What happened to higher education’s offshore boom? For over a decade, the sustained growth of international branch campuses seemed a sure thing. New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi welcomed its first class of undergraduates in 2010, setting the stage for major-league expansions by Yale University (in Singapore) and Duke University (in China). As of late 2020, researchers counted more than 300 branch campuses, close to half of which were run by universities in the United States or Britain. But a series of closures and high-profile withdrawals, most recently the National University of Singapore’s decision to pull the plug on its joint venture with Yale, suggest that the bloom is off the rose.

Was the romance of offshore education driven by improbable hype about untapped sources of abundant revenue? Did it run aground on the shoals of speech restrictions in illiberal societies? Or is cross-border education morphing into a new phase of existence, sparked by the pandemic experience of remote teaching? There’s some truth to each of those conjectures. The first two problems were easy enough to predict, and should have come as no surprise. The third is still unfolding, as universities feel their way out of the trauma inflicted by the coronavirus.

The rush to plant varsity flags in foreign soil dates to the early 2000s, when post-9/11 strictures on immigration prompted American and other Anglosphere colleges to open branches in locations more accessible to their international students. Generous subsidies from Persian Gulf states looking to burnish their nation-building efforts helped to grease the wheel, while the demand for overseas instruction and credentials in an emerging Chinese middle class drove a wave of joint ventures that saw China hosting more branch campuses than any other nation.

Industry boosters dangled rosy growth estimates, and college finance officers, hungry for revenue in the recessionary years following the 2007-8 financial crash, took the bait. Some institutions, especially those with frank aspirations to operate on a global scale, went all out on international branch campuses, or IBCs. But most held back, wary perhaps of “diluting” their brands or of risking reputational exposure from the likelihood of academic-freedom violations in the two hot IBC zones of East Asia and the Persian Gulf.

We might have expected another round of branch-campus expansionism under the Trump administration, when new immigration restrictions prevented many would-be students from traveling to the United States. But those constraints were accompanied by his administration’s sharp withdrawal from international policy and diplomacy, if not trade itself. The version of neoliberal globalization engendered by the corporation-friendly World Trade Organization was already in decline, but Trump’s America First zeal accelerated the shift toward a new nationalist mind-set, propelled in many countries by the forces of authoritarian populism. Cross-border collaboration was no longer so certain, and with the Washington Consensus of worldwide economic liberalization receding in the rear-view mirror, college administrators were less sanguine about committing resources to offshore sites.

At the same time, faculty members began to find their voices. At most institutions, the IBC gold rush was wholly a result of executive decisions, with minimal consultation of professors. When it became clear that universities could not safeguard branch-campus academic freedoms, faculty members at some institutions pushed back against their administrations’ plans to set up shop in locations with zero record of respecting basic speech rights.

My own employer’s nervy decision to establish full-fledged NYU campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai has yielded spotty results. The host governments generously bankrolled each site, allowing for a tenure-line faculty and well-supported student body on both campuses. But easily foreseeable problems quickly arose.

According to a 2021 Freedom House report, at least 10 faculty members have been denied entry to teach or conduct research at NYU Abu Dhabi, as have numerous students, staff members, and support personnel. In a milieu where any criticism of the royal family’s governance structure can be construed as a crime, self-censorship among standing faculty members is a given. The exposure of abusive conditions for the migrant workers building NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus further tarnished the brand. Despite earnest declarations by several Gulf countries that the kafala system of labor recruitment and monitoring has been reformed, if not dismantled, investigators who have been able to interview workers have found little evidence of improved conditions on the ground.

Frustration with the absence of effective reforms is mounting, especially in Qatar, where the approaching World Cup has rendered worker deaths an international scandal. In the meantime, the long reach of Abu Dhabi money has had a corrupting impact on NYU’s home campus, with some departments amassing million-dollar treasuries of compensation for participating in instruction on the branch campus, while others end up cash-poor by comparison as a result of their reluctance to send faculty members to the Gulf.

Alex Williamson for The Chronicle

At NYU Shanghai, there is a pattern of selecting and rejecting faculty applications to teach based on who is likely to rock the boat, or inflame sensitivity around mainland politics, in ways that are unofficially, and euphemistically, rationalized as East-West “cultural differences.” One prominent colleague, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, was denied a visa to speak on campus in 2015. Clouds gathered over the Shanghai campus when, beginning in 2013, Beijing issued a number of repressive decrees that have resulted in a general, long-term chill, exacerbated by the U.S. government’s own ill-fated China Initiative. Branch-campus administrators who claim they are not affected by the Chinese Communist Party’s speech directives are in the position, ironically, of boasting extraterritorial privileges, redolent of the colonial era, when Western powers operated by their own rules.

Another NYU site, in Tel Aviv, has been under pressure for different reasons. In 2011, Israel launched a well-funded campaign to entice American universities to start study-abroad programs there. The goal was to cement ties and improve Israel’s image while diverting attention from its repression of Palestinian universities and second-class treatment of Palestinian students. Yet in 2017 the Knesset amended Israeli law to prohibit entry to individuals on the basis of their political opinions. That condition is a clear violation of nondiscrimination policies on most American campuses.

Recognizing that NYU could not guarantee equal access to the Tel Aviv campus for all students and faculty members, my department passed a resolution of noncooperation with NYU Tel Aviv in 2019. It was followed, in 2021, by a similar universitywide pledge by the Faculty of Color for an Anti-Racist NYU and their allies.

Last month Israel passed a law depriving Palestinian universities of control over which international scholars, researchers, and students they can invite to their campuses. In a sweeping abrogation of academic freedom and autonomy, the Israeli military will now make those decisions. That new repressive regulation looks certain to further compromise the ethics of operating overseas programs in Israel.

For obvious reasons, the sharp limitations on travel and access during the pandemic have disrupted the overseas operations of universities. Budgets took a big hit, with no stimulus funds to mitigate the operating losses. Most institutions focused on survival at home, not growth overseas. Yet higher education’s forced experiment with online instruction has altered many of our pedagogical norms, and some of those changes may be permanent. Although most educators are mourning the loss of in-the-flesh classroom contact, the ability to attend meetings and perform university business remotely has many advantages.

Our experience with remote instruction has also revived the dream of consumer distance education that captivated many university presidents during the dot-com era. At that time, administrators pumped sizable sums of money into the construction of cyber programs, signing delivery deals with corporations itching to move into the higher-ed sector. David F. Noble, the historian of technology, exposed many of those initiatives as efforts to cut instructional-labor costs and wrest control over curricula and intellectual property from faculty members, memorably labeling them “digital diploma mills.” The results delivered by that venture into internet education were almost as underwhelming as those of the correspondence-course movement of the early 20th century, and the investments were written off.

In the two decades since Noble’s scathing assessment, online degrees have gained ground in some subject areas, whereas, in others, what we now call “in person” instruction has survived mostly intact. In the meantime, the bureaucratic life of universities has become almost wholly digitized. Now that the pandemic has brought a second lease of life to remote learning, ed-tech investors are newly aroused, their “animal spirits,” in John Maynard Keynes’s phrase, running high. The race to capture a more profitable version of Zoom University is on. For higher ed’s fiscal officers, one possible future may reside in the form of the discounted fee structure demanded by students during the pandemic. Faced with rising fees and crushing student debt, many households are likely to welcome the option of a cut-price Zoom education at a quality college.

As for the offshore sites, some colleges may decide they can forsake the steep cost of building and maintaining IBC facilities if overseas students are willing to pay to attend remote classes taught by faculty members at the more prestigious home campuses. The appeal of this financial arrangement should not be underestimated. Dot-com evangelists derided the Old Economy world of brick and mortar, but universities have been on a construction binge for the last 20 years, loading up on institutional debt to build ever more facilities. Meanwhile, outrage over student debt has bypassed the institutional side of the debt financing of higher education. As state funding decreased and as many colleges embarked on a growth mission, they turned to the financial markets, accepting the neofeudal authority of the credit-rating agencies, and racking up long-term debt obligations that have enriched Wall Street bond underwriters and further curtailed the autonomy of institutions.

Most faculty members sat out the debate over the first IBC wave. We should have more to say this time around.

The managers of fast-developing countries may decide that subsidizing a branch of a well-known American or British university is still a worthwhile investment for the national brand. In the absence of those contributions, however, debt-financing a campus in an illiberal country at a time of unraveling globalism is less and less attractive. More alluring by far is the prospect of ginning up revenue from overseas students willing to Zoom into class at inhospitable hours in hopes of earning a degree at the home campus. The economic logic behind that scenario is sound. But what about the educational consequences? And how should faculty members respond to the proposition?

While there are few obstacles to overseas students’ enrolling in online degree programs, the credential does not always carry the weight of a traditional degree. The Association of Indian Universities, for example, does not formally recognize foreign online degrees as equivalent to those earned in person at the same institution. Graduates may have trouble securing government jobs as a result. Many employers also take a skeptical view of the diminished educational experience offered by the programs.

For teachers convinced of the superiority of face-to-face instruction — from the charismatic performance of the lecture hall to the hands-on tutelage of the lab practicum or the Socratic method of the small seminar — the evidence for such negative judgments is unassailable. But the second-string quality of learning is not the only drawback of remote education. The potential for losing control over content, syllabi, and other course material is more alarming than it was 20 years ago, when Noble first aired concerns about universities asserting the full suite of employers’ intellectual-property rights.

So, too, is the opportunity for stepped-up surveillance by administrators and censorship by third-party providers. In 2020, for example, Zoom ignited a firestorm of criticism for shutting down a San Francisco State University webinar featuring the militant Palestinian activist Leila Khaled, and then canceling several other university-run webinars that did not include Khaled but criticized the company’s action. International students have good reason to worry that certain classroom comments, uncontroversial by Western norms, might land them in trouble in their home countries.

At most institutions, the genteel fabric of academic custom is all that stands in the way of those property grabs and speech retrenchments. Most faculty members sat out the debate over the first IBC wave, but we have all been through the wringer of Zoom-induced alienation. We should have more to say this time around — especially if offshore goes online.