The rise of the international branch campus

What is the future of international higher education after the pandemic? Perhaps Memorial University of Newfoundland’s overseas campus in Harlow, Essex, offers a clue, developing home students’ skills with established teaching and learning practices in a new and stimulating environment. Sandra Wright, General Manager of MUN (UK) Ltd comments

Earlier in the year before Covid-19 began its relentless domination of our daily lives Canada’s Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) marked the 50th anniversary of its UK international branch campus (IBC) in Harlow, Essex.

IBCs are identified as entities that are owned and operated by a foreign education provider, and provide an entire academic programme on site, leading to a degree awarded by the foreign education provider.

By this definition:

  • There were 249 IBCs in the world at the end of 2015 and 263 at the end of 2017
  • China hosted 34, UAE 33 (mostly Dubai), Qatar 12, Malaysia 12, Singapore 11
  • China overtook UAE as the top host country somewhere between 2013 and 2016
  • The UK hosted eight in 2017: from the US (3), France (3), Malaysia, Switzerland and MUN
  • Growth in the number of IBCs was steady between 2006 and 2015, with 133 new additions over that period

On the whole it would appear current IBC growth, before Covid-19, has been driven mainly by institutions from the US and UK which account for half of the known IBCs under development.

Prior to the pandemic at least seven campuses have been under development in Asia, and four in the Middle East. Establishing education hubs is a trend that started in the Gulf as government-led national projects to bring many IBCs into a single location, such as at Qatar’s Education City, Dubai’s International Academic City, and Singapore’s Global Schoolhouse.

MUN’s IBC approach boasts a more established history. Its campus was created in 1969, two years after Lord Taylor of Harlow, a former Labour MP and minister, became the vice-chancellor of Memorial. The university’s main home is in St John’s, capital of the Newfoundland and Labrador province, a city that can trace its history back to 1519.

Lord Taylor had a “romantic notion” about “the newest town in the old world and the oldest town in the new world establishing a relationship.

‘MUN Harlow’ was established in former maltings and disused school buildings in Old Harlow, with further buildings including a former butcher’s shop and cottages acquired subsequently, meaning that 51 students can now be accommodated, along with 3 faculty members and their families.

Today, despite being separated by 3,777km, MUN Harlow continues to make waves for its students in degree subjects including Biology, Business, English, Fine Arts, Music, Education and Pharmacy.

Viewed as one of higher education’s biggest secrets and offering a ‘completely different model’ to the standard overseas branch venture, it quite literally transplant its Canadian staff, students and teaching methods into a very traditional British setting where learners benefit from a new environment and internship opportunities.

The learning, friendships, support of the Harlow team, and the memorable travel opportunities within the UK, across Europe, and beyond – all contribute to an unforgettable experience for many and in some cases influence major life choices and help solidify paths to academic and career success.

Whether you are part of a cohort here for just a few weeks or several months, your experience is undoubtedly transformative.

From its beginnings, nearly 5,000 Canadian students from 26 disciplines have worked, studied and lived at Harlow. Today, Memorial University is one of just two universities in Canada with campus facilities in the United Kingdom.

In its early days, the campus housed professors and students from Memorial and from the local Harlow College. The first Memorial students who came to Harlow Campus were from Social Work – they arrived in the fall of 1970 and stayed for three months.

In the early 1970s, students from Memorial’s Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science travelled to Harlow Campus to live and gain experience completing internships in local factories.

Education students from Memorial also travel to Harlow to complete internships in local schools and while they would be the mainstay of the campus throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, at around that time the campus also began to deliver credit courses as part of programs in Humanities and Social Sciences, Business, Fine Arts, Science and Business.

Many groups of students, faculty members and researchers have travelled to Harlow Campus over the last few decades, along with students completing experiential learning components of Business, Pharmacy, Music, Engineering and Computer Science programs.

Most all Memorial students have pathways to spending at least one semester or part of a semester at Harlow. For students from rural parts of Newfoundland and Labrador in particular, the experience can be ‘transformative.’

Harlow is just outside London. So Memorial theatre students can hop on a train and go see a play in the West End, an astonishingly privileged experience for them. They then go back to Harlow and spend their days in their workshops or sessions with their instructors talking about what they have seen, blending the academic and experiential.

Art history and visual art students also benefit from proximity to London’s galleries, while business courses and history are also part of the course rotation at the campus. Lecturers travel over from Canada with the students.

This is a completely different model from the conventional Western branch campus model.

The scale is modest compared with the overreaching of other universities that have invested in bricks and mortar or refurbished bricks and mortar, and then imagined the branch campus as what we would typically call a cash cow to offset budget reductions…on their home campuses. Harlow was never conceived that way.

Harlow – a town without its own university – has seen a lot of growth in recent years and Memorial has been talking increasingly, engaging more, with the council.

There was an idea to perhaps even lure some [local] students in for a course or two and maybe make the traffic go the other way – encourage people to come to our university [in Canada]. Things are opening up and the world has gotten a lot smaller – so who knows, there might be some potential there.

In the eyes of some in the UK, Harlow would not be regarded as a glamorous place. What do Canadian students make of it? There’s that whole snobbery about Essex people have all kinds of attitudes about various places, especially new towns. But our students are largely oblivious.

In fact, they are completely charmed by Old Harlow. Its pubs and tranquillity are very appealing to our students and they are very fond of the place. The campus is also a hub for faculty members and graduate students engaging in research and further study abroad.

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