The Boom of International Branch Campuses: Western Universities and the Export of Knowledge


In recent years, the number of international branch campuses has increased enormously, particularly in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region. According to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, which is an independent institution conducting research and examining policy frameworks and emerging trends in higher education, there were 162 international branch campuses (IBCs) across the world in 2009. The United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom are among the most prominent IBCs providers. In fact, U.S. universities constituted 48% of all IBCs in 2009. While IBCs are a relatively new trend in higher education, it is not clear whether exporting international campuses abroad will help host countries  strengthen their higher education systems and keep up with current global trends. Perhaps, the main drive for the establishment of IBCs is not public service, but rather increased revenue and reputation of home institutions.

To better understand the boom of IBCs, it is necessary to take a look at the context of host countries where these international branch campuses operate. Currently, the most popular destinations include the United Arab Emirates, China, Singapore, and Qatar. For example, Qatar’s Education City hosts such well-known U.S. universities as Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Likewise, the United Arab Emirates, which has the highest number of international branch campuses in the world, hosts such highly reputable universities as New York University and Sorbonne University.

From the perspective of host countries, particularly oil-rich Middle Eastern countries, the main goal is to make “prestigious” (Western)  education accessible globally. The expectation is that international branch campuses will prepare youth in the Middle East (and other regions) for the global labor market, thus decreasing host countries’ dependency on natural resources. In addition, it is believed that these IBCs would increase innovation, research, and development activities in host countries, thus contributing to the emerging knowledge-based economy in the Middle East.

Theoretically, all this sounds good. Yet, many questions arise when carefully examine the implementation of IBCs abroad.

First, IBCs offer very limited undergraduate programs in host countries compared to their home institutions. One of the reasons is a lack of academic freedom in host countries, which may compromise the liberal arts curriculum and discourage many professors from teaching in IBCs. In fact, American universities that have established branch campuses in the Middle East and Asia have faced an ongoing criticism for collaborating with authoritarian governments.

Second, business, management, and engineering programs seem to prevail over liberal arts programs offered by many IBCs. IBCs thus primarily function as producers of business leaders rather than supporters of innovative research initiatives in host countries. Even though some IBCs prioritize research activities in host countries by strengthening their relations with policy-makers, their number is not very high. Without introducing rigorous research programs, IBCs are unlikely to produce innovative solutions for the knowledge-based economy or help local governments.

Third, many IBCs were established in hopes of potential new revenues, yet many have been shut down for financial reasons. For example, Michigan State University expected to enroll 100-150 students per year, but there were just 10-20 students in MSU Dubai’s programs. Therefore, some international branch campuses already start to pull away from host countries. For example, Michigan State closed all of its undergraduate programs in Dubai in 2010. Not surprisingly, many families prefer to send their children to Western universities rather than enrolling their children in IBCs. The legitimacy of degrees offered by IBCs thus remains in question.

Clearly, IBCs struggle with many problems in host countries. Some of these problems arise due to the specificity of the local context of host countries, while others stem from the contradiction between universities’ financial interest in the region and the public demand for the academic programs. As a relatively new phenomenon in the higher education marketplace, IBCs will need to carefully address these academic, financial, and ethical issues as they establish their place in the education world.

2 thoughts on “The Boom of International Branch Campuses: Western Universities and the Export of Knowledge

  1. Interesting that these university programs/campuses exist primarily to produce business leaders. This is how a colonial power (in this case transnational corporations) creates a comprador class.

  2. The interesting scenario of establishing satellite campuses from well-known western universities is really becoming more popular among the internationalization of higher education. New York University is one of the most ambitious ones. However, most of them only offer undergraduate programs on campuses in the Middle East. i am always wondering why it is the case…

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