I’ve been searching for an analogy that would capture the central flaw of an op-ed on Western university branch campuses that appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post. Maybe something about a developing country whose citizens love string quartets; which lacks many high-quality quartets of its own; but which nevertheless sets up politically and bureaucratically driven barriers that prevent high-quality Western string quartets from establishing training programs in the country; and which furthermore makes it very hard for those quartets even to set up partnerships with the country’s own string quartets. In this imaginary scenario, consider an opinion piece in a major newspaper that ignores all of this background and decries the evils of Western quartets for failing to locate in said developing country.
A bit unwieldy and improbable, sure, but no more so than the Indian higher ed policies that my analogy is intended to describe, and which were utterly ignored in yesterday’s Post op-ed. The thrust of the piece is that U.S. universities are setting up campuses in wealthy, non-democratic states such as the United Arab Emirates and Singapore while ignoring poor democracies like India. Allegedly, this pattern brings PR points to Western universities for serving the “developing world” while insulating them from financial risks, given that the aforementioned wealthy nations are willing to lavishly fund branch campuses.
I’m not sure that anybody really considers the UAE or Singapore to be developing countries. Still, the article’s critique of Western universities for establishing campuses in countries that lack freedom to hold political protests (among other missing freedoms) certainly offers legitimate grounds for debate. (I’ve argued elsewhere that there’s a decent case that branch campuses may gradually promote free intellectual inquiry by providing a model that’s much more open than the alternatives available to students in their host countries.)
But the op-ed’s central premise – that India has been deprived of branch campuses by mean-spirited Western universities— just isn’t so. U.S. universities would love to crack the massive Indian market, whether for full-fledged branch campuses or for partnerships with Indian institutions. Already, India is the second-largest source (after China) for foreign students in the United States. With its huge population; hunger for education; fast-growing economy; substandard, poorly funded universities; and admiration for Western universities, India is enormously attractive for U.S. institutions looking to expand abroad.
Unfortunately, as the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Karin Fischer explains, barriers abound: A bill that would give foreign universities the right to set up branch campuses that offer degrees has long been stalled in Parliament. Outside providers face protectionist resistance. Western universities hesitate to enter a highly uncertain regulatory environment. Bureaucratic problems are everywhere. Fischer’s piece is accompanied by a map outlining the dismaying progress of efforts by Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Champlain College, and Valparaiso to make it into India. Virginia Tech’s planned branch campus in Chennai has gone nowhere because of bogged-down legislation letting in foreign universities. Georgia’s Tech’s foray into Hyderabad has stalled for similar reasons. Champlain College’s Mumbai campus, opened with an Indian partner, shut down because it couldn’t get its degrees recognized by the Indian government and employers. And Valparaiso University, also targeting Mumbai, wants to see a more stable regulatory environment before it goes forward. Oh, and the Gujarat state government, eager to move ahead with partnerships, has signed many agreements in principle for faculty exchanges and joint research – without any action thus far.
In other words, the world of Western branch campuses is complicated, quite apart from India’s barriers. For one thing, there are more campuses in developing countries than the Post article acknowledges (Carnegie Mellon has opened a small campus in Rwanda, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology has a thriving campus in Vietnam, and branch campuses exist in places like the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Botswana, Cambodia, Turkey, and Malaysia). Also, the 200 or so branch campuses around the world are by no means all funded by wealthy, authoritarian governments. Many have shut down because of financial and enrollment problems, while new ones also continue to spring up. These campuses are fundamentally entrepreneurial ventures, with all the trial and error that description entails.
Branch campuses might not be the optimal form for cross-national higher ed anyway. Partnerships between universities provide less risk to each party, removing the need to acquire facilities and set up administrative infrastructure in the partner university’s country. And, of course, a world of MOOCs and many preexisting transnational online ventures may lead to a future in which we define international education completely differently for some students, without regard to brick-and-mortar facilities. If and when that happens, worries about establishing Western universities in non-democratic countries surely won’t go away – but they’re likely to take on a different, and unpredictable, form.
Photo Credit: Maps International