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Can Overseas Branch Campuses Reflect Local Values?

We have been thinking a lot recently about the impact on local cultures of importing foreign higher education. How are outside providers different from indigenous institutions? How do branch campuses gain legitimacy and become embedded within the host country’s system of education? What does it mean when a campus established by a foreign university says it is a local institution?

More than 60 countries are home to some 201 international branch campuses. Spurred by such questions, Unesco suggested in a report on the development of cross-border higher education that “no single type of foreign university can, in itself, meet the aspirations of the [local] people for social and economic development. Each country has its own genius and its societal characteristics. Its institutions must bear the stamps of those special characteristics.”

A lot of readers, nodding in agreement, may be surprised that a major development group has commented so bluntly on this issue. We were, too. What may surprise readers even more is that this report was written in 1962, and it was written about Africa.

We came across the report while doing research for a paper on cross-border higher education in Africa. We knew about recent developments, such as Carnegie Mellon’s campus in Rwanda, Monash University’s campus in South Africa, and the University of New England’s new study-abroad campus in Morocco. But we also recognized that the continent had a long history of foreign involvement in higher education. The American University in Cairo, for example, has long been an esteemed center of learning. And we knew that institutions from the United States and elsewhere had long provided capacity-building consulting services. But our research turned up some surprising facts.

By the 1970s, Africa had more than 50 universities, some in existence for decades. Many were not considered indigenous institutions. Rather, they were created in the image of, and sometimes administered by, universities in the Western world. In fact, the purpose of the Unesco report was to explore the idea of what constituted an “African” university.

Many of these institutions were not branch campuses as we define them, but rather followed the University of London’s scheme of special relation, an adaptation of the validation model it developed in 1858. For example, in Nigeria, the oldest university is the University of Ibadan, which originated as an external college of the University of London called Yaba College. Makerere University, in Uganda, also operated for a period of time (1949-63) as an external college. The University of Zimbabwe, the University of Khartoum (Sudan), and the University of Nairobi (Kenya) were also considered external colleges for short times. Having a special relation with the University of London meant that, in addition to their students’ being eligible to take exams for a London degree, the British university had a role in defining admissions standards, curriculum, and other academic matters.

Even universities that were not developed as external colleges were often influenced by foreign institutions. For example, the development of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in the late 1950s, was guided by advice from the presidents of Michigan State University and the University of Exeter. Eventually Michigan State would send about 200 faculty members to assist with the creation of the new institution’s academic core.

So, by the 1960s, many government and academic leaders were asking: What is an “African university”? The same question is relevant again today.

Many nations with extensive engagement with branch campuses and limited local capacity, like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, should be considering the local implications of welcoming foreign institutions to their shores. If the purpose of those institutions is to provide a different type of education, we wonder: Different from what? If it is to encourage improvement of local institutions, we wonder whether at some point the foreign institution will become irrelevant. If it is to provide permanent capacity, then at what point does global become local?

At this point in history, international education has cachet. But the African experience shows us that global can become local in a moment, and that education must connect to homegrown demands to be successful.

Nations must be able to define their own strategy for education. An argument could be made that we have reached a stage of global homogenization of education and research. But the Africa case makes us wonder whether there is still a distinct need for cultural influences and educational systems that are defined by their national borders. As much as we think globally, the real action still occurs locally.