London (cools), Dubai (spirals down), and the state of global higher ed

Apologies for the slow pace of posts to GlobalHigherEd, but we’ve been overloaded at work of late in Bristol and Madison.

My undergraduate ‘Intro to the City’ class today focused on the ideas of Saskia Sassen, the prolific scholar based at Columbia University. We focused on Sassen’s ideas in relationship to the nature of global cities, and the operation of global city networks. Today’s class corresponded with some articles in the Financial Times about London (‘London cooling‘, 11 February 2009) and Dubai (‘Laid-off foreigners flee as Dubai spirals down‘, 12 February 2009), both of which help students ground what Sassen writes about so insightfully.

londoncoverIn preparing some class handouts of both newspaper articles, I followed the London links in the FT article through to an informative 2008 report regarding London’s changing labour markets, and its relative position in relationship to the rest of the UK.  The report is replete with direct and indirect information about the nature of London’s education sector, and about the implications (e.g., high housing costs) when a city/country (over)valorizes financial services and in doing so creates a dynamic where other important services sectors (including higher education) get overshadowed.  The relationship between higher education, research, and the global city formation process, has rarely been examined, and is one topic we will explore further in 2009.

The Dubai article (‘Laid-off foreigners flee as Dubai spirals down‘) in the New York Times is interesting as it examines what happens when a speculative ‘house of cards’ (a wanna-be global city) starts to crumble. I sent this article to a close friend who is CFO for a European TNC (with major investments in Dubai, amongst many other countries). His quick response via email: “a reminder that when something looks too good to be true, it is!  I never could understand how Dubai worked, and now we all know it’s because it didn’t work.” This article is approaching viral like status, and is one of the most blogged about articles this week (link here see we what Google’s blog search engine trawls up).

Now, if Dubai is collapsing, as it might be, what does this mean for all of the foreign and joint venture universities initiatives (e.g., Dubai Knowledge Village (which is hosting Boston University, Harvard University, London School of Business & Finance, Michigan State University, Rochester Institute of Technology), British University in Dubai, Duke University, University of Wollongong, American University in Dubai), tempted into Dubai via offers of subsidies and streams of grant income, potential student demand (including from expatriates based in the city and region), and the sheer glamour (and buzz) of operating in an ‘emerging market’ and fast developing global city? And what does it mean for the Indian migrant students profiled in Neha Vora’s 25 June 2008 entry ‘Globalized higher education in the United Arab Emirates – unexpected outcomes’?

While this is not something we are conducting research on, we would be happy to post guest entries (including entries from credible anonymous authors, if necessary) from people who have something insightful to say about the current situation in Dubai. Sadly we won’t be hearing much formal reporting or analysis from Dubai, despite its publicly stated desire to be a creative global knowledge hub, a hotspot of the knowledge economy.  As the New York Times reports:

No one knows how bad things have become, though it is clear that tens of thousands have left, real estate prices have crashed and scores of Dubai’s major construction projects have been suspended or canceled. But with the government unwilling to provide data, rumors are bound to flourish, damaging confidence and further undermining the economy.

Instead of moving toward greater transparency, the emirates seem to be moving in the other direction. A new draft media law would make it a crime to damage the country’s reputation or economy, punishable by fines of up to 1 million dirhams (about $272,000). Some say it is already having a chilling effect on reporting about the crisis.

Last month, local newspapers reported that Dubai was canceling 1,500 work visas every day, citing unnamed government officials. Asked about the number, Humaid bin Dimas, a spokesman for Dubai’s Labor Ministry, said he would not confirm or deny it and refused to comment further. Some say the true figure is much higher.

“At the moment there is a readiness to believe the worst,” said Simon Williams, HSBC bank’s chief economist in Dubai. “And the limits on data make it difficult to counter the rumors.”

Crises do have a funny tendency to highlight contradictions.

Kris Olds

Globalizing universities: profiles and strategies (with a Duke example)

Over the course of the next year we will be developing some profiles of select institutions that are playing a key role in globalizing higher education systems via their transnational governance functions and objectives (e.g., the OECD), or via their actions (e.g., individual universities). Our entry about NYU two days ago is part of this focus, as is the 9 October Global Public University forum that we helped to organize. We will also be asking a range of institutions, including universities and consortia, to develop some self-profiles so as to let them speak in their own voices versus us speaking on their behalf. We will ensure that their representations are as analytical as possible, and that there is some diversity in that nature of the types of institutions that will be profiled. Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) is currently developing the first self-profile that we will post. Those of you interested in this theme should also keep track of the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s US-focused Global Campus initiative, as well as select Institute of International Education (IIE) publications.

The issue of how universities globalize is a key one to take account of when examining the construction of global knowledge/spaces. To be sure there are broader structural forces that are at work, forces including economic restructuring, ideological change that is leading to regulatory reform, social transformations, and technological change. But the actions of individual universities, firms, and organizations, mediated by the state, collectively helps to constitute these broader structural forces. And each of these individual actors, guided by people and personalities, has a distinctive take on the globalization process. As we noted, NYU is now fully pursuing the Network model with its new campus in Abu Dhabi. Duke University is another institution with a variety of globalizing activities underway. The President of Duke University (Richard H. Brodhead) gave an illuminating speech (to Duke faculty) about this topic yesterday, and it is worth reading.


Duke is one of the universities that, through its actions (e.g., a joint Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School; see their new building to the left), is reaching out across global space, and concurrently enabling Singapore to pursue its emerging ‘global schoolhouse’ development framework. One element of the speech is particularly worth highlighting: how a university moves from an assortment of intra-university unit-led global initiatives, to ensuring that these actions help to achieve collective university wide goals, while at the same time the university better (and more efficiently) supports the myriad of activities that are taking place within said units, while ensuring that a globally recognized identity is constructed. Duke is, of course, a global anomaly; a very well-resourced private (non-profit) institution. And the context for the origin of the speech is unclear. However, there are still insights to be acquired by assessing how and why a globally active university like Duke does what it does. We’ll close off with a relatively lengthy quote here from Duke’s President:

Deluged by my examples, you might by now be saying: It’s amazing, I grant you! So isn’t Duke already international enough? I would reply as follows. I take delight in the vision and activity Duke has displayed to date. I also recognize our obligation not just to keep adding to our list of programs, but to work with what we have to give it depth and substance. (In American universities, the list of showy memoranda of understanding with international partners is far longer than the list of substantive relationships that have followed.) I also recognize that Duke’s international development entails tradeoffs with other, equally legitimate university goals, choices that need to be clearly envisioned and intelligently made. But I also believe there is important further work to do to take us to the next level of development as a global university.

One step is very obvious. I would never advocate central control and direction of Duke’s international efforts: the interest, commitment and inventiveness of actual individuals is the absolute precondition for these programs’ success. But we do need more centralized information about our ventures. We have programs exploring possible partnerships in countries (even in cities) where Duke already has an institutional presence that our new Duke ambassadors often know nothing about. Before we go forward, it would help to be able to know what’s already going on.

Second, as our international activities become more numerous and complex, we need to build the infrastructure to support them. Every Duke presence around the globe brings us new contacts, new visibility, new educational opportunity—but also new challenges of financial management, legal arrangement, and liability. It is inefficient at best, and dangerous at worst, for us to expect all our separate units to be able to manage these difficulties on their own. Going forward, they will require a higher level of institutional attention and a stronger system of institutional support.

There are other infrastructural issues as well. The way our local budgets are set up does not make it easy for different schools and departments to team up to envision new international ventures. I also wonder whether our faculty appointments system is structured to greatest advantage for an increasingly globalized intellectual world. At a dinner hosted by the provost this summer, the deans fell into speculation on the idea of an “international professor”—a person who would spend significant time here with the understanding that they would regularly spend time elsewhere, building bridges with a Duke connection. Let me not fail to mention that to continue to attract top student talent, Duke must increase international student financial aid.

Third, and this is my main point, we need our international efforts to be more concerted and strategic. Most of our projects to date have arisen through entrepreneurial activity by separate units. This is the key source of institutional creativity, and it will remain so. But the time comes to ask if these often-vibrant parts could not add up to a more coherent whole, a concerted activity that would advance this whole institution’s mission, with benefits for each part. More than institutional efficiency is at stake. This is a question of how we render the distinctive service this university could provide and how we make Duke known around the world.

Kris Olds