Branch campuses ‘not the way forward’ for New Zealand

Island nation looks instead to start university partnerships and boost mobility to reinvigorate its education exports

September 23, 2022
Man, holding a New Zealand national flag, greeting supporters to illustrate Branch campuses ‘not the way forward’ for New Zealand
Source: Getty

New Zealand’s universities have, by and large, chalked off the idea of establishing branch campuses abroad – even as the country seeks to regain student flows lost during the pandemic, according to the head of its government agency for international education.

Grant McPherson, chief executive of Education New Zealand, dismissed the idea of branch campuses, instead emphasising other ways of reaching overseas students.

“From our point of view, it’s a significant investment with a high degree of risk,” he told Times Higher Education.

Unlike its neighbour Australia – which has in recent decades built up some two dozen institutions beyond its borders, with notable examples including the University of Wollongong Dubai – New Zealand has, to date, not developed any overseas branches.

The strategy also sets it apart from other English-speaking nations with strong educational offerings, including the UK, where some universities have invested heavily in international branches.

Mr McPherson noted “questions around what is the business model” for the branch campus approach, which saw a boost in popularity 20 years ago. “Our preference is not to go down that route,” he said.

Instead, New Zealand is exploring other ways of capitalising on its strong domestic offerings. For instance, it is looking at education centres in which the country’s institutions partner with those abroad to provide their courses – something Mr McPherson believes will be popular as the world recovers from “dried up” mobility of the pandemic.

“What we’re now seeing is pathway programmes at individual universities working with partners…we want to understand, does this work, [and] how do we make sure we’re ensuring that education experience is still a good one for the learner,” he said.

New Zealand, which introduced strict border measures, only began to reopen again earlier this year. While he is optimistic that students will return, Mr McPherson said he and his colleagues continue to think about “if the world can’t come to New Zealand, how do we take New Zealand to the world”.

In addition to reaching international students, he wants to ensure that domestic students are exposed to academia beyond the island’s borders.

Already in the years leading up to the pandemic, New Zealand institutions had been “getting into the marketplace a bit more” and offering students more opportunities abroad – something he sees starting up again.

“In New Zealand we tend to do our study and then go overseas. What we’re saying is, why not do that during university?”

While there are signs that students have an appetite for overseas study, he worries slightly that the generation of high school students now entering university may be more reluctant to leave home, having adapted to learning from their computer screens.

“We don’t fully understand how learners will react to this – if you’re 15 and have been studying out of your bedroom, do you actually want to go overseas,” he said.

But he was also hopeful. “I think a lot will be very resilient and open-minded.”

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