The University of Birmingham’s plan to open a campus in Dubai is the latest example of universities expanding with international branches.
Vice-chancellor Sir David Eastwood emphasised the university’s international credentials – saying its campus in the Gulf would show its “global mission” and that it was an “outward looking, world-class institution”.
The first phase of Birmingham’s new outpost in the United Arab Emirates will open in the autumn – but most of the undergraduate and graduate courses will run from autumn 2018.
While Dubai’s shopping malls have collections of big-brand international shops, the Gulf state also has an expanding line-up of high-status international universities.
Birmingham’s new base will be in Dubai International Academic City, a purpose-built campus opened a decade ago, which already houses 26 universities from nine countries, with 25,000 students.
Students coming to the new university will be able to get a full University of Birmingham degree from courses taught in English, without having to leave the Gulf.
Dubai already has branches of UK universities such as Exeter, Bradford, London Business School and Heriot-Watt.
These rub shoulders alongside universities from Australia, the United States, Ireland, India and Russia.
Not far away, in Abu Dhabi, there are branches of the Sorbonne from France and New York University from the US.
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Elsewhere in the Gulf, there are campuses of University College London and Carnegie Mellon in Qatar.
There had been speculation that such bricks-and-mortar academic exports would have been overtaken by the rise in online technology.
Competition for students
With the emergence of the so-called “Moocs” – massive online open courses – there were suggestions that international students might prefer to study online, rather than need to have a campus built on their doorstep.
But universities have continued to expand overseas – taking their brands to international students.
There are now more than 240 international branch campuses around the world, according to figures compiled by the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York.
Not all have been a success, with more than 40 closures – but more than another 20 are in the pipeline to be opened.
Universities from the United States, the UK and France have been the biggest builders of overseas branches – accounting for more than half of the overall total.
These have clustered around the most lucrative and expanding markets – with China, the Gulf states, Malaysia and Singapore among the most common host countries.
Teaching in English
Such international campuses allow Western universities to tap into expanding markets.
They can offer students a degree from a prestigious Western university, without the expense or bureaucracy of studying abroad.
And for universities in the UK, facing tough competition for students at home and financial uncertainties, it provides another potential source of tuition fees.
Nottingham, Liverpool, Southampton, Newcastle, Bolton, Middlesex and Reading all have international outposts.
This internationalisation is also raising competition within Europe, with an increasing number of courses being taught in English, with the aim of attracting more overseas students.
Universities in France have been making efforts to promote English-language courses to international students, including from the UK.
Within English-speaking countries there have also been fluctuating trends in the international student market.
The US and the UK have traditionally been the biggest players, but this month Canadian universities have claimed applications from overseas students are rising to “unprecedented” levels.
The reason for the sudden preference for Canada, they say, is the rise of “isolationism” in the US and Europe.