IBCs defying predictions of decline

6 December 2016
Rod Bristow

Rachel Merola

Senior Researcher
Observatory on Borderless Higher Education

On November 9 2016, the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) and the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT) at SUNY Albany and Pennsylvania State University published the latest version of their report on international branch campuses (IBCs).

The report provides an update on the phenomenon of IBCs since 2011, and brings together the collective resources of the two organisations to inform this fifth such resource from the OBHE. Even since that review, the figures have risen further. Here, Rachael Merola picks out some of the headline insights on IBCs, and muses on the links between branch campus trends and wider TNE phenomenon.

The international branch campus (IBC) phenomenon continues on, with stable growth over the course of the past decade. Our research, updated in this analysis to December 2016, reveals a 26% increase since 2010, with 251 campuses worldwide that meet the definition of an IBC: "an entity that is owned, at least in part, by a foreign education provider; operated in the name of the foreign education provider; and provides an entire academic program, substantially on site, leading to a degree awarded by the foreign education provider."

IBC growth has been steady, and openings have outpaced closures: the most updated numbers reveal 68 campuses founded from 2006-2011, and 69 from 2011-2016. Most of the recent growth comes from IBCs originating at universities based in the US and Europe-in fact, the US, UK, France, and Russia account for 168 of the 251 total international branch campuses and 44 of the 69 international branch campuses opened since 2011.  Most international branch campuses opened since 2011 are located in countries with high growth in transnational education (TNE) over the past decade: China, UAE, Malaysia, Singapore, and Qatar. These five countries host 99 of the total international branch campuses and 27 of the international branch campuses opened since 2011. 

International Branch Campus Openings, 1996-2015


Source: Figure 2, OBHE (updated analysis to December 2016), International branch campuses - Trends and Developments


China has led the way in growth in recent years, becoming host to 17 international branch campuses since 2011. Due to a combination of demand from students and support from the government, China now has 33 IBCs. The UAE, which previously had the highest number of international branch campuses, lies in second place, with 32 campuses at the latest count, most recently including Modul University Dubai, a branch campus of Austria's Modul University opened in 2016.


Host Countries: Total number of IBCs, 2005, 2010 and 2015


Source: Figure 7, OBHE (updated analysis to December 2016), International branch campuses - Trends and Developments


The increase in IBCs has meant more enrolments in this form of TNE. The OBHE and C-BERT estimate there are currently more than 180,000 students enrolled in international branch campuses around the world. While this is a significant number in terms of revenue and resources, it amounts to less than 4% of the five million internationally mobile students and just 0.1% of the 150 million + higher education students globally, according to Eduventures' data.  

While branch campus growth continues, it may be outpaced by growth in other forms of TNE. A 2015 survey of TNE at universities by the European Association for International Education (EAIE), The EAIE Barometer, found that international branch campus development was the lowest priority among fifteen listed internationalization strategies. Of the staff surveyed, 53% reported no increase in branch campus activity at their institution since 2011, 12% noted an increase, 1% reported a "substantial increase", and 1% reported a decrease in international branch campus activity. 

In some cases, reported decreases may be due to lack of interest, as universities invest in other forms of TNE, notably strategic partnerships and international research and innovation. However, in other cases decreases may be due to universities' inability to pursue international branch campuses as an internationalization strategy. For example, delivering international branch campuses, already a challenging task, becomes even more difficult when the home institution does not have control over pricing on enrolment fees and other financial aspects, as was noted in "French transnational higher education: the urgent need for a strategy", released in September 2016 by France Stratégie,  In other cases, international branch campuses are not supported by policy-for example, the Netherlands has only recently drafted legislation to formally permit Dutch universities to locate outside of the Netherlands, and there has long debate around permitting foreign providers to deliver higher education in India. 

Overall, our findings point to a continuation of the IBC phenomenon. Far from being a flash in the pan, IBCs have taken hold as a reliable and growing form of TNE, as new ones are opened and established ones remain decades after their foundation. Exploring the factors that contribute to the success of IBCs in their various operative models is the next big question we intend to explore in our research.

Our team


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