U.S. Universities and International Branch Campuses


IEM Spotlight Newsletter, Vol. 14, Issue 1 - April 2017

By: John T. Crist, PhD, George Mason University Korea

Among the many thousands of cross-border educational collaborations that exist around the world, the international branch campus (IBC) is the most substantial and elaborate form, and the rarest. The two best sources of data on international branch campuses are the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) at Oxford University and the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT) led by researchers at Penn State and the University at Albany, SUNY. In November 2016, these two groups jointly released a report titled International Branch Campuses: Trends and Developments, 2016, assessing the latest trends in the growth of international branch campuses (Garrett, Kinser, Lane, and Merola). C-BERT defines an IBC as “An entity that is owned, at least in part, by a foreign higher education provider; operated in the name of the foreign education provider; and provides an entire academic program, substantially on site, leading to a degree awarded by the foreign education provider” (Healy 2014, 22).

Based on this definition, the researchers identified 249 IBCs currently in operation around the world, serving more than 180,000 students (Garrett, Kinser, Lane, and Merola 2016). The report states that between 2011 and 2015, 66 new branch campuses came into existence, a 26 percent increase in the number of IBCs globally (Garrett, Kinser, Lane, and Merola 2016). According to the findings, the proliferation of IBC campuses in the Middle East (mostly the Persian Gulf) seen in the late 1980s to the first decade of the 2000s has come to a standstill. In its place, China has overtaken the United Arab Emirates as the host country with the largest number of IBCs (32 versus 31) (Garrett, Kinser, Lane, and Merola 2016). East Asia is now clearly the center of gravity for the next wave of expansion of these novel institutions of higher education.

All signs indicate that “the overall condition of the global IBC market remains healthy and growing” (Kinser and Lane 2016). Currently, 32 countries send campuses to 75 host countries (Kinser and Lane 2016). Since the first IBCs opened in the 1950s, 27 IBCs have closed down operations, or about 10 percent of the current population of overseas campuses (Kinser and Lane 2016). This is a notably low failure rate when stacked up against the very high failure rates associated with entrepreneurial start-ups in other sectors (Kinser and Lane 2016).

U.S. International Branch Campuses

The United States is the largest provider of IBCs globally, currently sponsoring 78 campuses, or about one-third of all IBCs in existence today. Let’s examine two IBCs in particular: Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar (GU-SFSQ) and George Mason University Korea (GMUK). GU-SFSQ offers the same liberal arts and international affairs curriculum offered by the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. GMUK currently offers six undergraduate majors (three from the Business School, two from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and one from the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution), as well as a master’s program in systems engineering that is scheduled to open in spring 2018.

As is the case with an increasing number of IBCs, both GU-SFSQ and GMUK issue diplomas and transcripts that are identical to those of their sending institutions. This is meant to signify the continuity of the educational experience between the home and branch campuses, and to offer potential students a significant inducement for enrollment. The students receive the same quality of education and earn the same credentials as they would in the United States, with the added global perspective but without the full expense of overseas travel and living. In accordance with this goal then, the sending campus and the host country agree in advance to offer the same curricula as in the home country, and the host country agrees to allow the IBC virtually complete autonomy in academic (and other) decisions. Also, in the cases of GU-SFSQ and GMUK, the respective parties agreed to require (or strongly encourage) attendance on the home campus for one or two semesters as part of the requirement for graduation.

GU-SFSQ and GMUK are distinctive among IBCs in that each is situated within a cluster or hub of IBCs that are interlinked in a larger educational setting—GU-SFSQ in Education City and GMUK in Incheon Global Campus (IGC). In addition to Georgetown University, the American campuses in Doha’s Education City include Virginia Commonwealth University, Cornell University’s Weill Medical Center, Texas A&M University, Carnegie Mellon University, and Northwestern University. George Mason University Korea operates side by side in Incheon Global Campus with the University of Utah’s Asia Campus, SUNY Korea (and Stony Brook University), and Belgium’s Ghent University.

Qatar has played a major role in the notable growth and innovation of IBC development. For decades, some countries have hosted multiple IBCs from the same or different sending countries, but it was Qatar Foundation that first settled on the idea of a cluster of integrated IBCs in one educational collaboration. The similarity between Education City and Incheon Global Campus is not accidental; in fact, deputations of higher education officials from Korea visited Qatar regularly to learn more about the Education City model. With significant cross-national consultation and adaptation, Korea opened the Incheon Global Campus in 2012, 14 years after the opening of the first IBC in Qatar’s Education City.

Financial Risks of IBCs

Among the full range of cross-border educational collaborations that exist in higher education, international branch campuses require the highest magnitude of investment and, not surprisingly, carry the greatest risks for the partners involved. IBCs are expensive to set up and maintain. The costs of failure are high, thus placing a noted constraint on their proliferation. The risks are generally financial and reputational and can affect both the sending country and the host country, albeit in different ways.

Some IBC arrangements involve little or no financial risk for the sending countries. The agreements with the six American campuses in Qatar’s Education City pose no financial burden for the sending universities. All costs, including those that arise on the main campus as a result of supporting an overseas branch campus, are carried exclusively by the host country. Qatar Foundation collects all tuition, which amounts to only a miniscule proportion of the outlays for the overall operation. Critics are quick to point out that the Qatar model is not sustainable; this is no doubt true, but the projections of continued oil and gas wealth in the Gulf reach decades into the future. In recent years, Qatar has shifted its priorities from Education City to the massive preparations involved in hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Coupled with the downturn in the global oil and gas market, this has resulted in substantial budget reductions for universities in Education City. While this does not threaten the viability of the campuses, it has caused a retrenchment and a scaling back of ambitious plans for expansion among the campuses, especially in the areas of scientific research production and collaboration.

George Mason University’s experience is more typical of branch campuses in that the host country shares some of the financial burden of operations with the sending university. The Incheon city government built and maintains the infrastructure for the cluster of IBCs, as well as partially subsidizes the campuses through a mixture of outright grants and loans. Unlike Education City, the campuses in Incheon Global Campus collect their own tuition, which subsidizes their growth. Eventually, it is envisioned that these campuses will be completely self-sustaining.

Host Country Motivations

Host countries differ in their motives for inviting foreign campuses into their midst. As Qatar amassed natural gas wealth, its pursuit of ambitious national development plans from the 1990s was constrained by a tiny higher education sector—one national university founded in 1978—and limited local expertise necessary to reach its goals. Thus, the decision to franchise its higher education sector to global universities (in the form of Education City) was an effort to “leap-frog” the process of educational development necessary to train Qatar’s citizenry for leadership roles in a new urban economy. Especially in its early years, Education City was a centerpiece in Qatar’s campaign to brand itself globally as a modern, dynamic, and tolerant Arab state.

In contrast, Korea’s higher education sector was already quite large and diverse—with more than 250 four-year colleges and universities—when the Incheon city government opened the Incheon Global Campus. Korea’s commitment to higher education is well known and considered a key contributor to its remarkable economic success since the 1970s. While Korea has invested billions in higher education since the 1970s, “the overall quality of teaching, graduates, and research has not improved” and Korean universities “do not hold significant world rankings” (Parry and Lee 2011). Many of the top higher education administrators in Korea believe that a culture of rote memorization and an overemphasis on test-taking skills, rather than creativity and critical thinking skills, have hindered the success of Korean higher education.

With this in mind, the Korean government has pursued a number of strategies to “internationalize” higher education for Korean students (i.e., provide more English language options and access to U.S.-style curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking skills). Moreover, according to U.S. government figures, more than 80,000 Korean nationals were enrolled in institutions of higher education in the United States in 2015 (Parry and Lee 2011). This amounts to approximately one-third of all Korean students enrolled overseas (Parry and Lee 2011). Through the Incheon Global Campus, the government hopes to recapture a percentage of those students going overseas and improve the prospects that they will stay in Korea afterward.

Sending Country Motivations

On the flip side, there are, broadly speaking, two sets of motivations for U.S. universities to mount campuses overseas. First, there are reputational goals and aspirations. An overseas branch campus enhances the global profile of a university and signifies its global value and respect. For Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, the rationale for an overseas campus in Qatar stemmed from the principles embodied in its global affairs curriculum and was further inspired by the traditions of global engagement embedded in a Jesuit education. From a U.S. foreign policy standpoint, the location of the campus in the Arab world provides new opportunities for wider engagement in areas that are normally limited to the U.S. military and the fossil fuel industry.

Second, international branch campuses provide U.S. institutions with staging grounds for partnerships and research collaborations with universities in economically dynamic regions around the world. The government of Qatar has funded hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of scientific research in support of national development goals in the past decade, and the IBCs of Education City have been recipients of a substantial portion of this investment (Crist, forthcoming). Many of these IBCs serve as bridges linking research expertise residents across campuses. Similarly, many of the countries in East Asia, including Singapore, China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea, invest massive amounts of funding into higher education and research. The large number of American campuses opening in the region are well poised to take advantage of these opportunities to leverage their global reputations and support main campus research enterprises that are constrained by a contracting market for federal research funding.

IBC Operations

International branch campuses exhibit varying levels of complexity in their operational management. All IBCs are intricate organizations, smaller microcosms of the much larger and older sending university. In addition to the curriculum, IBCs typically recreate all of the supporting structures necessary for, and expected of, a U.S. university—including student affairs, wellness, finance, human resources, facilities management, information technology and computers, academic supports services, and grants management—in the host country. Each of these administrative areas interacts with the main campus counterparts; some may even be highly integrated with main campus processes or dependent upon the main campus to function. While an IBC does not always begin its operations with all of these administrative functions intact, pressure and necessity build over time to replicate each of them. No matter the size of the student body abroad, such functions are considered essential to the smooth operation of the IBC.

The surrounding environment of an IBC also affects the complexity of operations. Typically, it is assumed that the IBC is bound by the laws governing the home campus as well as the law of the land in the host country. For example, as a public institution in the United States, George Mason University Korea is bound by the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia, U.S. federal law, national law in Korea (especially labor law), and oversight by the Korean Ministry of Education, as well as the requirements set for the home campus by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation, and other pertinent accrediting bodies. The Qatar campuses of public institutions like Virginia Commonwealth University and Texas A&M University also face a level of state regulation that limits certain kinds of expenditures they are permitted to make if taxpayer money is involved, or certain contracts they are permitted to enter into if there are implications for public funding. As a private institution in Washington, D.C., Georgetown University does not contend with state regulations that affect the branch campus, but it still must reconcile with all the other regulatory environments named above.

The relationship that IBCs have with the host country’s Ministry of Education varies as well. By agreement, the six American campuses in Education City are exempt from the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and the Supreme Council of Education, which are responsible for oversight of the educational system in Qatar. This gives the American campuses complete autonomy in academic decisions and nearly complete autonomy in administrative decisions (they must still comply with key aspects of Qatari labor law, for example). In contrast, while the IBCs in Songdo, South Korea, are in complete control of academic matters (including faculty hiring and admissions decisions), the Ministry of Education in Korea authorizes all majors offered by the IBCs, sets quotas for the number of students who may be recruited for each major per year, and conducts periodic audits to ensure conformity with local laws and expectations related to university management.

Finally, because all of the sending campuses mentioned here accept U.S. federal funds, the IBCs are subject to relevant U.S. laws such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPA), Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), Title IX, and other regulations concerning grants management. The IBCs must also comply with U.S. and international standards for accounting and financial management, which can necessitate substantial time and money for auditing purposes. For example, Georgetown University in Qatar is subject to three annual audits of its accounting procedures: one by the host organization, Qatar Foundation, one by Georgetown University’s auditing firm, and one by an independent auditing firm hired by GU-SFSQ.


International branch campuses provide exciting and enriching opportunities for deep cross-cultural engagement, especially since so many IBCs enjoy small classrooms and intimate settings. Faculty frequently remark that teaching students in a host country requires them to rethink their teaching style and pedagogy dramatically, thus reinvigorating their commitment to the profession. Additionally, IBCs are generally viewed as start-up organizations relatively unencumbered by the burdens of administration that are often associated with much older and larger institutions. This autonomy creates possibilities for educational innovation and collaboration that are not always possible in more established settings.

For the reasons described above, the rate of growth of IBCs is likely to remain steady but not increase substantially in the coming years. However, a better understanding of how international branch campuses operate and the kinds of institutional challenges they face, ultimately, makes it easier for educators to consider IBCs as an option for growth, make wiser choices about which partnerships to pursue, facilitate better collaboration between sending and host institutions, and improve the quality of education that IBCs provide.


Crist, John T. forthcoming. “‘A Fever of Research’”: STEM Journal Article Production and the Emergence of a National Research System in Qatar.” In The Century of Science: The Worldwide Triumph of the Research University, eds. Justin J. W. Powell, David P. Baker, and Frank Fernandez. International Perspectives on Education and Society (IPES) Series, 31. Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing.

Garrett, Richard, Kevin Kinser, Jason E. Lane, and Rachael Merola. 2016. International Branch Campuses: Trends and Developments, 2016. The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) and Cross-Border Research Team (C-BERT).

Healy, Nigel. 2014. “When Is an International Branch Campus?” International Higher Education 78:22–23.

Kinser, Kevin, and Jason E. Lane. 2016. “International Branch Campuses: Evolution of a Phenomenon.” International Higher Education 85:3–5

The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) and Cross-Border Research Team (C-BERT). November 7, 2016. “New Report Reveals Latest Trends on International Branch Campuses.” Press release. https://www.academia.edu/30219182/International_Branch_Campuses_Trends_and_Developments_2016.

Parry, Zen, and Shin Hae Lee. 2011. “The Higher Education Sector in Korea: What You See Is Not Always What You Get.” Borderless Report 7. http://www.obhe.ac.uk/newsletters/borderless_report_october_2011/higher_education_in_south_korea.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 2015. “United States Hosts More Than 80,000 South Korean Students.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Homeland Security. https://studyinthestates.dhs.gov/2015/12/united-states-hosts-more-than-80000-south-korean-students.

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