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China Plans to Build the Biggest Branch Campus in the World, but Will It Succeed?

The Chinese government announced recently that it will allow Xiamen University to establish a branch campus in Malaysia.  Although this is not the first international branch campus of a Chinese university (Soochow University is in Laos), it does represent a significant move by a major Chinese research university. Though details are not public, what has been reported so far reveal ambitious expectations for enrollment that frankly seem unlikely to be realized.

First, some context is needed on China’s choice of Malaysia. On the surface, there are good reasons why to go to Malaysia. There is a growing demand for higher education there. Importantly, about one quarter of all Malaysians are of Chinese descent and, historically, this population has not had equal access to the public higher-education system. Also, the country has been open to foreign education providers for the past 15 years and already hosts foreign educational outposts from Australia, India, Ireland, and Britain. Malaysian colleges and universities have numerous partnerships with universities in the United States and elsewhere. And, though they do not share a border, China and Malaysia do share the same time zone, making it easier to coordinate between campuses.

The campus of Xiamen U., in China.

Xiamen also seems well suited to open a Malaysian branch. It was founded by a famous Malayan rubber magnate, establishing a bridge between the two nations. More broadly, it already has an international focus. Its faculty members have significant international engagements, which would prepare it to be able to manage a diverse staff in two countries. And it reportedly serves many children of foreign dignitaries, suggesting that it probably already has an internationalized curriculum and learning experience. These characteristics could each be a benefit when looking to export Xiamen’s format to Malaysia.

The plan as outlined in the news media is quite ambitious. It includes the construction of a campus on a 150-acre site near Kuala Lumpur with degrees offered in five areas: bioengineering and electrical and chemical engineering, medicine, information and communications technology, business and economics, and Chinese language and literature. The project’s leaders are proposing an enrollment target of 10,000 students in their initial phase. Seven hundred instructors will be hired to ensure a faculty-to-student ratio of 1:15. And the prime minister of Malaysia has stated that excess revenue will be reinvested to improve institutional quality and further Malaysia’s position as an educational hub.

If these plans come to pass, Xiamen would have the largest branch campus in the world. It would be substantially bigger than any of the existing branch campuses in Malaysia, and by itself would represent about a 50-percent increase in the total number of students enrolled in international branch campuses in the country. Moreover, there is much competition in Malaysia. The private sector, where most Chinese Malaysians enroll, is rapidly expanding, and there are more than 30 private universities, including four international campuses in the Kuala Lumpur area.

Attracting 10,000 students in this environment will certainly prove daunting. And the proposed enrollment mix may make it more difficult. The plans call for enrollments to be one-third Chinese students, one-third Malaysian students, and one-third other international students. This concept certainly helps advance Malaysia’s interest in becoming a regional education hub, and the proximity to China and the institution’s existing reputation may help it recruit Chinese students to the Malaysia campus. This is similar to how many Indian students travel to Dubai to attend courses at the branches of leading Indian institutions (e.g., Manipal and BITS Pilani) when they can’t get into the home campus. But it is a challenging target to meet.

Many international branch campuses think that their national or international reputation will translate into local recognition in the new market. This is rarely the case; we’ve found that branch campuses need to work hard to establish local brand recognition. When Michigan State set up shop in Dubai, many believed its international ranking would ensure that it would easily compete with local and other foreign institutions in attracting students throughout the region. Yet the campus was never able to achieve the market penetration it needed to be economically viable, and it had to shut down most of its operations. Xiamen is a major university in China, and it is one of 39 top universities selected for government investment as part of Project 985. But it is not clear how well known the institution is outside of China. And most students are savvy enough to understand the educational experience at the branch will not be the same as at the home campus.

Students also recognize that branch campuses are not always stable; two have already been shuttered in Malaysia. Thus branch campuses often need to work hard to demonstrate to potential students that they provide a high-quality educational experience and will be around long enough for a student to finish his or her degree program. Our research has suggested that the enrollments tend to grow once a branch campus graduates its first students. Not only is this evidence that the institution is stable, but also that graduates tend to be among the best promoters of their alma mater. Thus, an increasingly common strategy is to start small and focus on shorter graduate programs, slowly growing comprehensive offerings.

Despite all of these issues, perhaps Xiamen will prove us wrong and demonstrate that large-scale investment in a comprehensive undergraduate program will be a winning strategy in Malaysia. But it is likely to be an uphill battle.

Follow us on Twitter @KevinKinser and @ProfJasonLane.

[The image of the Chinese flag is licensed in the public domain by Daderot, and the image of Xiamen University is licensed for public use via Creative Commons by Ratvirgin ]

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