The level of universities' physical presence abroad is at a record high at the moment. One clear sign of this is the increasing number of international branch campuses, which are the conventional examples of cross-border higher education.
According to the Cross-Border Education Research Team (C-BERT), the number of international branch campuses stood at 250 in January 2017. As Richard Garrett, the director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, notes, this number reached 263 at the end of the same year.
Considering that there were 230 international branch campuses in 2015 and 160 in 2009, these figures show that there has been a 65% increase in the number of international branch campuses around the world in the past decade. Comparing international branch campuses to "mushrooms after a heavy rain", Philip G Altbach has drawn attention to the rapid increase in their number.
International branch campuses are the most traditional examples of transnational higher education operations that provide exporting universities and countries with income and soft power. Nevertheless, the popularity of international branch campuses should not allow us to overlook another cross-border presence of higher education institutions, 'offices abroad'.
Universities' offices abroad are outposts that are significantly smaller than international branch campuses. They are named variously by their exporting universities as 'international offices', 'gateway offices', 'locations abroad' or 'centres abroad'.
However, the main role expected of them is fairly similar: helping the exporting universities get access to research opportunities abroad and promoting the home campus to international students when necessary.
Unfortunately, there is no study that lists all the offices abroad that have been opened by universities around the world. Nevertheless, it would be correct to state that there are universities that invest more in establishing offices abroad than in international branch campuses. Harvard University is a good example of a world-class university whose cross-border internationalisation relies mainly on its offices abroad.
As the C-BERT indicates, Harvard University has only one international branch campus, in the United Arab Emirates, the Harvard Medical School Center for Global Health Delivery in Dubai. On the other hand, the university has established 22 offices abroad up to now.
Considering that the oldest of these offices, the office of Archaeological Exploration of Sardis in Turkey, was established in 1958 and the newest ones, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Tunisia and the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute office in India, were established in 2017, it is reasonable to conclude that Harvard University has adopted a long-term strategy of cross-border internationalisation mainly through offices abroad.
It would therefore not be surprising if we were to see an increase in the number of Harvard University's offices in different locations of the world in the future.
Research on why universities prefer to establish offices rather than international branch campuses does not yet exist. However, an administrative, financial and quality-related comparison between the two options could be a good starting point to question why offices might be a more attractive option.
International branch campuses are mostly smaller than their exporting universities. However, they require almost the same administrative structure, including senior leadership, student affairs offices, a financial office, an admissions office and academic units.
The administrative processes of each unit are expected to be planned and implemented respecting the laws of both host and exporting countries. This requires long-term planning and consideration of many technical details.
When it comes to the administrative organisation of offices abroad, the problems are less challenging. While some offices are established in a one-bedroom apartment-sized area, including only one person as a representative of the exporting university, others can be established in bigger buildings with research specialists from different disciplines.
As these offices usually aim to search for research opportunities in the host and neighbouring countries only, no specific academic, legal and financial preparations for admissions and teaching are required. This makes administering offices abroad a more practical option than administering international branch campuses.
For example, when an exporting university's administrators want to close an international branch campus, they may have to wait for the graduation of the last student from the branch campus. Yet closing or moving an office is simpler as it involves considerably smaller physical and human resources.
Today, income generation is the dominant rationale for internationalisation. Both international branch campuses and offices abroad are driven by this motivation.
However, it should be noted that a decision to open international branch campuses and offices abroad carries financial risks, as most business investments do.
International branch campuses are expected to attract students from their host and neighbouring countries. They are opened with the hope of enrolling thousands of students. However, in his article "Look before jumping into the branch campus business", Robert Ubell reports that the average number of enrolled students at branch campuses does not exceed 500.
That means that some of the international branch campuses are opened as a nice dream but one that ends up in disappointment. This could best be explained by the fact that between 1999 and 2016 at least 41 international branch campuses were shut down, according to the C-BERT.
The set-up costs of an office abroad are usually significantly less than those for an international branch campus as the former is mostly established in small office complexes with a few staff members.
In addition, these offices search for research opportunities in their host and neighbouring countries and once they come up with these, they inform their home universities. In most cases, researchers on the home campus begin travelling to or living in a host country when they get research funding from an institution or organisation in that country.
In this sense, it is not only the set-up costs of an office abroad that are less risky than those of an international branch campus, but also the operation of it.
International branch campuses promise to provide the students in their host countries with the same quality of education offered on the exporting campuses. In order to achieve this, "the student body must largely match the one at home in terms of selectivity and quality", says Philip G Altbach.
However, in today's harsh economic conditions, maintaining this selectivity in the admissions process is challenging. Some of the international branch campuses already operate under capacity and a couple of them are shut down every year.
This forces many international branch campuses to spend as little as possible on set-up costs and to focus on teaching in large classes, which makes the operation less expensive and more profitable. Low intake of students and a reliance on teaching run the risk of turning international branch campuses into 'diploma mills' and harm the reputation of the home campuses.
In terms of quality, offices abroad are less risky than international branch campuses. As a general rule, the specialists in an office abroad find a research opportunity, evaluate it with the office administrators, inform the home campus, the home campus leadership asks the related researcher/s to apply for it and once their applications are approved, these researchers conduct research with the ethical and administrative approval of the local authorities.
In this respect, the way offices abroad operate is less risky. It helps home universities not only enhance their international research capability but also gain scores in the global university rankings as research income, research productivity and international collaboration are among the ranking indicators.
In today's globalised world, even a Tweet by a president can be quite enough to disrupt multi- or inter-national economic, academic, political and societal peace. This makes trans-border higher education operations riskier than before. For this reason, university leaders should consider the above administrative, financial and quality-related comparisons before they establish an institutional physical presence in another country.
Hakan Ergin holds a PhD from Bogazici University, Turkey. His research interests include internationalisation of higher education, migration, adult education, the right to education and distance learning. He works as a postdoctoral scholar at Boston College Center for International Higher Education, United States. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org