Sunday, February 10, 2008

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America's foreign direct investment in higher education

Tamar Levin has a front-pager in the New York Times on the latest trend in the American academy -- setting up satellite campuses 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.

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.

“Where universities are heading now is toward becoming global universities,” said Howard Rollins, the former director of international programs at Georgia Tech, which has degree programs in France, Singapore, Italy, South Africa and China, and plans for India. “We’ll have more and more universities competing internationally for resources, faculty and the best students.”

I'm seeing a lot of proposals like this being floated the Fletcher School, so it's not just engineering schools. Pretty much every professional school in the United States worth its salt is contemplating about these options

Is this good for the academy? Levin gets at this in a series of rhetorical 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?
My answers, in order:
1) The classroom culture and teaching style will likely reflect American values -- but there's no question that opening up an American-style university in Qatar is not the same thing as having these students attend an American-style university in America. On the other hand, it's not clear that this is an actual trade-off. More likely, the students attending these institutions would not have necessarily traveled to the U.S. under any circumstances.

2) The primary reason universities are contemplating these campuses is because they are seen as money-makers -- so it's hard to see how, on net, any public monies would be lost in the process.

3) There's a strong correlation between where American universities are headed and where American foreign direct investment is headed. And, much like other forms of American FDI, universities will economize on the use of American personnel -- we're very expensive. Point is, this seems like a pretty minor concern.

4) Hmmm.... maybe we should hoard our knowledge and know-how in this country. I mean, the United States clearly has the monopoly on all information. And we should keep it that way until some device is invented that allows information to be transmitted across borders at high speed and little cost. Oh, wait....

UPDATE: The Times runs the second part of Levin's reportage today -- and, if anything, it's more positive on points (1) and (2) than I am.

posted by Dan on 02.10.08 at 04:16 PM


It's all good news, though one is left wondering if the current visa situation for students traveling to the US & working thereafter has had an influence, maybe it's just accelerated the demand vs being a major factor.

posted by: Ngel on 02.10.08 at 04:16 PM [permalink]

The visa situation is an issue, no doubt. I wonder, though, if the decline of the dollar will slow this trend -- the US is not nearly as expensive as it used to be for many overseas students. At the current exchange rates, many institutions might do better attracting students here than expanding in relatively expensive overseas locations.

posted by: mr punch on 02.10.08 at 04:16 PM [permalink]

Universities have every right to act like corporations... so long as they are taxed like them.

It is difficult to see how these activities are consistent with the non-profit missions of these universities that allow for tax-free status.

This should be reconsidered for at least ex-US operations, if not for the private university system as a whole.

Rampant cost increases, bloated endowments, off-shore facilities... the time is coming soon for major reform.

posted by: anon on 02.10.08 at 04:16 PM [permalink]

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