Wider learning: education as a commodity

The number of prestigious universities investing in international campuses has grown rapidly in recent years. Courtney Sherwood evaluates the benefits to be gained from establishing campuses overseas

Universities have opened some 200 international branch campuses over the past 20 years, and will open 37 more in the next two years, with top-ranked academic programs making inroads in the Middle East, China, India and Singapore.

Cornell University now offers medical degrees in Qatar, New York University students can obtain an undergraduate education in Abu Dhabi and an advanced degree in Singapore. Lancaster University has enrolled 450 students in engineering and management classes near Delhi in India. Most recently, Queen’s University Belfast announced it is jointly developing a college with China Medical University in Shenyang, while Yale develops its own joint educational program in Singapore.

Selling points

These high-powered universities have developed slick websites and global marketing campaigns to promote their outposts. Among the selling points, branch campuses provide a quality education in a familiar cultural context, and may be the only close-to-home option in some academic fields. These institutions alleviate parents’ fears about sending their children abroad. And tuition may be much less close to home – for example Lancaster University charges as much as £15,350 (US$24,000) per year to international students who study at its UK campus, and about £5,000 (US$7,800) per year through the programs it offers in India.

During this period of continued austerity, many western universities know that much of the world’s economic growth is happening far from their main campuses. When Queen’s University Belfast announced its plans to expand into China, it said the move would enhance “the university’s profile in one of the largest markets in the world for international students”. And research suggests that enrolment numbers are increasing as branch campus reputations grow.

Wider access

Take Northwestern University in the United States. Students may have enrolled at its Middle Eastern branch in Qatar because they wanted to stay close to home, or because of hefty scholarships available to many citizens of the region, but they also learned two other reasons why so many American and European universities are increasingly expanding abroad: access and influence. As home to one of the top journalism programs in the United States, Northwestern has long sent students into Chicago neighbourhoods to learn about local news reporting. But for 36 members of the new Qatar campus in 2011, covering the neighbourhood took on added significance when they produced award-winning documentaries and reports on the nearby revolutions.

Andrew Kaiser, who recently earned a master’s degree in international studies from John Hopkins University’s Center for Chinese and American Studies in Nanjing, said he’d recommend the experience as long as students understand what they are signing up for.

By studying China in Nanjing, Kaiser worked alongside Chinese-born classmates who were also interested in law, politics and economics, while earning a degree from a university well regarded for its international programs. Other branch campuses may provide educational opportunities not otherwise available in the region, as with Northwestern Qatar’s journalism and communication programs.

Cultural experience

But students should not expect an American or European cultural experience at an Asian or Middle Eastern campus. Abdallah Zihni, a US citizen, was motivated by curiosity about his Egyptian roots when he decided to study at American University Cairo. He said Egyptian students rarely mingled with foreign peers outside of class.

Ultimately, however, experts say that students capable of winning admission to top universities should ask the same questions when considering branch campuses as they would when reviewing other higher education options. A well-regarded school, wherever it’s located, will open doors upon graduation.