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Exporting Education

February 20, 2008


For decades foreign students have flocked to the United States to take advantage of its system of higher education. This was good for the students, the universities they attended, and, often, for the United States as well since many of the best and brightest students stayed in America. Since 9/11, it has been more difficult for foreign students to get student visas and they have begun looking elsewhere for educational opportunities. This development has obviously not gone unnoticed by U.S. institutions of higher education. Many of them have decided that if the students can’t get to them they’ll go to the students [“U.S. Universities Rush to Set Up Outposts Abroad,” by Tamar Lewin, New York Times, 10 February 2008].

“The American system of higher education, long the envy of the world, is becoming an important export as more universities take their programs overseas. In a kind of educational gold rush, American universities are competing to set up outposts in countries with limited higher education opportunities. American universities — not to mention Australian and British ones, which also offer instruction in English, the lingua franca of academia — are starting, or expanding, hundreds of programs and partnerships in booming markets like China, India and Singapore. And many are now considering full-fledged foreign branch campuses, particularly in the oil-rich Middle East. Already, students in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar can attend an American university without the expense, culture shock or post-9/11 visa problems of traveling to America.”

The list of universities that have set up shop in the Middle East is impressive.

“At Education City in Doha, Qatar’s capital, they can study medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, international affairs at Georgetown, computer science and business at Carnegie Mellon, fine arts at Virginia Commonwealth, engineering at Texas A&M, and soon, journalism at Northwestern. In Dubai, another emirate, Michigan State University and Rochester Institute of Technology will offer classes this fall.”

International programs are important for universities, Lewin reports, because globalization is making the world a more connected place. They find it ironic, therefore, that they must go overseas to find students, recruit faculty, or help their current faculty remain relevant in their fields — all thanks to 9/11.

“Overseas programs can help American universities raise their profile, build international relationships, attract top research talent who, in turn, may attract grants and produce patents, and gain access to a new pool of tuition-paying students, just as the number of college-age Americans is about to decline. Even public universities, whose primary mission is to educate in-state students, are trying to establish a global brand in an era of limited state financing. Partly, it is about prestige. American universities have long worried about their ratings in U.S. News and World Report. These days, they are also mindful of the international rankings published in Britain, by the Times Higher Education Supplement, and in China, by Shanghai Jiao Tong University.”

This rush overseas is not driven only by educational motives Lewin points out, but is also being driven by economic factors, which apparently sticks in the craws of those who oppose this outsourcing.

“‘A lot of these educators are trying to present themselves as benevolent and altruistic, when in reality, their programs are aimed at making money,’ said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who has criticized the rush overseas.”

Although as a businessman I see nothing wrong with a profit motive, there have been serious concerns raised about the quality of education being offered overseas.

“While universities with overseas branches insist that the education equals what is offered in the United States, much of the faculty is hired locally, on a short-term basis. And certainly overseas branches raise fundamental questions: Will the programs reflect American values and culture, or the host country’s? Will American taxpayers end up footing part of the bill for overseas students? What happens if relations between the United States and the host country deteriorate? And will foreign branches that spread American know-how hurt American competitiveness?”

For their part, the universities insist that their outreach programs are good for the United States and represent an important source of soft power.

“David J. Skorton, the president of Cornell, … said the global drive benefit[s] the United States. ‘Higher education is the most important diplomatic asset we have,’ he said. ‘I believe these programs can actually reduce friction between countries and cultures.'”

Setting up shop overseas sounds simple, but as I’m learning, it’s not that easy. This is even more true in education than it is in business. Culture and language can present greater barriers than people imagine — especially when teaching courses. Lewin points out that not all courses are in demand.

“Most overseas campuses offer only a narrow slice of American higher education, most often programs in business, science, engineering and computers. Schools of technology have the most cachet. So although the New York Institute of Technology may not be one of America’s leading universities, it is a leading globalizer, with programs in Bahrain, Jordan, Abu Dhabi, Canada, Brazil and China.”

Other universities are storming the beaches overseas by offering what is more correctly called training than education.

“Some huge universities get a toehold in the gulf with tiny programs. At a villa in Abu Dhabi, the University of Washington, a research colossus, offers short courses to citizens of the emirates, mostly women, in a government job-training program.”

As noted above, there are critics of U.S. universities’ rush overseas. Some of them, like Representative Rohrabacher, take an “America first” approach to education and want to keep education in and foreigners out. Others are afraid that the rush overseas will hamper America’s global brain drain that has helped it remain at the top of the educational and research ladder. Others fear that the resulting educational isolation will ultimately hurt America’s cultural development. One of the things that helped America in the past is the fact that many world leaders have been educated in the U.S. Not all of them have been benevolent democrats; but because of their connections with the U.S., there have been opportunities to influence them that would not otherwise have been available. I suspect that Harvard, Yale, and other top U.S. universities will continue to attract the world’s elite, but the competition is getting stiffer.

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