New York: When John Sexton, the president of New York University (NYU), first met Omar Saif Ghobash, an investor trying to entice him to open a branch campus in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Sexton was not sure what to make of the proposal—so he asked for a $50 million (Rs198 crore) gift.
“It’s like earnest money: If you’re a $50 million donor, I’ll take you seriously,” Sexton said. “It’s a way to test their bona fides.” In the end, the money materialized from the government of Abu Dhabi, one of the seven emirates.
Sexton has long been committed to building NYU’s international presence, increasing study-abroad sites, opening programmes in Singapore, and exploring new partnerships in France. But the plans for a comprehensive liberal arts branch campus in the Persian Gulf, set to open in 2010, are in a class by themselves and Sexton is already talking about the flow of professors and students he envisions between New York and Abu Dhabi.
Quest for knowledge: Carnegie Mellon University’s campus in Doha, Qatar. The American system of higher education is becoming an important export as more universities take their programmes 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—as well as Australian and British ones, which also offer instruction in English—are starting, or expanding, hundreds of programmes and partnerships in booming markets such as China, India and Singapore.
And many are now considering full-fledged foreign branch campuses, particularly in oil-rich West Asia. 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.
“Where universities are heading now is toward becoming global universities,” said Howard Rollins, the former director of international programmes at Georgia Tech, which has degree programmes 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.”
Overseas programmes 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.
The demand from overseas is huge. At the University of Washington, the administrator in charge of overseas programmes said she received about a proposal a week. “It’s almost like spam,” said the official, Susan Jeffords, whose position as vice-provost for global affairs was created just two years ago.
Traditionally, top universities built their international presence through study-abroad sites, research partnerships, faculty exchanges and joint degree programmes offered with foreign universities. Yale has dozens of research collaborations with Chinese universities.
Overseas branches, with the same requirements and degrees as the home campuses, are a newer—and riskier—phenomenon.
While NYU’s Persian Gulf campus is on the horizon, George Mason University is up and running—though not at full speed—in Ras al Khaymah, another one of the emirates.
George Mason, a public university in Fairfax, Virginia, arrived in the Gulf in 2005 with a tiny language programme intended to help students achieve college-level English skills and meet the university’s admission standards for the degree programmes that were beginning the next year.
George Mason expected to have 200 undergraduates in 2006, and grow from there. But it enrolled nowhere near that many, then or now. It had just 57 degree students—three in biology, 27 in business and 27 in engineering at the start of this academic year, joined by a few more students and programmes this semester.
The project, an hour north of Dubai's skyscrapers and more than 10,000km from Virginia, is still finding its way. “I will freely confess that it’s all been more complicated than I expected,” said Peter Stearns, George Mason’s provost.
The Ras al Khaymah campus has had a succession of deans. Simple tasks such as ordering books take months, in part because of government censors. Local licensing, still not complete, has been far more rigorous than expected. And it has not been easy to find interested students with the Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and English skills that George Mason requires for admissions.
“I’m optimistic, but if you look at it as a business, you can only take losses for so long,” said Abul R. Hasan, the academic dean, who is from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. “Our goal is to have 2,000 students five years from now. What makes it difficult is that if you’re giving the George Mason degree, you cannot lower your standards.”
Aisha Ravindran, a professor from India with no previous connection to George Mason, teaches students the same communications class required for business majors at the Virginia campus—but in the Arabian desert, it lands differently.
Ravindran uses the same slides, showing emotions and lists of non-verbal taboos to spread the American business ideal of diversity and inclusiveness. She emphasizes the need to use language that includes all listeners.
And suddenly, there is an odd mismatch between the American curriculum and the local culture. In a country where homosexual acts are illegal, Ravindran’s slide show suggests using “partner” or “life partner”, since "husband" or “wife” might exclude some listeners. And in a country where mosques are ubiquitous, the slides counsel students to avoid the word “church” and substitute “place of worship.”
The Ras al Khaymah students include Bangladeshis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Indians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Syrians and more, most from families that can afford the $5,400-a-semester tuition. But George Mason has attracted few citizens of the emirates.
The students say they love the small classes, diversity and camaraderie. Their dorm feels much like an American fraternity house, without the haze of alcohol. Some praise George Mason’s pedagogy, which they say differs substantially from the rote learning of their high schools.
“At my local school in Abu Dhabi, it was all what the teachers told you, what was in the book,” said Mona Bar Houm, a Palestinian student who grew up in Abu Dhabi. “Here, you’re asked to come up with your personal ideas.”
But what matters most, they say, is getting an American degree. “It means something if I go home to Bangladesh with an American degree,” said Abdul Mukit, a business student. “It doesn't need to be Harvard; it’s good enough to be just an American degree.”
Whether that degree really reflects George Mason is open to question. None of the faculty members came from George Mason, although that is likely to change next year. The money is not from George Mason, either: Ras al Khaymah bears all the costs.
Nonetheless, Sharon Siverts, the vice-president in charge of the campus, said: “What's George Mason is everything we do. The admissions are done at George Mason, by George Mason standards. The degree programmes are Mason programmes.”
Seeking a partnership
Three years ago, Ghobash, the Oxford-educated investor from the UAE, heard a presentation by a private company, American Higher Education Inc., trying to broker a partnership between Kuwait and an American university. Ghobash, wanting to bring liberal arts to his country, hired the company to submit a proposal for a Gulf campus run by a well-regarded American university. American Higher Education officials said they introduced him to NYU.
Ghobash spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the company’s fees, talked with many NYU officials and paid for a delegation to visit UAE before meeting Sexton in June 2005.
Sexton said he solicited the $50 million gift to emphasize that he was not interested in a business-model deal and that academic excellence was expensive. Ghobash declined to be interviewed. But according to American Higher Education officials, $50 million was more than Ghobash could handle.
So when the agreement for NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus was signed last fall, Ghobash and the company were out of the picture, and the government of Abu Dhabi—the richest of the emirates—was the partner to build and operate the campus. Abu Dhabi's Executive Affairs Authority made the gift in November 2007.
“The crown prince shares our vision of Abu Dhabi becoming an idea capital for the whole region,” Sexton said. “We’re going to be a global network university. This is central to what NYU is going to be in the future. There's a commitment, on both sides, to have both campuses grow together, so that by 2020, both NYU and NYU-Abu Dhabi will in the world's top 10 universities.”
Neither side will put a price tag on the plan. But both emphasize their shared ambition to create an entity central to the intellectual life not just of the Persian Gulf but of South and West Asia.
“We totally buy into John’s view of idea capitals,” said Khaldoon al-Mubarak, chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority.
“This is not a commercially driven relationship, it’s a commitment to generations to come, to research... We see this as a Catholic marriage. It’s forever.”
While the Gulf’s wealth has drawn many American universities, others dream of China’s enormous population.
In October, the New York Institute of Technology, a private university offering career-oriented training, opened a Nanjing campus in collaboration with Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications, and dozens of American universities offer joint or dual degrees through Chinese universities.
Kean University, a public university in New Jersey, had hoped mightily to be the first with a freestanding undergraduate campus in China. Two years ago, Kean announced its agreement to open a branch of the university in Wenzhou in September 2007. Whether the campus will materialize remains to be seen. Kean is still awaiting final approval from China, which prefers programmes run through local universities.
“I’m optimistic,” said Dawood Farahi, Kean's president. But, he added, “It’s very cumbersome negotiating with the Chinese. The deal you struck yesterday is not necessarily good today. The Chinese sign an agreement, and then the next day, you get a fax saying they want an amendment.” Still, he persists, noting, “One out of every five humans on the planet is Chinese.”
Beyond the geopolitical, there are other reasons, pedagogic and economic.
“A lot of our students are internationally illiterate,” Farahi said. “It would be very good for them to have professors who’ve taught in China, to be able to study in China, and to have more awareness of the rest of the world. And I think I can make a few bucks there.” Under the accord, he said, up to 8% of the Wenzhou revenues could be used to support New Jersey.
With state support for public universities a constant challenge, new financing sources are vital, especially for lesser-known universities. “It’s precisely because we’re third tier that I have to find things that jettison us out of our orbit and into something spectacular,” Farahi said.
Possibilities and alarms
Most overseas campuses offer only a narrow slice of American higher education, most often, programmes 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 the US’ leading universities, it is a leading globalizer, with programmes in Bahrain, Jordan, Abu Dhabi, Canada, Brazil and China.
“We’re leveraging what we’ve got, which is the ‘New York’ in our first name and the ‘technology’ in our last name," said Edward Guiliano, the institute’s president. “I believe that in the 21st century, there will be a new class of truly global universities. There isn’t one yet, but we’re as close as anybody.”
Some huge universities get a toehold in the Gulf with tiny programmes. 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 programme.
“We’re very eager to have a presence here,” said Marisa Nickle, who runs the programme. “In the Gulf, it’s not what’s here now, it’s what’s coming. Everybody’s on the way.”
Some lawmakers are wondering how that rush overseas will affect the US. In July, the House Science and Technology subcommittee on research and science education held a hearing on university globalization.
The subcommittee chairman, Representative Brian Baird, said, “If the US universities aren’t doing this, someone else likely will,” he said. “I think it’s better that we be invited in than that we be left out.”
Still, he said he worried that the foreign branches could undermine an important American asset—the number of world leaders who have been students in the US.
“I do wonder,” he said, “if we establish many of these campuses overseas, do we lose some of that cross-pollination?”
©2008/New York Times