International Branch Campuses: Interview with William Lawton of OBHE

by Keith Hampson

The flow of students between countries has been growing for decades. A more recent trend is the rise of international branch campuses – operations set up by universities in (primarily) emerging markets. To better understand  this development, I connected with Dr. William Lawton, Director at The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education.

KCH: Your most recent report, and the subject of an upcoming conference, is international branch campuses (IBCs). What are the factors driving the growth of IBC’s?

WL: The main drivers identified in our 2009 were: access to a portion of the international student market that do not wish to or cannot afford to study abroad, the revenues associated with that new market, prestige: visibility as an international institution with global ambitions, opportunities for student and staff mobility between campuses, international teaching experience for academic staff, ability for academic staff to maintain research output while working abroad, increased knowledge and understanding of other cultures on the home campus opportunities to develop new curricula, access to local institutions, including government and industry, a competitive edge in the international higher education market. To these we can add what might be a deciding factor in many cases: financial support from the host government. There are governments, notably in east and southeast Asia, that see IBCs as an integral part of their ‘regional education hub’ aspirations.

KCH: Is there a picture emerging of what is working and what isn’t? Is there anything resembling a success formula for IBCs?

WL: I don’t think this can be characterised in a simple manner. Some might say that smaller ‘niche’ campuses have fewer overheads and simpler business models and can therefore be financially self-sustaining more quickly. But the larger operations that offer the full range of degrees and courses could be said to offer an ‘education experience’ that is closer to what is offered at the home institution. Apart from small postgraduate institutions, IBCs are focused on teaching, but the best universities produce research as well. Whether an IBC model emerges in which the interplay between teaching and research is replicated remains to be seen.

KCH: What are “education hubs” and what role do they play in developing international education?

WL: Jane Knight from the University of Toronto has worked on defining hubs. She has come up with: ‘an education hub is a planned effort to build a critical mass of local and international actors strategically engaged in crossborder education, training, knowledge production and innovation initiatives’. She describes a typology of hubs in which, for example, Hong Kong can be described as a ‘student’ hub, UAE a ‘talent’ hub, and Singapore a ‘knowledge/innovation’ hub. This typology indicates an overlapping and increasing level of sophistication in progressing from education and training ‘to the production and application of new knowledge and innovation’. For me, the essence of education hubs is that they are projects directed and driven by governments. They are not designed to develop international education; they are designed to develop national economies. Governments see foreign universities as potential contributors to knowledge and innovation, and there is a prestige element as well.

KCH: What role do you see e-learning playing in the expansion of international education?

WL: We see e-learning as a major driver behind the future expansion of international higher education for a number of reasons; the first is economic: technology can, in certain cases, reduce the cost of academic programs for the institution, the student or both. Certain technologies can also alleviate language barriers, which has traditionally been a great obstacle of international initiatives. Digital instruction may increase international opportunities for students in developing nations for whom international travel and residence is not an option. In countries that are unable to meet local demand for post-secondary education, increased access to networks coupled with decreased prices for devices such as tablets, could see tremendous growth. However, the one obstacle technology hasn’t solved is accreditation. We still need the right policies and agreements between jurisdictions that keep up with opportunities that technology presents.

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