Covid-19 crisis & branch campuses: reconfigured mobilities ?

International mobility being restricted in the current global pandemic we are going through, how will it impact students’ mobilities in branch campuses?

On the one hand, in the Fall 2020 – and maybe even in early 2021 – branch campuses might solely recruit immobile domestic students living not too far from the branch campus. That branch campuses offer opportunities for students to study in an international campus while remaining in their home country is not new. This has been particularly the case for branch campuses established in places where many students are unable to afford to study abroad, or where there is a strong demand for foreign education, strategies often integrated within host government strategies. For the Vice president of the Université Paris Sciences et Lettres Minh-Hà Pham,the development of branch campus developments is a possible future strategy in order to capture foreign students in the case of future (pandemic) crisis.

Yet, some branch campuses have followed a different model: some function as mobility enhancing nodes integrated within a wider international campus network. Students enrolling in the business schools SKEMA or ESCP move from instance from branch to branch from one term or year to the other. Others follow a logic of educational tourism and target students ‘back home’ willing to ‘experience’ a foreign country, as observed with some French campuses in Asia. Yet, when students do not and cannot move because of a global crisis restricting movement across national borders, those branch campuses have to rethink their business models.  However, changing business models is not easy. If the branch has been, for instance, mainly recruiting French students willing to experience a foreign country, a new marketing strategy might be now developed to attract domestic students to the French campus abroad. Instead of the ‘Asian experience’ marketed to the French students studying at the Chinese campus, now the ‘French origins’ or even the ‘Asian outlook’ are likely to be at the center of the value proposition for Asian students. This will likely affect the identity of an offshore campus and its positioning in the domestic university context. In turn, we could also observe negative impacts on the higher education institutions if branch campuses close down, their business models being relying on transnational students’ mobility.

On the second hand, the very concept of mobilities might be reconsidered, with new student mobility formats emerging. Academic exchanges could for instance occur on the basis of individual enrollments and shorter sojourns, more similar to winter or summer schools than to intercampus semester exchanges. Offshore campuses could as well enroll international students on a shorter basis than a full semester or a year, developing short programs for students who can be internationally mobile.  Another trend that might be observed in higher education institutions in post Covid-19 times consists in a redefinition of mobilities integrating online experiences. This is for instance illustrated in the Erasmus program Virtual Exchange, a European online course program created in 2018 and to which around 8.000 students participated in 2019. It actually remains to be seen whether the trend towards online learning will be detrimental to offshore campuses that are physical investments in a foreign country or if, on the contrary, online learning will become an integral part of the offshore campus structure. Moreover, it remains to be seen how online learning will impact and redefine the experiences of students in the branch campuses.

For now, the impact of the current crisis marked by student mobility restrictions and the increase of online learning on offshore campus strategies remains an open question requiring further investigations.

Alice Bobée, July 2020.