Vestiges of empire? An international perspective on branch campuses

Branch campuses have been around for centuries. They have grown from a cultural straightjacket to a flourishing revenue stream for universities. Hugh Martin, Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, shares his thoughts on the past, present, and future of branch campuses.

Branch campuses in the beginning

‘..any branch of it…concurring both in name and quality’ – Scroop, Archbishop of York in Henry IV Pt 2, Act 4 Scene 1

‘He seems to be a stranger; but his present is a wither’d branch, that’s only green at top’ – Thaisa in Pericles, Act 2 Scene 2

I don’t usually start with two quotations, but I cheated you out of one in my blog post debunking COVID-19 myths in higher education.

And anyway, this subject needs some balance, at least at the start. It’s sure to ruffle some feathers later on, but if it didn’t it wouldn’t be one of my blogs.

You may think of branch campuses as part of the modern, global education sector. But international branches of educational institutions have been around for several centuries in one form or another.

At their root, these branches were simply a manifestation of colonialism: a direct, and not especially subtle, method of inculcating western ideas of what constituted a proper (if at times limited) education.

They were also an attempt to keep troubling and unruly dissidence in religion, language, and politics within a cultural straightjacket.

An imperial Newspeak, if you will.

Branch campuses in modern times

Fast forward to the 1990s, when branch campuses – primarily of American, British, European, and Australian universities – really started to flourish.

Now, they become revenue streams: ways of generating ready income without too many questions asked, and within a quality assurance model that, despite all protestations to the contrary, can vary considerably from the mothership.

This raises questions:

  • Did we replace one form of educational colonialism with another?
  • Cultural imperialism or economic exploitation?
  • What do branch campuses bring to their host countries?
  • Are branch campuses the second XI?
  • Are students who attend them getting a second-rate experience?
  • Is it possible to run a western(ised) model of a university in a country with different rules, regulations, and indeed social mores?
  • Put simply, should branch campuses even exist in 2021?

Many of these questions are politely brushed aside. Some, I don’t think, have even been considered at all.

I can offer a perspective.

This is obviously personal, not at all canonical, but hopefully informative. And, after working overseas for a few years now, it is somewhat informed.

Branch campuses in Dubai

I’m in an interesting position.

I work in a Dubai government university which was intentionally set up eighteen years ago to follow the British university system, whilst the majority of the UAE’s higher education is based on the US system.

From the start, we have partnered with at least three Russell Group universities: a level partnership, not one of hierarchy or patronage.

Though certainly unfamiliar with the locale, I came to this country with my eyes open. I run the administration of an institution tightly bound to its Emirati foundation and ongoing operation. I bring with me almost 25 years at a senior level in the UK sector with a little bit of US experience thrown in for good measure.

But I am a guest here.

A British guest in a British-named research-intensive university using the British system (particularly and most strikingly in our postgraduate focus which still baffles some at the Ministry.) But a university nonetheless. Not a branch campus.

The UAE has one of the most diverse educational landscapes at primary, secondary and tertiary levels – or from K12 through to university as it’s described here. Further, the UAE has declared its ambition to be a market leader in education by 2071.

We have federal universities, government universities, private universities, and branch campuses. Lots of branch campuses. From the UK, the USA, India, France, Australia (these are the big five here); then Russia, Iran, Ireland, Lebanon, Pakistan, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, to name but a few.

This is a melting pot.

With such a variety of offerings it’s not just quality that diverges. For the prospective student – whether at undergraduate or postgraduate level – it can be a minefield.

Add to that the global nature of many education sectors, like the UAE’s, and students and their families (not to mention university staff themselves) are often dealing with a new and unfamiliar environment. They might even be trying to operate in a second or even third language.

Branch campus challenges

For branch campuses, there are a number of issues to consider which local institutions either don’t have to deal with at all, or have different and frequently easier routes through which to navigate.

These include:

  • Regulations and regulatory authorities
  • Accreditation
  • Curricula
  • Tariffs
  • Financing
  • Labour
  • Data
  • A host of other laws

And that’s before you bring in ‘soft’ considerations, which can be social, cultural, religious, political, and ideological. These may be less tangible, but they can still make or break a branch campus.

While I was working in the UK, I remember attending meetings of the senior executive in various institutions where we either:

  • Owned a branch campus
  • Were considering opening (or on one occasion closing) one
  • Had transnational partnerships, which involved some of the factors we’re discussing here.

Now I work overseas, I have an entirely different view.

Certainly I don’t envy those trying to run branch campuses.

And I mean in-country. Not back in the VC’s office, which I now realise is too remote, both literally and metaphorically.

Branch campus opportunities

I’m lucky to count various branch campus heads as colleagues in my small but generous network here.

What I see, and what they tell me, is that almost everything is up for grabs in a branch campus: little is fixed and stable, and (un)reliability is key.

In a branch campus, much of what we may take for granted, or at least have anchor holds for, is mutable:

  • Lines of command and control
  • Authority and agency
  • Entry points and graduate destinations
  • Student retention and completion rates
  • Industry/private sector collaborations
  • Grants and funding
  • Flying or local faculty
  • Facilities (or lack thereof)
  • Personnel churn
  • A place for the Arts and Humanities
  • Even a common understanding of purpose, and a lingua franca in which to work.

Reputationally, branch campuses play a delicate and vital role.

This can involve walking a tightrope between the mission and values of the home institution and those of the host country. Think of them as embassies or consulates of your own university. Fly the flag and use the name proudly, but appropriately and always sensitively.

However, there are risks.

Branch campus risks

If you stray too far from your defining values, then the branch campus becomes a pariah.

It is quickly seen as the grubby cash cow, which the VC, CFO, and governing body back home just want to milk dry.

Get it wrong abroad and you may risk something even more serious.

Not just the future of your branch campus itself, but the likelihood that you are blackballed by one or more countries whose lucrative opportunities will be closed to you henceforward.

The international student business is a tough and unforgiving market. Its collective memory is historically long. It’s not just the students, but the research and funding taps which can be turned off pretty swiftly too.

Branch campuses in the future

I began with a provocation about imperialism. I end on a reflection about the post-colonial role of the branch campus, whether that is real or merely perceived.

I confess I am now uneasy about the branch campus, at least in its traditional form, and as many of us experience it when we work internationally.

I think there is too much at stake – both in the host and home countries – for branch campuses to be mere scions. We must not give less thought to the nuances of the former compared to the effort of making money for the latter.

And yet, at the same time, I am uncomfortable with the opening premise that:

  • A branch campus is a vestige of empire.
  • Those of us in, or from, the “weird” countries somehow know best when it comes to education.
  • We presume to know enough that we can export our model and dump it unceremoniously in the sand (if you’ll forgive the pun) elsewhere.

Time for a new model. Green at the top, middle, bottom, and edges too.


Hugh Martin is the Registrar and Chief Administrative Officer at The British University in Dubai, AHUA’s first international member. You can follow Hugh on Twitter and send Hugh an email. You can also read about Hugh’s life in lockdown.