Western universities are opening campuses in some odd places where they really don’t need to be

Far-flung islands, anyone?
Far-flung islands, anyone?
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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The latest destination hotspot for higher education? Mauritius, apparently.

In the last year, no fewer than three British universities have set down branch campuses on the isolated tropical island off the coast of eastern Africa. Aberystwyth University, one of those three schools, has spent £600,000 ($879,000) on a new campus there big enough to accommodate 2,000—but only 40 students have enrolled.

A former vice-chancellor is now chastising the entire project, calling it “madness.” (The Welsh school’s response is that it has had a “positive” start, and hopes to “build on this significantly in the coming years.”)

As higher education goes global, more and more universities like Aberystwyth are setting up satellite campuses and branches in other countries. These new schools—which number more than 200 right now, according to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education—are meant to boost international outreach and encourage student exchange, yet they haven’t exactly been widely celebrated.

Why do schools want to open up outposts in random spots across the globe in the first place? A mix of reasons: schools want to show they’re internationally aware and capable of preparing students for the new, “globalized” economy. As more colleges set up branch campuses, others—especially lower-ranking institutions—don’t want to get left behind.

And, of course, there’s the money—usually from leveraging their prestige to get new students to pay top dollar for the privilege of attending a “foreign” university locally without all the costs of emigration.

In particular, the Asian continent—where the global economy, along with its future leaders, is largely assumed to be headed—is being targeted for expansion by schools in the US and other Western areas.

China and Singapore both host dozens of international branch campuses. South Korea and Sri Lanka are among those aspiring to also be education hubs. The United Arab Emirates is home to more than 50 Western university outposts, and Qatar specifically set up a chunk of land called “Education City” for schools like Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, and Northwestern University to reside.

But there’s no guarantee these outposts hold up to the brand quality of the original school, or their academic standards.

Yale University recently installed an outpost in Singapore that has repeatedly been accused of poor academic quality. And because Singapore is a politically conservative country—Yale’s new venture is actually the nation’s first liberal-arts college—the school is struggling to mesh Yale’s values with the country’s strict free speech policies.

New York University, a school known for peppering the world with far-flung satellite campuses wherever it can land them, is facing the same free speech issue at its outpost in Abu Dhabi. Same for France’s Paris-Sorbonne, which also has a campus there.

Such cases have drawn no small share of criticism from professors at home, many of whom are looking upon Western schools’ dogged push into Eastern countries with dismay.

What’s benefiting Asian countries isn’t always paying off for Western schools themselves, though. Thanks to floundering enrollment, Michigan State University shut down its undergraduate program in Dubai after only two years. NYU just celebrated the third-ever commencement at its Abu Dhabi campus this week… but many of its graduates are having trouble getting employers to take them seriously.

It will be some time before we find out whether these are just growing pains for satellite campuses that are here to stay or a lesson to other schools to stick with what they know.