Offshore campus development worldwide – Forging a powerful locomotive for the transformation and globalization of higher education?

The first foreign university’s branch I set foot on is located on a compound consisting of red-brick buildings in the outskirts of Berlin. The building is part of a redeveloped factory ground where one of the formerly biggest producers of locomotives in the world had its production sites. Next to the buildings that hosts the foreign university’s campus today looms Berlin’s first high-rise building erected in the early 1920s in a, at that time, vibrant and rapidly growing metropolis (Tötzer & Gigler 2005, 40). Around the corner, an abstract sculpture of a steam locomotive symbolizes and remembers of what used to be produced in these premises in former times. The sculpture seems to pay tribute to both the impact the locomotive factories had on district development here and, in a broader sense, the role of the railway in industrializing (European) economies and paving the way for socio-economic and socio-cultural modernity.

It was the foreign university’s offshore campus which brought me to visit this site, yet the sculpture encouraged me to transfer this symbolism to higher education. What is the impact of foreign universities – and their investment in local infrastructure – on local districts and communities? Which role and functions do offshore campuses have in processes of socioeconomic and sociocultural transformation? Let us stick to the metaphor of the steam locomotive for now: can offshore campus development be seen as the locomotive of the globalization train in higher education?

Steel sculpture LOK 2000 in Berlin-Tegel
First high-rise building of Berlin

(1) Enhancing the mobility of people?

Very straight forward, locomotives are supposed to pull trains which bring people from one place to the other and facilitate long-distance travel. Just as on locomotives, this promise of enhancing the mobility of people seems to be pinned on offshore campuses as well. Offshore campuses are, by definition, the result of education providers and, in most cases, investments having become mobile across national borders. But in addition to the mobility of the providers, programmes and curricula, offshore campuses attract students and staff from abroad as well and, thus, might contribute to enhancing transnational mobility of people. But do offshore campuses really contribute to let people flow into emerging economies and their increasingly flourishing metropolises?

In general, we do not really know. Not only are the exact numbers of students enrolled in transnational education (and in its different models) worldwide unknown (Knight 2011, 224) but data is also missing on the national origins of people studying and working at offshore campuses. After visiting a wide range of offshore campuses, I could say that the extent to which offshore campuses stimulate student mobility across national borders seems to be very variable. I have discovered both sides of the spectrum: offshore campuses hosting almost exclusively foreign students – understood as students holding citizenship of a country other than the country the offshore campus is located in – and some recruiting almost exclusively local students – meaning students who have already been living in the city or greater region where the campus is located before their university enrolment.

Yet what those campuses have in common is making a difference in the local offer of higher education institutions. In some regions the offshore campuses can be seen as some of the only few universities, such as in the Malaysian province of Sarawak where two out of three existing universities are foreign university branches. Lane (2011, 376) hints at the potential function of foreign universities in local and regional higher education landscapes. They can become important providers of higher education in the region, increasing the local capacity and satisfying local demand for study places. With this, offshore campuses definitely shape student mobility patterns on the sub-national scale, regardless of whether their students are actually crossing national boundaries for their studies or not.

(2) An innovative technology: capturing new markets?

In the Western historical context, the steam locomotive and the expansion of the railway is seen as central to the development of new territories, such as the US American West in the 19th century. The railway and its ability to transport heavy loads made it possible to supply far away settlements with all sorts of goods. In this sense, the railway played an important role in constituting and connecting economies and distant markets (Olmanson 2011). The picture of the railway pushing the frontier further also seems to suit very well to describe the role of offshore campuses in higher education landscapes worldwide.

Figure 1: Number of countries hosting offshore campuses by year.
Source: Working group’s own data and calculations.

In a first sense, this becomes clear when looking at how offshore campuses were proliferated across space over the last 50 years. It is recognizable that not only the absolute number of offshore campuses worldwide has grown continuously over time but also the number of countries where offshore campuses have been established. Figure 1 illustrates this development of the number of countries that hosted at least one offshore campus in the respective year. It shows that this amount has risen from less than 10 in 1969 to 110 in 2019. Figure 1 further highlights that, since the early 1980s, growth in number has been steady and, more or less, linear. Additionally, noteworthy leaps in the numbers can be observed in 2002, 2003, 2008, 2010 and 2017 when five or more countries established their first offshore campus of a foreign university. To sum it up, these numbers help visualize that more and more national economies are opening up to branches of foreign higher education providers and new markets are being captured by offshore campus development, sometimes rather disruptively.

In addition to these quantitative considerations, the symbolism of an ever further progressing frontier can also be understood in a second, more qualitative sense, and can be transferred to the process of commodification of education itself. When framing education as an internationally tradable service in 1995 (Knight 2007), the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) has paved the way for both the establishment of global higher education markets and another expansion of the commodity frontier – the frontier between the realm of the market and realms that had rather been shielded from commodification before (cf. Watts 2009, 440). Against this backdrop of the commodity frontier that is ever being pushed further, offshore campuses can play several roles. For universities, offshore campuses do not only work as vehicles for testing and getting a foot in higher education markets abroad. They can also be seen as a tool and “technology” that allows a wide range of actors to become active global players on private student markets worldwide.

(3) Pushing the frontier further: a way to modernity and a responsibility to develop?

From a cultural geographic perspective – and from a Eurocentric one too – the railway and the expansion of its network can be seen as a symbol of progressing modernity. Technological innovations and large-scale engineering projects, such as the construction of the American Transcontinental Railroad, played a crucial role in cultivating land, pushing back the frontier to hostile wilderness and proliferating modernity across formerly scarcely developed territories (Glaser & Schliermann-Kraus 2017, 260).

… and the cultivated nature on a tropical offshore campus: florarium with foreign plants in Singapore
EduCity compound in Johor, Malaysia: Foreign universities inside the (un)cultivated tropical nature…

When talking to people who work in the development and management of offshore campuses, I could observe that another form of a “frontier spirit” emerged as a pattern in their mindset and argumentation. This does not only relate to the above mentioned – let us call it contemporary form – of a “gold rush atmosphere”. It also refers to the experiences people have when working and interacting at the “transnational education frontier”. These “frontier experiences” seem to shine through at various instances. An engineer employed at an offshore campus stated that the branches are “all too often out-of-sight out-of-mind” – a statement not least indicating that working at the frontier requires ingenuity, self-reliance and self-sufficiency. A trained doctor, who was part of an offshore campus’ management team, explained that setting up a training centre and educating students abroad is also about “giving something back to the community”. This can also be interpreted in the way that, running an educational institution abroad also goes hand in hand with a certain form of frontier “mission” – a mission that directs the “pioneers” to share their knowledge and the benefits of their frontier activity. This is remarkable since many offshore campuses are set up in countries with a history of being under European colonial rule. Additionally, other conversations brought to light that many people involved in developing and managing offshore campuses seem to be aware of the social and cultural consequences offshore campus development has for their host societies and the responsibilities that come with it.

The claim that an infrastructure project can contribute to bringing development and modernity to a rather less “developed” region seems to be part of offshore campus development as well. The location of many of the offshore campuses and their immediate surroundings tell us a lot about how they can be seen as part of local spatial development strategies. When visiting offshore campuses, especially in Asia, it is striking too see that many are located in the outskirts of the cities, some even very far in the peripheries. Many of the campus projects are even green-field developments, built on formerly uncultivated land which has been wrested from nature. It seems that these development projects are intended to send impulses of growth to regional and local development. Curtin University Malaysia is a particularly interesting example here. Its compound is largely surrounded by bushes and nature. Miri, where the Curtin campus is adjacently located, has only recently developed into a city. As one of the region’s main economic bases, the timber industry – an industry symbolically representing human economic activity at the frontier to a (not-yet-utilized) nature – was partly involved in developing the local branch campus and offers scholarships to selected students studying there.

Concluding remarks

Back in a re-developed, red-brick building that hosts my office in Berlin’s periphery: I am thinking about offshore campuses and how to better understand them as an empirically distinctive phenomenon. Given that there is such an enormous variety of offshore campuses worldwide, conceptualizing them and creating typologies seems to be an almost impossible endeavour. Offshore campuses not only fundamentally differ in size, location and student population. Every campus also seems to be very specific in its governance model and the rationale behind its planning and construction. So what does approaching offshore campus development through the backdoor of the locomotive metaphor help us say? Apart from being a simplification, the thought experiment has illustrated how my research object is more multifaceted than it seems at first sight. Looking at both offshore campus development’s quantitative and qualitative characteristics helps us identify topics, dimensions and processes the phenomenon is closely connected with. Similar to the invention and global diffusion of the railway, offshore campus development comes with socio-economic and, no less relevant, socio-cultural implications related to greater transformations and global interdependencies.

Marc Schulze, December 2019


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