Branching Out

International campuses are becoming a growing part of institutions’ overall internationalization strategies.
Photo: Courtesy George Mason University

When mechanical engineering student Aria Amthor flew to France to spend a semester at Georgia Tech’s campus in Lorraine, France, in the spring of 2018, she had never left North America—or traveled on a plane alone. But as she spent her free weekends traveling around Europe, Amthor became immersed in another kind of engineering: travel by train.

“I have a running theory that the ideal sample of a European country can be found in its public transportation,” Amthor wrote in a blog post about her travels. Among her observations, she noted that “the Italians sang and played guitar, the Germans passed around beer, and on one train the French were so utterly silent, I was too self-conscious to eat a sandwich.”

Located in the heart of Europe, the Georgia Tech-Lorraine campus provided Amthor with close access to her train travel routes but also a home base to reflect on her cross-cultural insights. Georgia Tech is one of more than 50 U.S. institutions that have established international branch campuses around the world. With this increase, there has been growing recognition that these programs are more than revenue generators for their home campuses. In recent years, branch campuses from U.S. institutions have become more strategic and international, as institutions from beyond the English-speaking world launch satellite campuses of their own.

Given the highly competitive environment of higher education, branch campuses in targeted regions amplify institutions’ prestige and attract students in new and growing markets. In some cases, these campuses are part of an overarching vision of how institutions are internationalizing their overall offerings. For other institutions, there are far-reaching implications on international student recruitment on the home campus that are not yet fully understood.

“Mobility is national and global,” says Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, which has built a global university system of six campuses in the United States, Canada, and England. “We want our learners to take advantage of this global platform wherever they are.”

The Beginning of Branch Campuses

Higher education institutions have forged a wide range of cross-border programs over the years, including partnerships, research projects, offices abroad, and other joint ventures. To qualify as an international branch campus, however, the program must be owned by and operated in the name of the home institution and, importantly, provide a complete degree-offering academic program whose components are “substantially” on site.

Georgia Tech-Lorraine, for example, is an international campus and base for undergraduate study abroad programs, but it also houses full graduate programs in engineering that are attended by students from around the globe. (Institutions may opt to call their international offerings “branch,” “global,” or “satellite” campuses, but the terms are largely based on how they want their programs to be perceived, says Kevin Kinser, professor and head of the Department of Education Policy Studies at Pennsylvania State University.)

Exporters and Importers

Top exporters of branch campuses:

  • United States (77)
  • United Kingdom (38)
  • France (28)
  • Russia (21)
  • Australia (14)

Top importers of branch campuses:

  • China (32)
  • United Arab Emirates (32)
  • Malaysia (12)
  • Singapore (12)
  • Qatar (11)

Source: C-BERT (2017)

By that definition, there are more than 260 international branch campuses worldwide, including those representing more than 50 U.S. institutions, according to statistics compiled by the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT) and the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE). The number of international branch campuses has more than tripled since 2000, and growth has been almost constant between 2005 and 2017. (C-BERT and OBHE will update their research in a report scheduled for release in October 2019.)

For U.S. institutions, the earliest international branch campuses were “idiosyncratic,” often one-off ventures based on the institution’s mission or specific relationships forged abroad, according to Kinser. Later on, they tended to follow global macro trends. After World War II, for example, branch campuses helped the United States establish postwar norms in international relations; in the 1980s, an emphasis on building relations with Japan led to a proliferation of branch campuses there.

But since the late 1990s, most international branch campuses have been focused around fairly consistent goals: for institutions, building new streams of revenue and increasing awareness or prestige abroad; for host countries, building higher education capacity at home.

“Host countries are more sophisticated in what they want, and from a home campus perspective, there’s a better understanding of the risks,” says Kinser.

Failure to Scale

Those risks are real: Although branch campuses were launched largely to make money for their host institutions, many have failed to scale. Even among mature programs, the average enrollment is around 500 students, according to C-BERT/OBHE statistics, which may not be sufficient to support the full range of academics and services required to provide a complete program abroad. C-BERT statistics also indicate that at least 42 branch campuses have closed between 2009 and 2017, including at least 25 operated by U.S. institutions.

“Every time a new branch campus was announced, [officials projected] it would have 10,000 students in 5 years,” says Kinser. The reality, he says, is that “no branch campus has 10,000 students.”

Small wonder, then, that Gavin Moodie, an adjunct professor at Australia’s RMIT University, called branch campuses “one of the biggest reputational and financial risks universities take,” in an article for an online journal.

“They are typically established distant from the home campus’ supervision, in an environment as well as a country that is foreign, and they rarely repatriate great financial or academic riches to their home campus,” Moodie writes. “Some have failed spectacularly, financially, academically or both.”

Evolving Models

At the same time, though, the increasingly strategic mission of institutions and host countries is providing new opportunities for all involved.

Not far from the capital of Seoul, South Korea’s Incheon Global Campus is a billion-dollar facility shared by four universities: George Mason University (GMU), Ghent University, SUNY/Stony Brook, and the University of Utah. It is familiar territory for GMU, which educates a significant population of Korean Americans on its home campus in Virginia, says Gbemi Disu, chief business officer for Mason Korea. Even so, the program started small when it opened its doors in 2014.

“The country wasn’t familiar with our product,” Disu says. “Either you went to America or to a Korean school. The opportunity for people to get an American degree in Korea was relatively new.”

Incheon isn’t the first model along these lines. Qatar announced its own Education City in 1997. The Dubai International Academic City, founded in 2006, now houses more than 30 global institutions, putting the tiny Middle Eastern nation on par with China as the largest importer of branch campuses. And the trend continues, with Egypt announcing plans earlier this year to attract a half dozen international campuses to its administrative zone.

While the general model has been adapted to the specific needs and goals of the respective countries and institutions involved, the overall premise of education hubs has not changed much. One key to operating within a shared campus setting, says Disu, is to differentiate program offerings from the other institutions sharing the space. 

Mason Korea focuses on business, social sciences, and computer game design— areas that are complemented by the programs offered by other institutions at the Incheon Global Campus. The institutions also collaborate on core programs and encourage collaboration among students, resulting in an “opportunity to build networks not just at one institution, but with people from all over the world,” Disu says. Students at Mason Korea also spend two semesters at the home campus in Virginia, where they experience a familiar yet different academic environment.

“Our goal is for each one to be a full-fledged campus, each differentiated, and each allowing faculty and students and their partners opportunities that can be multiplied.” —Joseph E. Aoun

Some institutions strategically highlight curricular distinctions to frame their collection of far-flung campuses. While Northeastern University considers all of its branch campuses as part of a global network of equals, each campus provides differentiated learning experiences, as well as focused faculty development and research.

For example, Northeastern’s Silicon Valley campus in California allows students and faculty to spend time at technology start-ups, while its London campus emphasizes the tutorial model common among British universities. The Seattle, Washington, campus pioneered a small cohort program that provides graduates in nontechnical fields with a master’s degree in computer science in response to the needs of technology companies.

“You can have a semester in Toronto, Vancouver, Charlotte, and London,” Aoun says. “Undergraduate students can take advantage of this contextualization and do things in each campus they can’t do in another one. Our goal is for each one to be a full-fledged campus, each differentiated, and each allowing faculty and students and their partners opportunities that can be multiplied.”

Other U.S. institutions are taking their international campus model to another level, moving into joint ventures with institutions in the host country. Duke Kunshan, the outcome of a partnership between Duke University and Wuhan University in China, launched as a stand-alone institution in 2014 with graduate programs and semester-long programs for undergraduates from Duke and other institutions. Last fall, it admitted its first undergraduate class of 266 students from 27 countries, including 175 from China.

Not all partners are academic institutions. In Costa Rica, Texas Tech University launched a branch campus in partnership with Promerica Group, a financial institution seeking to lower the cost of higher education in Central America. With the growing pressure on higher education institutions to prepare students for the global marketplace, the branch campus model may continue to evolve to include nontraditional partners.

Strategies for Success

Just as the model has changed with the trends of the field, the profile of the players involved has shifted as well. Institutions from English-speaking nations are no longer the only exporters of branch campuses.

Russia has become a significant player across the former Soviet Union, and China is beginning to explore how its own institutions can offer branch campuses throughout the region, according to Kinser.

“It’s no longer just the Western institutions moving to the East,” he says. “There’s a new recognition of education as an export.” In this evolving environment, institutions must exercise due diligence—focused both on financial realities and the ability to support strong academic programs far from the home campus. All levels of leadership need to think of branch campuses as a “start-up operation,” Kinser says. 

“You need to give that branch campus the opportunity to be innovative and improvisational at the same time as you’re managing your oversight,” he says. “That can be a pretty significant shift for a campus that hasn’t done that before.” Other strategies shared by experts:

Start small. 

“The programs that have been successful started small, with a plan to grow that built on the early successes,” says Kinser. “Instead of going in with a full plan, they started with one small aspect and built up to be more comprehensive in their programs.”

Understand the host country. 

Cultural differences, labor regulations, and the political realities on the ground are all factors to consider. “In each place, you have to establish a social compact,” Northeastern’s Aoun says. “You’re not there based on an export model where you have all the answers. We learned quickly that the best approach is to be in a listening mode and understand what kinds of needs and opportunities [stakeholders] have and how you can fit them together.”

Get leadership buy-in. 

Leaders selected to run branch campuses must balance institutional culture with the culture of the host country, says Disu. They also must have strong connections with their counterparts on the home campus. GMU, for example, paired senior leaders in Korea and Virginia “to make sure the culture is consistent,” she says.

Address limitations. 

Difficult questions may arise about the appropriateness of establishing campuses in countries with authoritarian governments and the potential impact on students and faculty. “Academic freedom is a really big concern we don’t spend enough time talking about,” Kinser says.

These issues should be resolved with host governments early on. Students at Duke Kunshan, for example, have unfettered access to the internet through Duke’s virtual private network (VPN) as part of an agreement with the Chinese government.

Anticipate budgeting issues.

Another potential limitation is tied to budgets and sustainability. While some branch campuses receive subsidies—about one-third of campuses received some sort of financial support from their host country in 2012, according to an OBHE report—they are often short term.

Public institutions may face some limits in providing funding for branch campuses abroad. Furthermore, institutions of all types may be constrained by restrictions on the kinds of programs they can offer in their agreements with the host country, including revenue-generating professional learning and certificate programs, which can impact the bottom line.

Actively engage in outreach efforts.

Do not assume that the institution’s reputation automatically carries over to the branch campus. Mason Korea, for example, spent a considerable amount of time educating Korean parents—the primary decisionmakers in that culture—that a degree from the branch campus is of equal quality and more affordable than the international student rate at its U.S. campus, providing an attractive option for more price-sensitive demographics, says Disu. 

“It’s important to show [return on investment],” she says. “Parents wanted to see that their kids would have the same opportunities.

Adapt recruitment approaches by location. 

While branch campuses are typically located in countries with large student populations to draw from, institutions should concentrate on internationalization abroad as well as at home. Mason Korea is focusing on increasing the proportion of international students who come to Incheon for their studies, and price is a big element of the equation.

While many institutions charge the same tuition as the home campus, some branch campuses provide an alternative to students who may not otherwise be able to afford 4 years of study in the United States—a group that is growing as institutions recruit more international students with greater financial needs. Incheon Global Campus markets its programs as a less costly option, noting that tuition and fees across its partner institutions is less than half the price of the average tuition and housing fees at U.S. institutions—$22,000 compared with $45,000.

As is increasingly the case across the international recruitment arena, Mason Korea is “finding ways to bridge the shock” of the higher costs of the year students spend in Virginia for its students, Disu says.

Understand accreditation. 

A key selling point of international branch campuses is that the degrees they confer are of identical value to the ones from their home institution, making accreditation issues vital—and complex—for institutions. “It’s a lot easier to have direct oversight over a program in front of you than one 12 time zones away,” Kinser says.

Many branch campuses are accredited by the same organization as the home campus and often are treated like domestic satellite campuses—meaning that accreditors travel overseas for site visits and that institutions can’t “make compromises” on program or faculty quality, Disu says.

New models also can complicate matters. As a stand-alone university, Duke Kunshan is accredited by Chinese organizations, not Duke’s own U.S. accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Though graduates receive degrees from both institutions, the coursework that Duke applies to its own awards “may not be accepted by other colleges or universities in transfer, even if it appears on a transcript from Duke University,” states a university disclaimer.

Offer student services similar to those at the home campus. 

Even at small branch campuses with limited enrollments, institutions must plan to provide commensurate student services as on the home campus. That extends beyond academic advising to address physical, mental, and emotional health, with the added challenge of ensuring that such matters are handled appropriately based on the host country culture, Kinser notes.

Explore other paths. 

International offices, research institutes, and other cross-border collaborations may provide more cost-effective ways of extending an institution’s brand and reputation abroad. “The line can be fairly blurred,” says Kinser. Branch campuses are “not for everybody.”

Be realistic. 

“Humility,” Aoun says, “will help go a long way.”

Expanded Horizons

For many institutions and students, branch campuses provide the kinds of new opportunities that characterize all of international education.

“Initially, I thought of Georgia Tech- Lorraine in terms of time and space—4 months of unlimited trains spanning most of western Europe,” Amthor wrote in a blog post. “The longer I am here, though, the more I realize how many different ways this program can be experienced.”'


The History of Branch Campuses: A Condensed Timeline

1910s • Johns Hopkins University begins offering medical and nursing training at China’s Peking Union Medical Hospital, the institution’s first international effort.

1921 • Parsons School of Design establishes the Paris Ateliers of the New York School of Fine and Applied Art, the predecessor to the Parsons Paris campus, which launched in 2013.

1950s • U.S. institutions begin launching branch campuses reflecting strategic global priorities of the post–World War II era, including Florida State University’s Panama campus (1957) and Johns Hopkins University’s Bologna, Italy, campus (1955), the latter of which focuses on serving as a model for international relations and is considered the oldest branch campus still in operation.

1980s • Nearly 30 U.S. institutions plan branch campuses in Japan as part of a U.S. government-sponsored effort. Only two remain today.

1990 • French fashion university Esmod opens what is often considered the first non-U.S. institution branch campus of the modern era in Norway. It now has a presence in more than a dozen countries.

1997 • Qatar announces plans for its Education City, which was officially inaugurated in 2003 and now includes campuses for six U.S. institutions.

2006 • Dubbed the world’s only “free zone dedicated to higher education,” Dubai International Academic City launches. It helps propel the United Arab Emirates alongside China as the largest importers of branch campuses worldwide.

2007 • Korea announces plans to launch the Incheon Global Campus, now home to campuses of four U.S. institutions.

2010 • The number of international branch campuses worldwide approaches 200, more than double the number at the turn of the century.

2017 • The total number of international branch campuses exceeds 250.

2019 • Egypt announces plans to attract eight international universities in its New Administrative Capital by 2020.

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