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

Malaysian university campuses in London and Botswana (and Mel G. too)

The vast majority of foreign campuses tend to be created by Western (primarily US, UK, & Australian) universities in countries like Malaysia (e.g., University of Nottingham), the United Arab Emirates (e.g., NYU Aub Dhabi), China (e.g., University of Nottingham, again), South Africa, and so on. As Line Verbik of the OBHE notes in an informative 2006 report titled The International Branch Campus – Models and Trends:

The majority of branch campus provision is from North to South or in other words, from developed to developing countries, a trend, which is also found in other types of transnational provision. US institutions clearly dominate, accounting for more than 50% of branch campuses abroad, followed by Australia (accounting for approximately 12% of developments), and the UK and Ireland (5% each). A range of other countries, including Canada, the Netherlands, Pakistan and India, have one or two institutions operating campuses abroad. South to South activity is rare, some few examples being the Indian and Pakistani institutions operating in Dubai’s Knowledge Village.

Post-colonial relations are often an underlying factor for they facilitate linkages between former colonial powers and their colonial subjects. This is not surprising in some ways, though the relationship between former colonial powers and colonial subjects is a complicated one. Singapore, for example, has been shifting its geographic imagination away from the UK and towards the USA for the last decade, driven as it is by a perception that the US has better quality universities, and also the growing number of now well-placed politicians and government officials who have US vs. UK degrees.

Post-colonial dynamics aside, ideological and regulatory shifts also enable foreign universities to open up campuses in territories previously closed off to “commercial presence” (using GATS parlance). While there are huge variations in the nature of how ideological and regulatory transformations unfold (peruse UNCTAD’s annual World Investment Report to acquire a sense of variation by country, and the general liberalization shift), it is clear that the majority of countries are now more open to the presence of foreign universities within their borders. This said the mode of entry that they choose to use, or are forced to use (via regulations), is also very diverse.

In tracking the phenomena foreign/branch/overseas campuses, it is always valuable (in an analytical sense) to hear of unexpected developments that cause one to pause. One such unexpected outcome is the March 2007 opening of a Malaysian university campus in London, one of the world’s most expensive cities. Yesterday’s Guardian has an interesting profile of the key architect (Dr. Lim Kok Wing) of this university (Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (LUCT). LUCT is a private for profit university with a flair for out of the norm (for universities) PR: witness the excitement spurred on by the presence of Mel Gibson, for example, when he was brought to the Malaysian campus of LUCT.

The Guardian profile does a good job of explaining some of the rationale for the campuses, but also some of Lim’s personal style which is an intangible but important part of the development process, and seems to be even reflective in the titles of the degrees LUCT offers.

Coverage of Lim Kok Wing’ s overseas venture in Botswana (which opened up in March 2007 too) is also worth following for it sheds light on how higher education entrepreneurs are exploiting a country’s brand name (Malaysia in this case), as well as the relatively difficult higher education context many African countries are experiencing. It is also in line the Malaysian government’s strategy – of expanding its share of the global higher education market (see our earlier report).

The Botswana campus took Lim only five months to establish, and over a thousand students “swarmed” its campus during opening day. We’ve heard that there are just over a 1,000 students, with some 5,500 students being planned for in 2008 at the Botswana campus. Entrepreneurs like Lim are effectively mining fractured seams in the global higher education landscape, for they operate at a level than enables the to identify openings for the creation of institutions (and student tuition income stream). Lim puts it this way:

“However, as a developing country, Malaysia is better able to understand the needs of other developing nations. It is therefore in a better position to deliver British education to the developing world.”

So a Malaysian university, providing a Malaysian education in London, and a British education in Botswana (to students from over 100 countries)…the global higher ed landscape is indeed changing…

Kris Olds & Susan Robertson