How Universities Achieve Global Presence

Written on September 5, 2016 by Santiago Iñiguez in Arts & Cultures & Societies

santiagoBy Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño, Dean of IE Business School and President of IE University.

There are different avenues that universities can go down in trying to find a place in the global arena. The chart above lists some of these alternatives, based on the resources they require, along with their concomitant financial and operating risk.

Being recognized as an international university does not necessarily mean having a physical presence in other countries, as is the case in other sectors. Neither does it mean opening subsidiary campuses on other sites. A school can be genuinely international by maintaining a single campus if it can attract foreign students, has teaching staff from abroad, and if its programs are genuinely global in orientation. In this sense education is different from other related business sectors such as consulting or services providers, which have to open offices abroad if they want to have an international presence.

When business schools do formulate international strategies, they have frequently drawn on the experience of companies such as McKinsey, Accenture, or PWC, which operate on the basis of the same strategic mission, a cohesive and organized culture, but still with a physical presence abroad. These companies tend also to be typical examples of “transnational organizations,” as Christopher Bartlett and Sumantra Ghoshal dubbed them ([1]).

Recent years have seen a growing number of business schools develop strategies to open campuses in other countries. Insead was the pioneer in this approach, opening its second campus in Singapore in 2000. Under the slogan, “One School, Two Campuses”, the school offers the same academic program in both countries, including its MBA program, with the same level of supporting services. Insead’s lead has been followed by other US and European schools. Duke University’s Fuqua Business School, for instance, opened a campus in Frankfurt with idea of setting up a European operations base from Germany, the EU’s leading economy, but where paradoxically, there remains a dearth of top business schools. Fuqua’s experience in Germany was not a success, however, and the school closed after a few years. Chicago GSB initially opened a campus in Barcelona, to provide its Executive MBA to Europeans. It subsequently decided to move the campus to London, given the latter’s importance as a financial and business center and its international connectivity. The UK’s Nottingham Business School has opened a campus in China and plans to expand their operations there.

Pursuing a growth strategy based on opening schools in other countries is possibly the most risky in terms of the resources required. Generally speaking, schools that open international campuses tend to do so when invited by a country or city, usually backed by subsidies, tax breaks, and land donations.

At the same time, it is very difficult to replicate the way a business school runs its operations at its main campus. Academic institutions have an identity that is tied to their location. Ivy League schools, for example, attract people because of their history and reputation. I call it “Ivy syndrome.” Basically, when applicants choose one of these schools they really care about its location, they want to live the experience, to be part of it, and to touch the ivy that grows on its walls. Ivy and classical architecture provides a reassuring appearance of permanence and longevity. Schools know this and play up to it. Indeed, replicating the original campus abroad is a real challenge. There is a perfect replica of the Parthenon of Athens in Nashville, Tennessee, for example. What’s more, it is a near-perfect replica of the building designed by Phidias twenty-five centuries ago. However, the excitement and emotions experienced during a visit to the Acropolis, I am sure you will agree with me, have no comparison.

Perhaps the most difficult problem faced when running two or more campuses overseas is how to maintain the same identity and academic standards. Inevitably, one campus – usually the original — will have priority over the others. Furthermore, assigning teaching staff to one campus or the other can be complicated, even when incentives are offered. Soon after taking up his post, and following a trip to Asia, Nitin Nohria, the first Indian-born dean of Harvard Business School, dismissed the idea that either his appointment or his trip signaled that HBS is about to open a fully fledged campus overseas any time soon. “I don’t think that is necessary and nor do we have the ambition to do that,” he said. “We’re in the business of chasing knowledge and not chasing demand.” ([2]) “We will always be in some ways deeply rooted in America,” Nohria says. “That is our heritage, that’s where we are located.”

Secondly, because above and beyond the objective of attracting the best students, defining an ideal class profile is part of what a school is offering. For example, if objectives are established on the basis of gender diversity, or minorities or nationalities, all with the aim of generating a pluralistic environment that is an integral part of the learning process.

Certainly, opening greenhouse campuses abroad is not the preferred option by most universities. strategic alliances with local players, online methodologies and even franchising have become much favored options and they do not necessarily mean compromising the quality. The new international context brings renovated forms of achieving global presence.


This post has been adapted from my book: “The Learning Curve: How Business Schools Are Reinventing Education” (London: Palsgrave Macmillan, 2011)

[1] C. A. Bartlett and S. Goshal, ‘Managing Across Borders: New Strategic Requirements’, Sloan Management Review 28 (1997), 7-17.

[2] D. Mavin, ‘Harvard Business School Won’t Open Asian Campus’, Wall Street Journal, 2/8/2010


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