The challenges of managing an international branch campus
: An exploratory study

  • Nigel Healey

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Business (DBA)


This thesis is a study of the challenges of managing an international branch campus(IBC) of a UK university. Branch or satellite campuses are not a new phenomenon.Within the UK, the Universities of Leicester, Nottingham and Southampton all began asuniversity colleges of the University of London, teaching a prescribed curriculum andacting as an examination centre for the University of London. Ironically perhaps, over acentury after London provided higher education to the provinces, at least 13 provincialuniversities currently operate branch campuses in the capital, including GlasgowCaledonian University and the Universities of Liverpool, Cumbria, South Wales andUlster (Quality Assurance Agency 2014).Internationally, the University of Ceylon (now separated into the Universities ofColombo, Peradeniya, Vidyodaya and Kelaniya) was also set up as an internationalcollege of the University of London. After World War II, a number of Commonwealthuniversity colleges of the University of London were established under the ‘scheme ofspecial relationships’. These colleges offered University of London degrees and wereprovided with academic support to develop their systems and procedures so that theycould eventually become independent. The group of Commonwealth colleges in thespecial relationship included the predecessors of today’s Universities of Ibadan,Nairobi, West Indies and Zimbabwe (Harte 1986).The current wave of IBCs is, however, different from the university colleges ofyesteryear in two important respects. First, today’s IBCs are the private initiatives ofUK universities, rather than part of a wider development policy agenda driven by theUK or a foreign colonial government. Second, the IBCs are privately owned, eitherwholly or jointly by the UK universities, rather than being public institutions set up by agovernment. This is reflected in the titles of the new IBCs which either position themas an extension of the UK university (eg, University of Reading Malaysia, University ofMiddlesex Dubai) or highlight the nature of the educational partnership (eg,International University of Malaya Wales, Xi’an Jaiotong Liverpool University). Thecommon thread connecting today’s IBCs to the past is that they follow the historical 8convention of teaching curricula designed in the UK and awarding the degrees of thehome university.The 21st century version of the IBC is a relatively recent phenomenon. Prior to theconclusion of the ‘Uruguay Round’ of trade talks and the establishment of the GeneralAgreement on Trade in Services (GATS) in 1995, non-tariff barriers effectivelyprecluded trade in educational services in most markets. The oldest ‘modern’ IBC is theUniversity of Nottingham Malaysia Campus, which was set up in 2000. Most of theUK’s IBC’s have been established only in the last ten years and a number ─ forexample, the University of Reading Malaysia and Heriot-Watt University Malaysia ─are still in their infancy. Building and operating an IBC represents a ‘brave newfrontier’ for UK universities and this thesis sheds important light on the challengesinvolved.The international strategy literature provides a valuable conceptual framework withinwhich to organise these challenges. The globalisation of business is far more advancedthan that of higher education and the management models much better understood.Multinational corporations (MNCs) have developed sophisticated techniques formanaging extensive networks of overseas subsidiaries and have dedicated functionaldepartments to oversee the movement of labour, goods, services and capital acrossnational borders. A fundamental challenge for MNCs is to determine how much tolocalise their product or service to meet the needs of each national market. Universitiesface the same dilemma with their IBCs. Should they be ‘clones’ of the home campus,providing an educational experience which is identical to that on the home campus? Orshould they localise the curriculum and pedagogy to adapt to the learning styles andcontext of the host market?Unlike MNCs, however, UK universities are not huge corporations with HR and financedepartments accustomed to dealing with transfer pricing, international tax issues andmanaging internationally mobile staff. They are stolid, UK-based organisations with apublic sector ethos and a tradition of being managed by academics, rather thanprofessional career managers. They are characterised by arcane governance structures,internal politics and glacial decision-making. More than half the UK universities (ie, 9the former polytechnics and colleges of higher education) have been independent oflocal government control for less than 25 years and many still operate on the basis ofemployment contracts and working practices from this era. The scale of the IBCsrelative to their UK campuses is, moreover, generally so small that the organisational‘centre of gravity’ is overwhelmingly the UK-based operation.A second difference between MNCs’ subsidiaries and IBCs is that, despite the advent ofGATS, higher education remains a highly regulated sector. UK universities are subjectto oversight by the national Higher Education Funding Councils, the Office for FairAccess (OFFA) and the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA). When they establish IBCswhich provide UK degrees, the IBCs are subject to the same scrutiny by the QAA. Atthe same time, IBCs are regulated by the equivalent bodies in the host country, eitherarms-length organisations like the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) or the hostMinistry of Education. Governments in many countries subsidise higher education,either indirectly by providing students with grants or loans to contribute towards tuitioncosts or directly by subsidising universities or operating them as part of the publicsector. To control the cost to the taxpayer, they often impose enrolment caps; to meetpublic good objectives, governments may use a range of levers from moral suasion topurpose-specific grants to steer universities to admit students from underrepresentedbackgrounds or undertake research in particular areas. At the very least, IBCs mustcompete with subsidised, regulated local universities, but often they themselves aresubject to the same regulation and control.Because of these two important differences between MNCs and universities, the focusof this study is on the challenges of managing an IBC as perceived by the IBCmanagers. While there is a well-developed literature on principal-agent theory, much ofthe international strategy literature on localisation approaches the problem from anorganisational perspective; that is, it couches the challenge to the MNC as an entity ofdetermining the optimal degree of localisation. In the case of an IBC, the seniormanagement of the home university may similarly take a view, in principle, of theoptimal degree of localisation of the curriculum. But because the management systemsof a UK university are so underdeveloped in terms of controlling a small IBC thousandsof kilometres away, and because there are other equally powerful stakeholders in the 10host country involved, it is the IBC manager in situ who has to balance these competingdemands.This study uses critical realism as the conceptual framework. This is because IBCmanagers are operating in the context of hard objective, external facts (governmentregulations, enrolment targets, financial budgets), but they nevertheless have toconstruct their own understanding of their objectives within the context of the widersocial structures and power relations. For IBC managers, they are working in an alienculture where they may not speak the local language or fully comprehend the socialnorms and conventions. They have to work out what they think are the agendas of thehost government, their joint venture partner and their competitors and what they believetheir students want. They also have to interpret the home university’s objectives, whichmay be vague or ambiguous given the differing objectives of the most senior leaders(eg, the pro vice-chancellor teaching and learning is likely to take a different view fromthe chief financial officer about the objectives of the IBC) and the shifting politicalalliances in the senior management team.Using semi-structured interviews with IBC managers, mostly in their own offices at theIBC, this thesis finds that the managers feel pressure to localise the staff base, thecurriculum (broadly defined to embrace content, pedagogy and assessment) andresearch. This pressure emanates from five main clusters of stakeholders: the homeuniversity, the joint venture partner, the host country (government, regulators andemployers), competitors and students. The importance of the focus on the IBCmanagers is that, firstly, they generally report that the senior management of the homeuniversity typically exercises limited direct control, failing to understand the situationon the ground or making decisions in an ad hoc, sometimes contradictory way; in nocase did any IBC manager report that they felt there was a clear strategic vision on thepart of the home university management team for the development of the IBC. Second,the IBC managers are constantly encountering novel problems or issues that neitherthey, nor their senior colleagues at the home university, have ever encountered beforeand they have to use their judgement to achieve a resolution.11The analysis of the qualitative data shows that the global integration (I) – localresponsiveness (R) paradigm represents a tractable framework for organising thedimensions of the IBC which may be localised to a greater or lesser extent. Furtheranalysis of the objectives of the stakeholders suggests that IBC managers are generallydriven to a high degree of localisation of the staff base, while experiencing considerableresistance to the localisation of the curriculum. Whether or not research is localiseddepends on the extent to which the priorities of the host country reflect widerinternational concerns (eg, climate change, energy sustainability).
Date of Award1 Jun 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bath
SupervisorIan Jamieson (Supervisor) & Rajani Naidoo (Supervisor)

Cite this