by Marianne Cox. The Observatory on Borderless Higher Education (OBHE) recently published its fourth report on international branch campus (IBCs), one of the intriguing developments in internationalisation in higher education of recent years.
The International Branch Campuses: data and developments report, is based on a vast amount of data and in the analysis a serious attempt is made to come to grips with these outposts of national institutions and their activities. The report provides a list of branch campuses in operation, courses, degrees, student numbers and fees. It also presents definitions and identifies trends and developments in this expanding development.
The report provides an interesting insight into 'the shift of activity to the Far East and inter-regional South-South IBCs' and highlights the effects of the involvement of governments when educational goals are integrated into economic strategic policies, something especially visible in IBC activity in Asia. Defining IBCs as such, however, is another matter.
A moving target

Even though the authors concede that there 'is no universally agreed definition of an international branch campus', the researchers base the report on the following definition of an international branch campus:
A higher education institution that is located in another country from the institution which either originated it or operates it, with some physical presence in the host country, and which awards at least one degree in the host country that is accredited in the country of the originating institution.
It is quite clear that the authors walked a careful and laborious track before agreeing on the definition. Various models and types of foreign institutions and programmes were investigated and a large part of the report is devoted to its defence. This course of consideration is of course laudable, yet the examples and the listings show how difficult it is to distinguish transnational education (TNE) and branch campus operations. As it appears to be equally difficult to apply the definition consistently in the course of the report. For instance, according to the definition only institutions (...) which award at least one degree in the host country that is accredited in the country of the originating institution are included in the listing of the IBCs. The partnership of Yale University with the National University of Singapore (NUS) is included, even though 'the degree will be awarded by the NUS alone'. According to the definition this would mean that the NUS degree is accredited in the US in line with a Yale degree. Is that true? Later on, more examples of joint Master degrees are mentioned which in some cases have, and in other cases have not been included because their operations are or are not, covered by the definition. It is a bit confusing. 
Of course definitions are indispensable in a well-argumented academic report, and I do not intend to address the issue whether a comprehensive definition for this multi-faced phenomenon is at all possible. It has been addressed most eloquently in a blog in The Chronicle by Jason Lane and Kevin Kisner, who noted that an attempt to define foreign educational outposts in all their varieties might be close to 'an attempt to hit a moving target'.
Another issue

There is another issue, however, I would like to address. It relates to the second element in the definition: an institution (...) which awards at least one degree in the host country that is accredited in the country of the originating institution.
Following their definition, the authors in the annex include a long list of IBCs and their degrees, and add a list of the accreditation bodies that serves to guarantee the quality of the institutions and degrees quoted. Yet the authors do not define the term 'accreditation' nor do they provide any background information on these bodies. The term 'degree' as such is not made explicit, nor the implication of what an 'accredited degree' entails. The issue is touched on slightly in a section devoted to the 'Law and regulation in host countries' where 'a caveat worth considering (...) is whether a degree programme at an IBC will be formally recognised in the host country for employment or further study'. The observation, however, only addresses the situation in the host countries.
Degrees accredited in the country of the originating institution involve the regulations in the home country in view of employment and further study and it is here that the accreditation and – in consequence – the (national) recognition of the degree is at stake.

‘Degrees’ taken in this broad worldwide context require a clear definition, as does accreditation.
A bachelor’s degree obtained in one country may represent something quite different in terms of content ,quality and educational level from a  bachelor’s degree obtained in another, even though de nomenclature is the same. Moreover the possibilities in terms of further education or access to the job market may vary as much. A German trained medical doctor can practice in any other European (Union) country, whereas establishing himself in the US would not be quite so automatic.
The same argument applies to accreditation. Accreditation – originally an American phenomenon – has an established structure in the US where 'recognised' accreditation bodies, to a degree, enjoy a more or less 'guaranteed' status when recognised by the CHEA (Council for Higher Education Accreditation). Their International Directory is used by most established credential evaluation offices in the world as a reference for the status of American accreditation agencies.(All American agencies quoted in the report, by the way, are in the Directory).
In Europe however, accreditation as a quality assurance mechanism carried out by an independent body is a more recent phenomenon. In many European countries – outside the UK - quality assurance in education was for a long time embedded in national legislation. The introduction of accreditation bodies as independent agencies has expanded greatly in recent years, but hardly in a homogenous fashion. In the Netherlands for instance the NVAO – established by the Dutch and Flemish governments-  is a bi-national accreditation body whose approval is required for graduates to obtain national recognised degrees. In other European countries accreditation bodies are independent – sometimes commercial enterprises - sometimes restricted to quality assurance of particular fields or sectors of higher education, and not necessarily under national legislation. Some countries only know accreditation of institutions while in others programme accreditation is the main objective.
In this report accreditation organisations appear to have all been put into one box. A closer look at the degrees cited by the Observatory, raises the question what the status of the material presented here is. A case in point is Dutch Stenden university which has a number of outposts in different parts of the world. Where it appears in the report’s listing, either in the column of host or home institution, a great variety of bodies appear responsible for the accreditation of the diplomas they issue, without this being corroborated. The Ministry of education in Indonesia (DKTI) mentioned for instance, is not an accreditation body, nor is the Dutch ministry, for that matter.
The report purports to present an overview of IBC activity, with listings of trustworthy institutions awarding recognised degrees. The (hard?) data presented call for closer scrutiny of whether we are dealing with recognised institutions offering recognised degrees. Apart from that, the award of a degree accredited in the originating country would imply that the degree quoted would give its holder the same rights and opportunities as the holder a national degree obtained at the home institution would have. Much national legislation – in any case in Europe – does not allow the award of a national degree at outposts of their institutions. In practice, this means that graduates of these foreign campuses have no direct access to – for instance - PhD programs or regular professions in the 'home' country, i.e. the country of the originating institution.
Globalisation and final products

The report provides an interesting view of the shifts and new developments that globalisation in higher education is facing. However as long as educational systems provide us with end products – i.e. our diploma's and degrees –and the labour market organises itself on that basis (many remuneration systems are still based upon level of qualifications) , the focus should be on the value of what is obtained at the end of the (educational) track. These 'products' are still, most often, in any case in Europe,  embedded in national regulatory frameworks.
Looking at the issue from an output point of view, it should not really matter in what geographical location the educational programme is provided. Maybe IBCs or educational outposts are in themselves not so important: it is what they ‘produce’ that is. 
It is the quality and the opportunities the final product provides where the focus should be.
This may be as much the case in the host as in the home country.
But preferably: in both.