Here we go again!

So this week I read that Canada’s Waterloo University was shutting down after failing to make enrollment targets in Dubai at the same time that George Mason University is going to give it another go in Korea after a failed venture in the United Arab Emirates. I can’t help wondering what makes the idea of a branch campus so compelling.

After three years, Waterloo had only 140 students of the 500 needed to make their Dubai engineering program viable. George Mason’s Ras-Al-Khaimah campus closed as a result of the same problem. Still, many other institutions are soldiering on despite the enormous cost. I remember hearing once that it cost the same to operate a university with 500 students as one with 2,000 because the basic infrastructure and personnel required to support an acceptable standard of higher education is the same. And the consequence is that institutions with smaller enrollments just aren’t viable since their revenues aren’t sufficient to sustain what is minimally necessary. It is not surprising that these small western institutions in the Gulf can continue only with massive subsidies from the home campus or host government.

What struck me this week was not another failed venture but the fact that George Mason was going at it again. So back to my original question, “What makes the desire for a foreign outpost so appealing? And is this really the best international strategy for institutions to pursue?

One possible answer to the first question is perhaps the hope of a new income stream in the long term.  Yet evidence so far makes it appear unlikely that the return on investment of these ventures will be better than simply investing in the stock market.  Another plausible answer is that institutions wish to increase their international visibility and prestige by being present in other geographic regions.  This thought leads into my second question of whether this is the best international strategy.

I can’t help thinking about the number of full scholarships that might have been funded with the money spent on constructing branch campuses.  How many students might have been funded to study on George Mason’s main campus?  Or Waterloo’s?  Or Michigan State’s?  Or Cornell’s?  You get the idea.  Bringing students to the home campus provides them with the opportunity to live in a foreign culture, not in an artificially constructed one.  Hundreds of foreign alumni who have had successful and enjoyable experiences abroad return home as ambassadors for their alma mater.  Or alternatively, consider the research collaborations that might have been funded between the foreign institution and the host country.  Don’t these activities do more for international visibility than an international campus in the long run?  And provide comparable, if not greater, long-term benefits?

Finally I struggle to understand the mission and objective of an international campus. Is the purpose to offer a foreign education closer to home to students in the host country? To accommodate third party nationals in the host country?  To be a regional educational center to integrate students from neighboring countries into a shared academic experience?  To adapt the curriculum of the home campus to make it locally relevant? To date, these programs seem to do none of these very effectively according to critics.  They teach in English, creating a cultural gap between the institution and the host country.  But do they insure that the curriculum includes the equivalent of “freshman English” in the host country language to insure that students continue to develop communication skills in their primary language?  Furthermore programs offered at branch campuses often provoke conflict by following customs (such as coeducation) that are often at odds with a significant segment of the host culture.  Some programs self-sensor their curriculum and/or texts in order not to offend which raises questions of academic integrity. Cultures do not always blend easily and it is not clear that the branch campuses have fully embraced this reality.

What benefits, if any, do these branch campuses bring back to the home campus? These ventures seem to stretch resources (faculty in particular) without clear evidence that the home campus is enriched in ways that could not be achieved by other means with less stress on finances and personnel.

As George Mason launches a new venture in Korea, I wonder what lessons they take with them from their experience in the Gulf. And what new faulty assumptions will be made.

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