Collapsing branch campuses: time for some collective action?

The process of denationalization, which Saskia Sassen amongst others has been attempting to analyze, is clearly not a seamless process, even when implemented by well-resourced institutions and knowledgeable people. While Sassen’s main concern is with the denationalizing impulse within nation-states (e.g., ministries), denationalization is also associated with pushes beyond the national scale by institutions in other sectors, including higher education.

When universities reorient from the national to the global and decide to open up a branch campus, for example, they are faced with a whole host of options and questions related to values (the guiding principles), geographical imagination (scales to work at), capabilities (moving from vision to implementation and governance), level of engagement (the depth of linkage question), and mechanism for entry (ranging from franchising (yes, this term is used) through to fiercely independent campuses with replica faculty working conditions).

gmurakLast week’s higher education media journalists allocated significant attention to the collapse of George Mason University’s campus at Ras Al Khaimah (RAK) in the United Arab Emirates. Here are a few of the key articles:

Link here for the GMU announcement, and here for a pre-set Google weblog search on the topic. GMU’s Provost (Peter N. Stearns) also had this to say, in a refreshingly open and honest way:

Closing the RAK Campus

By this point many people in the Mason community will know that we have decided to close the Mason operation in Ras al-Khaimah as of the end of this semester. Negotiations with our funding partners in RAK broke down both over budget levels for the current year and over changes our partners sought in reporting structures. We concluded that the result would not allow us to sustain the academic quality to which we’re committed and indeed might affect our accreditation. The decision having been made, we are working hard to live up to the obvious responsibility we have to our students there (about 120 of them), giving them as many options as possible including facilitating their coming to our campus here to complete their work. It’s a messy and distressing process.

As negotiations began to break down, I had several days of self-castigation, wondering what I could have done better to help prevent this unfortunate result. Then this week our University Relations office, trying to get me ready for the questions that might arise at a press conference, included the stinger, “Who at Mason is most responsible for the failure of the RAK campus.” That would be me. I know of several errors in judgment I committed or was involved in, that may have had some impact on the slower-than-expected enrollment growth (which was the clearest area where what we were trying to do broke down somewhat). I certainly know of several things I would do differently in a similar undertaking in future, including making sure we were well enough funded at the outset to hire a manager at our end to oversee the project. I also believe that it is important to admit mistakes (and to be forgiven for them, as long as they don’t pile up unacceptably). I’ve never cared for a leadership situation that either pushes toward denial of error, or assumes that any error will be seized upon without mercy. But I further believe that it’s vital not just to admit, to learn from, but also to get over. So we’re working hard on cleaning up the RAK residuum but also looking to other projects, including some in the global arena, that are pushing out in really promising directions.

This is an issue we have written and spoken about before, and it is one that national associations (e.g., the American Council of Education (ACE)) are starting to pay attention to.  See these ACE reports, for example:

Yet, despite the production of these informative reports, and associated discussions in Washington DC, I can’t help but wonder why there is not more collective action to understanding the pros and cons of the branch campus development process, with guides and courses to assist. In the GMU-RAK case everyone — the host government, the university, and the students — loses. You would think, given the scale of the endeavors underway (especially in the Middle East, and Asia to a lesser degree) that at least one information-packed website would have been developed, or one short-term executive education-style course would have been set up. Yet there is nothing, nadda, zip. GlobalHigherEd probably has more information than any other open-access website (at least in English) yet it is woefully undeveloped, dependent as it is on our spare time (which is in short supply right now).

If I could create the dream resource for the administrative entrepreneurs in universities considering branch campuses, it would consist of a 2-3 year long program of periodic one week courses run by INSEAD (developer of the most successful new campus in a distant location (it is actually their second campus, versus a ‘branch campus’)) to deal with the strategy and negotiation elements, in association with regional (area studies) experts. It is worth adding that Gabriel Hawawini and Arnoud De Meyer (now at the Judge School of Business, University of Cambridge) guided the INSEAD campus into existence. I recognize that INSEAD is only a business school, but they have thought through all aspects of the development process, and have situated the issue within a broader context regarding both strategy and the political economy of development in host nations. INSEAD also has a track record in developing resilient campuses and programs abroad. INSEAD might also draw in expertise from the University of Warwick, which developed the most comprehensive planning process yet; one that led them to decide, in 2005, to not develop a Singapore-based branch campus for approximately 10,000 students.

If I could create the dream resource for the officials and politicians considering hosting branch campuses, it would consist of a 2-3 year long program of periodic one week courses jointly run by INSEAD, the OECD’s Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE), the International Association of Universities (IAU), and 1-2 key national associations of universities (e.g., ACE) from likely source countries. This rather heterogeneous grouping would have the capacity to deal with the range of issues host governments need to consider when devising and implementing this form of capacity building development strategy, while being distant enough from the process to critique host government’s fixation with importing ‘brand names’ above all else. My research on the development process in Singapore also generated a feeling that host governments have a challenging time understanding how universities in other parts of the world function (both formally and informally). Even senior ministerial officials with overseas degrees lack sufficient knowledge and perspective: they were, after all, only students during their time abroad.

Finally, the courses would be heavily subsidized by the governments of both source and host countries, the World Bank, and the OECD, thereby drawing in both curious and committed stakeholders. It would also result in the production of a comprehensive open access web-based portal on all aspects of the development process; a permanent resource, if you will, for governments and universities reflecting about this issue. While it is to be expected that consultancies like the Washington Advisory Group will attempt to profit from this development process, insights on the development process need to be circulated much more widely in the public sphere.

George Mason University’s campus in Ras al Khaymah has collapsed. Similar collapses have happened in Malaysia, South Africa, Singapore, and several other countries. How many more messy failures like this do we need? Why can’t we deal with this issue in a collective way, one sensitive to the viewpoints of all parties associated with this complicated development process, yet one that recognizes that capabilities to ‘reach out’ in new ways need to be systematically enhanced.

Kris Olds

4 thoughts on “Collapsing branch campuses: time for some collective action?

  1. Pingback: Failed experiments in offshore campuses

  2. This is an excellent post. With an increasing number of U.S., Australian and British universities engaged with the establishment of satellite or “branch campuses” it is an appropriate time to re-examine the the rationales, decision criteria, purposes and institutional strategies underpinning these ventures. Most often, a primary motivation for establishing programs in the UAE, Singapore and other Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian locales is financial. New revenue streams, major contributions by governments or individuals toward faculty chairs back home etc. provide the incentive to embark on the project. Experience has shown from similar projects in Japan in the 1970s and other more recent initiatives that using the financial objective as a central motivation for foreign operations is often an insufficient justification that ultimately leads to failure.

    The INSEAD example is an excellent counterpoint to the current practices of most universities. In the INSEAD case, the creation of the Singapore campus came out of a clear strategic logic that put the initiative at the very center and core of the larger institutional strategy of being a very international if not a global business school. This was not a marginal effort with limited risk and exposure. It was pursued as if the schools entire future depended upon the success of the project.

    It is true that a business school is smaller in scale and focused on a single discipline or field. It is also a professional degree that is highly sought after and in demand. Nonetheless the INSEAD example does point up how important it is that the project abroad be well integrated into a larger institutional strategy that insures that the commitment to succeed is one of the university’s most important priorities.

    It also seems apparent that providing undergraduate or first degree programs across multiple disciplines is a more challenging endeavor than focusing on graduate and professional education where student demand is more certain and operational issues are more manageable.

    Fortunately there are also numerous cases of success by universities that adopt a more strategic and integrated approach to international engagement. If the overseas campus or program is not an isolated, somewhat marginal and poorly integrated activity, it stands a much greater chance of success.

    Richard Edelstein
    Principal, Global Learning Networks Consultancy

  3. Pingback: University associations and the enhancement of capabilities for a globalizing era « GlobalHigherEd

  4. Pingback: L’EPFL à Ras al-Khaimah « Notre Unige

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