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It still makes sense to build an overseas campus

Students have always travelled in search of the best study opportunities and researchers have always collaborated across borders. But until fairly recently, higher education institutions have been stubbornly…

The food is better in Kuala Lumpur. University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

Students have always travelled in search of the best study opportunities and researchers have always collaborated across borders. But until fairly recently, higher education institutions have been stubbornly national – whether limited by the demands of domestic regulation or by protectionist approaches in potential destinations.

With the exception of a small number of private sector initiatives and small-scale overseas study centres, universities have for the most part remained fundamentally bound by their geography. But the past 20 years or so have seen almost seismic shifts in context, policy and regulation, and in attitudes and behaviour.

Now a new report by the British Council on opportunities for UK universities in India has warned them off investing in the bricks and mortar of an overseas campus. Instead, it points to calls from Indian higher education officials for more research partnerships.

All this comes in the context of a big growth in the number of degree programmes being delivered through international partnerships, as shown by new statistics on the number of people studying for UK degrees abroad. And despite the words of caution above, institutional mobility has much to offer universities – it is a realistic strategic option.

Pushed and pulled overseas

The University of Nottingham opened its Malaysia campus back in 2000. A number of push and pull factors made the idea of an international campus particularly attractive – and they still apply.

Estimates suggest fewer than 5% of students globally travel overseas for their education, a figure which is unlikely to increase dramatically. So, establishing a physical presence internationally would provide the opportunity to work with staff and students who would not, or could not, come to the UK.

A range of factors, including considerations of scale, funding and demographics, placed limits on domestic expansion. And, as other countries became more active in terms of international student recruitment, it became increasingly clear that UK institutions would need to be innovative if they wished to continue to attract high-quality students and staff.

Keeping up standards at arms-length

A number of countries were looking to position themselves as educational hubs, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Singapore. Malaysia had formulated an ambition to be a major higher education destination by 2020 and saw international university campuses as key to delivery. Malaysian students had been coming to study at Nottingham since the late 1940s and there were many supportive alumni in prominent positions in public and corporate life.

Making the decision to build a campus in Kuala Lumpur was only half the battle. Implementation remains a major challenge. Nottingham’s approach has been to stress the idea of “one university, multiple campuses”. What this meant in practice was that the Malaysian campus (and subsequently the campus in China, opened in 2004) had to be full parts of the university.

Not just a teaching outpost University of Nottingham

Overseas campus cannot just be teaching outposts. They have to be functionally equivalent campuses. The operational challenge for the university has related to delivery – and specifically how to deliver the University of Nottingham educational experience at arms-length.

To address this challenge, both of Nottingham’s international campuses rely on the leadership of senior academics seconded from the UK campus, working alongside locally recruited staff.

What to keep the same

A major issue in building a new campus overseas relates to the balance between standardisation and adaptation. How much should be identical across campuses and how much should be adapted to local context?

This matters for two reasons. Pragmatically, an international campus can only really work if students can be confident that they are receiving an education and a qualification that is comparable in quality and standards to that delivered in the institution’s home country. Morally, education is of such importance to people and to societies that those institutions who provide it must accept a responsibility to ensure that what they offer is right in terms quality and standards.

But, it would also be wrong to ignore the need to adapt to local legal and cultural contexts. The social side of life on-campus and the ways programmes are marketed require adaption to fit with the host country.

Easy to say, not so easy to do. Regular staff visits, frequent meetings and a committee structure that operates across borders all help. Management processes also need to balance strategic central direction with the right degree of local operational autonomy.

The outcome has been a campus with close to 5,000 students, a significant research portfolio and an active student community. It has been financially sustainable for a number of years, and is generating surpluses which are reinvested in the growth and development of the university’s activities at its Malaysian campus.

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