Universities Look East, Fueling Branch-Campus Boom

East Asia is fast becoming the world’s leading destination for branch campuses, raising questions about quality and control

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The Malaysia campus of the University of Nottingham is located in Kuala Lumpur

When Newcastle University Medicine Malaysia, or NUMed, accepted its first class of students three years ago, it did not have a campus. Based in a sprawling would-be industrial zone about 10 miles (16 km) northwest of Singapore, the site was little more than a patch of clear-cut soil amid groves of palm trees. Despite the utter lack of facilities, the school was inundated with applications. This year, students entered their new 13-acre (5.5-hectare) campus through a near perfect recreation of the iconic neo-Jacobean Newcastle arches before continuing on to fully equipped laboratories and classrooms with state-of-the-art electronics.

Newcastle University is one of the latest entrants into the thriving world of international branch campuses, or IBCs. Universities across the globe have now established well over 200 foreign campuses, up from 82 in 2006, according to the U.K.-based Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. Some of these struggling IBCs can be found in the United Arab Emirates, where their overall number dropped from 40 in 2009 to 37 in 2011, but East Asia is fast becoming the world’s leading destination for new international campuses. In the same two-year period, Singapore saw a 50% increase to 18 campuses in total and China saw a 70% increase to 17 schools.

Branch campuses give schools a shot at building a global brand and attracting untapped talent, but they may also threaten the schools’ reputation — as Yale discovered when its plans to expand in Singapore drew fire from alumni and students alike. “The world has become flat and institutions can no longer remain isolated within their own borders,” says Kevin Kinser, an associate professor and co-director of the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany. “They have found it to their benefit to move outside of the traditional structures — some schools have good business models, and others are still struggling.”

(MORE: Yale Draws Flak for Its Singapore Adventure)

With China strictly controlling entrance into its education sector, Malaysia and Singapore are pushing to become regional hubs for higher education, starting with IBCs. Hou Kok Chung, a Deputy Minister for Higher Education of Malaysia, says that his government hopes to establish as many foreign campuses as possible, as long as the original school has a high enough international ranking and a good reputation. The country already has seven IBCs, and is currently reviewing applications for 25 more. One of the first foreign universities entering Malaysia was the University of Nottingham, a top-20 British school with a branch campus outside Kuala Lumpur. Although it only opened 12 years ago, the school already serves a 4,000-strong student body, says Christine Ennew, the University of Nottingham’s pro vice chancellor for internationalization. It has also developed a research portfolio heavy on agricultural sciences, a specialization that could not be replicated in its urban U.K. campus.

For established universities, transnational initiatives are generally a high-risk, high-reward gamble. There is much to be gained for a school that sets up a campus in another country, and motivations tend to fall into some combination of four categories: public service, increased revenue, reputation and overall internationalization of the university. Administrators of NUMed, which operates as a nonprofit in accordance with British law, readily admit to seeking all of these but financial gain. “We aspire to be a world-class university, and the modern trend in higher education is to widen one’s global footprint,” says Reg Jordan, NUMed provost and chief executive officer. He says the Malaysian campus will help train the country’s next generation of doctors and cultivate a greater understanding of international medicine for Newcastle. “It is all about the perception of being a global university,” he says, adding that although Newcastle University is technically a nonprofit, it hopes to be able to make enough money in its Malaysia venture to self-fund continued expansion.

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But not everyone is sold. Many parents still avoid sending their children to IBCs in favor of either foreign campuses or local public universities. Hazlinda Hamzah, a Kuala Lumpur–based journalist and mother of five, says she worries that some of the foreign-owned degree-granting programs in her country are not legitimate. And while Deputy Minister Hou tells TIME that his government cracks down on any degree-for-cash programs, Hamzah says many parents — and local companies looking to hire graduates — share her concerns. An NUMed third-year student, Wan Muhamad Zulhilmi Wan Ibrahim, recognizes that IBCs will never eclipse the lure of a foreign campus and that “many of the smartest students will still want to go abroad,” although he acknowledges that “many more can’t afford it.” He, like many, decided a branch campus was his best option. “I want to serve my nation, and I want to be close to my family,” he said.

Despite the potential for reputation gain and new sources of revenue, universities are also accepting a big risk when operating a branch campus. The problems are twofold: successful business models in a home country may not work in a new environment, and quality control is exceedingly difficult from the other side of the globe with a new teaching staff. “The hardest thing to do is replicate a great faculty: if you’re called Yale-NUS [the National University of Singapore], it’s nice, but your faculty are not in New Haven,” says Robert Gertner, the deputy dean for part-time M.B.A. programs at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, whose program employs Chicago-based professors who fly to Singapore for every class. “Our model is less risky.” Yale has faced other very public complaints about its soon-to-begin Singapore program, with its faculty in New Haven, Conn., expressing worries about academic freedom and a Wall Street Journal article reporting about restrictions on political expression.

Ultimately, it falls to each school to ensure that it is providing an education worthy of the brand name on its degrees. “We’re here for reputational gain and quality of provision, and being not for profit, it’s not about backsides on seats for money” says NUMed’s Jordan. “If you aspire to be a world-class university you have to match up with the best.”

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