnational engagement promotes values that remain prized in our society (these include tolerance, academic freedom, integrity of research, accountability, transparency, social mobility, and fair access). The great imponderable in all this is, of course, Brexit. As I have written about here, universities face a challenging situation with the potential for significant financial losses through loss of access to EU funding, declines in EU student recruitment, and staff retention. But there are signs now that universities are considering other options, and looking to consolidate their position in the transnational educational field, through branch campuses in particular.
The current situation globally
A useful resource from the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT) shows that as of 2017, the UK hosts a relatively modest number of branch campuses on its own territory (9 in all, including 3 from France – ESCP Europe, EDHEC Business School, and Groupe INSEEC London; 1 from Malaysia – Limkokwing University of Creative Technology; 1 from Switzerland – Glion Institute of Higher Education; and 4 from the US – Schiller International University, American Intercontinental University, The University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and Hult International Business School, London Campus).
The situation is reversed when it comes to exporting branch campuses. C-BERT lists 43 UK university branch campuses abroad, placing the UK in second place globally for number of branch campuses abroad, after the United States. Host countries for UK institutions are globally distributed. Examples (not a comprehensive list!) include branch campuses in Brazil (Manchester Business School), Dubai (Heriot-Watt), Ghana (Lancaster), Qatar (UCL), as well as a significant number in the Far East, including China (Nottingham), Malaysia (Nottingham), Singapore (Manchester), and South Korea (Aberdeen). Egypt is reportedly in the course of enacting legislation to encourage foreign UK investment, Birmingham will soon open its first branch campus (in the UAE), and the University of Aberdeen has recently opened a branch campus (in Qatar). Not all attempts to establish branch campuses have been entirely positive, however: the University of East London closed its campus in Cyprus in 2013, UCL closed its Australian campus in 2015, and recently the University of Warwick announced that it would be withdrawing from its plans to open a campus in California.
Closer to home?
This is a far from comprehensive account of current UK branch campus activity, but it also shows that branch campus activity is not distributed evenly in global terms and that there are areas where the UK now has no presence (Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Russia), or very little presence (the EU).
UK universities’ approach to the EU is an interesting case. Currently, the EU hosts just 4 UK branch campuses: in Brussels (Kent), Cyprus (Central Lancashire), Greece (Sheffield), and Paris (University of London). However, there is news afoot of talks with France (Warwick has confirmed its interest), as well as Germany, where TU Dresden and KCL are in talks to open a campus on basis of their 2015 ‘TransCampus’ research exchange initiative. Establishing branch campuses in the EU now is one way in which UK universities might retain access to EU funding, continue to benefit from significant EU collaboration on their doorsteps, and importantly, continue to attract the EU UG and PG students who may be discouraged from enrolling in the UK itself. Branch campuses may therefore be a game-changer for UK universities post-Brexit, allowing universities to insulate themselves from the financial uncertainties of leaving the EU, at the same time as demonstrating to our neighbours in the EU, as well as the world, that the UK remains a powerful presence in transnational education, committed to open and generous collaboration in both research and teaching.
Substantive groundwork must be done before the establishment of any branch campus, including a thorough investigation of the regional and national context (including risk assessment, political stability, as well as any regional practices that might have consequences for the host institution). Experts in risk assessment must be deployed to undertake this basic groundwork, including, for example, consultation with the FCO at the very minimum. Financial consultation must take place as part of the risk assessment, including the sounding out of the willingness of the host country to incentivise the home country to undertake any significant capital investments (buildings, equipment) there. Market research is also essential, in order to set the correct balance of fees/ tariff to recruit ambitious students. Local competitors and/or comparators should be researched; in addition, connections with feeder institutions (second-level educational institutions) must be established, at least in principle. Finally, questions of local customs and practice, including local laws, must be clarified in full.
Once this groundwork has been done, the next step is to draw up a formal Memorandum of Agreement with the state authorities. Recent events have proved more than ever the importance of embedding shared values in international enterprises. The process for establishing a branch campus must, therefore, include a transparent MoA between the university and the host authorities (both national and regional), which lays these shared values out. The MoA must also include penalties for failing to respect these values, including a transparent process for withdrawal should these values fail to be respected on either side. The MoA should also cover agreements on curriculum content (who determines it), staffing recruitment, promotion, and retention (how staff are to be recruited fairly and transparently), taxation and other remuneration issues (whether tax is to be at local rates or home rates); as well as benchmarks for teaching and research. Staffing must be treated very carefully under an MoA – will staff be recruited locally, for instance, and if so, how will they be remunerated? If staff from the home institution are seconded to the branch campus, how will they be taxed? Will their posts in the home institution remain open to them on their return? How is the relationship between home and host country staff to be managed to avoid resentments? In short, the MoA must clearly establish lines of management to both parties’ satisfaction, thereby managing expectations to ensure parity of standards.
Quality Assessment represents the largest hurdle to the ongoing success of any branch campus. It is usually the case that the degree regulations of the branch campus mirror those of the home institution, and are managed by the home institution. This can prove difficult in practice, however. Universities face a significant challenge in maintaining a healthy culture of sharing good practice across campuses. Regular contact (virtual meetings), as well as the use of rigorously maintained VLEs, can help ensure this, but this is still an area that requires active and ongoing attention. Local quality regulators may also wish to work in concert with QAA (or now, OfS) to ensure parity.
Of course, branch campuses offer a great range of benefits to universities, not least in providing a vastly expanded experience for students, promoting cultural difference, and tolerance. But universities must take great care to avoid reputational or financial damage by rushing to establish a branch without first doing significant groundwork. Branch campuses represent a challenge in that the home university must not only be in good faith in its endeavour, but must demonstrate that good faith to its branch campus staff, students, and crucially, potential students, as well as to employers the world over. Universities must convince their potential audience that their mission is genuinely educative and transformational.