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Universities open campuses in foreign countries, with mixed results

Canadian schools have faced delays and slower than expected growth in enrolment.


The few canadian postsecondary institutions to establish overseas branch campuses in recent years have met with mixed success, demonstrating how tricky it can be to navigate these foreign waters. Those that have taken the plunge include the University of Calgary, which operates a nursing school in Qatar; York University’s Schulich School of Business, which plans to build a business school in India; and the University of Waterloo, which just announced the pending closure of its Dubai campus.

The University of Calgary-Qatar (UCQ) held its third convocation ceremony in November, where a dozen students, all female, received their bachelor of nursing degrees. It marked a major turnaround for the Doha-based institution. Some 40 students have graduated since UCQ opened its doors in 2007, and 50 more are expected to do so next year. Enrolment stands at about 300 students and is expected to reach 400 next year. Early in 2013, the school plans to launch a master’s program.

But success has been slow to come, admitted Dru Marshall, U of C provost and vice-president, academic. “We had a couple of very slow years in setting up,” she said. “It’s taken us five years to get to where we are now.”

A recent report by the Canadian Bureau for International Education said Canadian institutions face several challenges in operating offshore campuses, including stiff competition from U.S., British and Australian counterparts, high development and operating costs, and murky host country regulations. The report distinguished offshore campuses from the majority of Canadian postsecondary programs offered abroad, which are delivered through partner universities. Many of the partnerships are twinning programs that let students study partly in Canada and lead to a double or joint degree. This type of arrangement allows Canadian institutions to use existing infrastructure and to spread the financial risk, said the CBIE report.

Much less common are satellite campuses of Canadian universities. Foreign students who attend branch campuses follow a Canadian curriculum and graduate with a degree from the Canadian institution.

Universities pursue these ventures as a way to promote internationalization and to recruit students to their home campus, said Philip Altbach, professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. Others, he said, including some Australian institutions, see offshore campuses as a revenue-generating opportunity. In the oil-rich Persian Gulf region, local governments have courted foreign universities to set up branch campuses and have footed the bill, “so universities going in don’t risk too much money,” he explained.

The University of Calgary’s Doha campus is supported by the Qatari government. One of the major obstacles U of C faced at the outset was a widespread perception in Qatar that nursing wasn’t an esteemed profession, said Dr. Marshall, the provost. U of C undertook a major advertising campaign to promote the value of nursing. “I remember the first time I arrived in Doha, every street I drove down had a University of Calgary banner about nursing,” she said.

The support of Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, wife of the ruling emir, has been instrumental in the turnaround, Dr. Marshall added. Sheikha Moza has strongly supported women’s education and the school; she attended the recent convocation ceremony. When UCQ visited a local high school to recruit prospective students, it attracted the interest of about 70 students, whereas in past years it was closer to 15. “This is the effect that a country leader can have on valuing a profession, a profession that is just developing in the country,” said Dr. Marshall.

Also important is nurturing relationships with foreign partners. Dr. Marshall travels to Doha once or twice a year to meet with them. U of C has been quick to respond to requests by the government to introduce a two-year diploma program, a foundation-year program and now a master’s degree.

Qatar has invested heavily in its postsecondary system. Several prestigious American institutions including Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M University, Carnegie Mellon University and Georgetown University have branch campuses in the country, with much of the cost paid for by the Qatari government. Newfoundland’s College of the North Atlantic opened a satellite campus in Doha in 2002. The United Arab Emirates and other Gulf nations also have heavily subsidized branch campuses.

Even so, said Dr. Altbach of Boston College, a number of U.S. satellite schools in the region have failed because of misunderstandings over terms and conditions or because of low enrolments. The local student population in the Gulf is small, he said, and the growth of branch campuses has led to a competitive and overcrowded market. “If they don’t get the enrolments and they are not playing a useful role, the governments – which should have done better due diligence in the first place – figure it out and turn off the spigot.”

The University of Waterloo recently an-nounced it is closing its satellite campus in the United Arab Emirates next September, due to low enrolment. The Dubai-based campus has 140 students enrolled in first and second year, well below the projected 500 students, said Ellen Réthoré, U of Waterloo’s associate vice-president, communications and public affairs. “Enrolments were building,” she said, “but building slowly.”

Ms. Réthoré said that while the Dubai students were generally pleased, some said they preferred being on the main campus in Waterloo “because it’s bigger and there are more things that appeal to students there.” The Dubai campus opened in 2009 and offered undergraduates programs in civil and chemical engineering and in math. Students typically complete two years in Dubai and two in Waterloo. About 80 first-year students will transfer to Waterloo’s main campus a year ahead of schedule to complete their degrees.

Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer, Waterloo’s in-terim associate vice-president, international, said the Dubai initiative didn’t meet the “central strategic goals and expectations” of Waterloo and its Dubai partner, the Higher Colleges of Technology. U of Waterloo, he said on the university’s website, is “exploring a more strategic approach, with a stronger focus on advanced studies, and research and innovation.” Ms. Réthoré added that future research partnerships in the UAE would likely be in Abu Dhabi rather than Dubai.

Michigan State University closed its branch campus in Dubai two years ago, also because of low enrolment, and George Mason University pulled out of the UAE in 2009. Other U.S. branch campuses are faring well but there are persistent questions about enrolment levels, said Dr. Altbach. More recently, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts said it plans to close its campus in Singapore because of financial challenges.

Foreign regulations pose another hurdle for universities. York’s Schulich School of Business has broken ground on a branch campus in Hyderabad, India. The school was set to open in September, but prolonged delays by India’s parliament in passing proposed legislation to allow foreign universities to operate branch campuses there have raised questions about the project. York officials declined to be interviewed at this time, saying they would prefer to wait until “a few items have been firmed up,” a spokesman said in an email.

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