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University Branch Campuses

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For growing numbers of students, international branch campuses offer the perfect combination of location, education quality and affordability.

Imagine you want to study abroad, but your ideal country is still developing its higher education system and does not yet have any (or many) world-class universities. Studying in a more traditional higher education destination – the US, UK, Australia, France and so on – may provide the high standard of education you want, but would rule out many of the most exciting and fast-developing places in the world right now.

Branch university campuses, in theory at least, mean you can have it both ways. If you fancy studying in Malaysia, for example, you can now do so at a campus run by the UK’s University of Nottingham – which is ranked in the top 75 of the QS World University Rankings 2011/12. Other options include Paris Sorbonne University (France) in Abu Dhabi, Leeds Metropolitan University (UK) in India, James Cook University (Australia) in Singapore, the Technische Universität Berlin (Germany) in Egypt and Cornell University (USA) in Qatar.

In fact, according to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE), at the end of 2011 there were a total of 200 international branch campuses offering degree courses – and a further 37 scheduled to open by 2013. This is in addition to numerous partnerships and ‘twinning’ agreements, which result in degrees awarded jointly by two institutions in separate countries.

So far, most branch campuses have been clustered in the Gulf region, particularly in the United Arab Emirates, which with 37 has more than any other country. However, more campuses are now opening further east, particularly in Singapore, which has 18, and China, with 17. These are just the highest densities; on a smaller scale, branches are appearing in every part of the world – from South Korea to Greece, Mexico to Rwanda, and many other countries in between.

The list of nations operating branch university campuses is also growing quickly, though US universities are by far the leaders, accounting for 78 of the existing 200. Next are French universities with 27, UK universities with 25 and Australian universities with 12.

Why choose a branch university?

Branch university campuses are in many ways a win-win-win phenomenon. For the university, they mean more students and stronger ties with other countries. For the host nation, they’re a quick way of boosting higher education standards and attracting more students, both local and international. As for students, the prime attraction has already been mentioned: a degree at an internationally ranked university, in a location where this was not previously possible. Depending on where you live, this could mean you now have a high-ranked institution much closer to home, or simply that your list of study-abroad options just got a lot longer.

A second key selling point of branch university campuses is the unique kind of environment they provide, particularly when clustered together to form international education ‘cities’. For example, Dubai’s International Academic City (DIAC) is made up of 27 branch campuses run by universities from 11 countries, attended by 20,000 students of 137 nationalities. Similar (though smaller) clusters include Malaysia’s EduCity and Qatar’s Education City. 

These ‘multiversity’ developments bring several benefits, not least of which is the fun and stimulating experience of living and studying in such a large and diverse student community. In material terms, resources and facilities are likely to be more extensive, as the costs may be shared between universities. It may even be possible to take modules at more than one institution. For example, students at Carnegie Mellon’s Qatar campus can sign up for classes at the other five international branches Qatar’s Education City site, and the credits will be counted towards their degree.

What’s the cost?

This may all sound too good to be true, or at least too good to afford! There’s some basis for that suspicion in that even if the ‘parent’ university is publicly funded, branches don’t usually receive funding from either the parent or host country’s government (though there are exceptions). This may mean public universities charge more at branch university campuses than in their home country, because they are more dependent on income from tuition fees.

However, in some cases branch campuses are actually a cheaper option. At the University of Nottingham’s UK campus, international students studying computer science are currently charged about US$23,660 per year. This is almost twice the amount charged to international students taking the same subject at the university’s Malaysia campus. As of 2012-13, when UK students will be charged UK£9,000 at Nottingham (about US$14,225), travelling to study in Malaysia will also be a cheaper option for UK nationals – particularly when you factor in Malaysia’s lower cost of living.

In the case of private universities, some charge the same fees both at home and abroad, and some differentiate. But at any rate, branch campuses offer students a new option to consider in a world where higher education is becoming more expensive wherever you choose to study. And of course applying to a branch university campus doesn’t rule out financial aid or scholarships; details of available grants are usually clearly outlined on an institution’s website.

Value for money?

So the costs may be the same, or even cheaper than attending a university’s home campus, but can you be sure the quality of the course really measures up? For example, if you study at Cornell’s medical school in Qatar, are you really getting the ‘Cornell experience’, and will future employers place the same value on your degree? At present, the jury’s still out. The OBHE admits that there may be some concerns about quality, but – just as for universities in general – each case is different.

When making your decision, you might want to consider how the curriculum compares, the quantity and quality of facilities (libraries, labs and so on), and the level of the teaching staff – some universities may employ more junior staff at their branches for instance. Of course, as the OBHE says, it would be impossible for any branch university to completely replicate the original, quite simply because the location is different. But then, that’s kind of the whole appeal!

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Written by Laura Bridgestock
The former editor of TopUniversities.com, Laura oversaw the site's editorial content and student forums. She also edited the QS Top Grad School Guide and contributed to market research reports, including 'How Do Students Use Rankings?'

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