Rare acquisition by Boston institution signals growing interest in international operations

Northeastern University, a onetime blue-collar commuter school in Boston, is continuing a yearslong international expansion with the purchase of a small, private college in central London.

The acquisition of The New College of the Humanities, a six-year-old private college with about 200 students, underscores the growing pressures and incentives for universities to globalize their business model in an era of rising competition, shifting demographics and increasing nationalism.

“Globalization is speeding up; this is where the market is going,” said Jason Lane, professor of Higher Education at SUNY Albany. “What we’re seeing is the rise of the university as a multinational corporation.”

Universities around the world have been establishing branch campuses at an accelerating clip for several years. The Northeastern purchase is unusual in that instead of building a branch, the university is acquiring a school that is already established, accomplishing overnight what typically takes several years.

“This new partnership will open up a broad range of learning and research opportunities that benefit both institutions,” Northeastern President Joseph Aoun said Tuesday in a note to students.

Northeastern declined to disclose the terms of the acquisition.

Just a handful of U.S. schools—mostly for-profits—have bought schools in other countries. Generally, schools that are seeking to expand globally choose to build a branch campus. In 2000, there were about 50 international branch campuses built by universities from around the world. There are now more than 250, said Dr. Lane.

U.S. and European schools have pushed particularly hard into Asia, where there is a greater demand for a college education than there are universities to supply it.

Some schools are considering overseas footprints as a hedge against trade and immigration barriers that could slow students from traveling to their main campus. After a decade of robust increases, new international student enrollment in the U.S. has declined two years in a row.

In 2017, the University of Illinois purchased an insurance policy for $424,333 to protect itself against a sudden drop in foreign enrollment up to $61 million, said Robin Kaler, a spokeswoman with the school.

“The College of Business and the College of Engineering purchased insurance to protect against a possible loss of tuition revenue from students from China resulting from certain political disruptions,” she said.

While opening or purchasing a branch campus expansion has its benefits, it is a risky undertaking, said Dr. Lane. It forces a school to operate in different time zones, in different languages and by different customs. China has proven particularly tricky as schools struggle to maintain their academic independence from government minders.

Ted Mitchell, a former U.S. undersecretary of education in the Obama administration and the current president of the American Council on Education, which represents about 1,700 college presidents, said the move by Northeastern will provide more flexibility than opening a branch.

“I think this represents the next wave of institutional alliances,” he said.

Northeastern has been aggressively opening campuses in the U.S. and Canada for several years.

It now has campuses open or under construction in Seattle, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Charlotte, Vancouver and Toronto. The school has plans to expand to Asia.