An American education abroad

Sunday, February 17, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:52 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Loory: Private and public U.S. organizations have been exporting billions of dollars in goods and services to countries around the world to make money in rapidly growing local economies. What started years ago as study abroad programs for American students, mainly in Western Europe, have developed into huge projects, including U.S. universities building actual campuses abroad. There, schools can educate students in their home countries rather than bringing them into the U.S. An American higher education is valued around the world, in much the same manner as entertainment, music or computer technology. American educators abroad helped to spread this country’s ideals, techniques, scientific methods and its belief in democracy. It’s one area where the U.S. can do well for the world, and do good for itself at the same time. Journalist Tamar Lewin detailed all of this in two recent New York Times articles. The growth of American education abroad has been going on for years. What made this a front-page story now?

Tamar Lewin, correspondent, The New York Times, New York, N.Y.: The establishment of American universities is accelerating in a lot of places. Many universities are trying to go to India, and hundreds have joint programs in China. Mostly because of money, we’re seeing a fantastic growth of American programs in the Gulf.

The Gulf isn’t a logical place to spread to because it doesn’t have a big enough population, but it has to do with money and with how much support the universities get there.

Loory: Why is there interest in an American-style communications and journalism program in Dubai?

Richard Gross, associate professor of communication and information studies, American University in Dubai, Dubai, United Arab Emirates: Like many overseas universities, when the American University in Dubai opened, its standard curriculum was business. Since then, there’s been a move to make media studies more prominent, to make this a production site for film and to expand television and radio. When the MBA program started here, it took three years to achieve a population of 50 students, but this major had 50 students when we opened the door. In part, it’s instantly popular because it offers a window to opportunities that have long been available to Western students.

Loory: Generally, why is there a rapidly expanding system of American Education abroad, particularly in the Middle East?

Abdallah Schleifer, professor emeritus, American University in Cairo, Cairo, Egypt: After Sept. 11, many parents became concerned about the environment their children would go into inside America. They feared that it would be unfriendly, so many parents looked for an alternative and enrollment rates went up in existing schools. That was an incentive for American universities to reach out. Also, places like Doha (Qatar) have tremendous wealth. In the past, there were universities like the American University in Cairo. Those universities are established, have an American administration and a high percentage of American faculty. They offered an American education, but they weren’t branches of specific universities. Now there’s this model that would bring an entire faculty or be representative of a school like, for example, Georgetown.

Loory: How did Education City in Doha develop?

Rachel Morris, managing editor, The Peninsula newspaper, Doha, Qatar: Several years ago, Amir Sheikh Hamad said, we’re going to set aside land for Education City. Then he went to universities around the world and invited them to set up in Doha and make Qatar the education capital of the Gulf. The government paid for, and therefore essentially built, the infrastructure. All the universities had to do was tell the government what they wanted. So it’s quite an incredible piece of land operation.

Loory: Don’t five American universities have campuses in Education City?

Lewin: Yes, and four are coming. I went to an annual college fair and hundreds of families showed up. Most of the families weren’t applying to Qatar University. They wanted Education City, which is seen as better education. One woman said it’s like being colonized but it’s voluntary colonization because every family wants their kid to have an American education.

Morris: For many years, citizens of Qatar traditionally sent their children overseas to be educated in places like the United Kingdom and the U.S., so to have these universities in Qatar is important because the family is number one in Arab society. To be able to keep the children in Qatar and to keep the family unit intact is important.

Loory: What are the implications of setting up universities abroad for the U.S.?

Phillip Altbach, director, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, Boston, Mass.: American higher education, unlike American foreign policy, remains popular around the world. The U.S. has an important name brand, and the U.S. needs to guard that name brand and to make sure it’s offering high-quality products around the world. It’s possible, with the rapid expansion overseas in the Gulf, in China and in India, that the U.S. isn’t sufficiently worrying about quality control.

Gross: At the American University in Dubai, we’re getting more highly qualified applicants than before. Previously, we may have gotten more applicants who were curious about living overseas, and that can still be the case. But more often than not, we get highly educated people. So the quality of the faculty won’t diminish.

Altbach: One hopes that’s the case. This mini industry is growing rapidly, and one wonders whether there are going to be enough high-caliber people to go around. One also wonders whether there are enough bright students to maintain the selectiveness over the long run of these top-quality U.S. institutions.

Lewin: Finding students who have the SAT and the TOEFL scores, and who speak English well enough, has been a problem. In Doha, they offer a bridge program for kids whose qualifications aren’t quite enough to get in otherwise.

Altbach: Lastly, there’s concern about U.S. faculty members making longer-term commitments to working overseas. If a person wants to make his career abroad, he can do that, but if he wants to come and go, there are problems of earning tenure, getting promoted and remaining in the scientific mainstream. The question is, will universities be able to recruit enough regular faculty to have, for example, a “real Cornell” rather than an institution that is labeled Cornell but really consists of faculty members from other places?

Loory: What is the impact of all this on the globalization of education?

Altbach: American higher education is extremely popular around the world and could be called an aspect of U.S. “soft power,” which is valuable for the U.S. Particularly, the elites in many countries want a U.S. higher education. There’s also the prospect of students getting jobs in the U.S. or coming to the U.S. for graduate study once they finish their undergraduate degrees. What could be slightly problematic are the long-term implications of an American higher education on the curriculum, on the mind-set and on various aspects of the cultures, not only in the Gulf, but also in India, China and other parts of the world.

Loory: Clearly, the export of higher education is a great success story for this country, but equally clearly, its continued development has to be watched carefully or serious problems can develop.

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