Foreign university campuses and linkage schemes: opportunities and challenges in early 2008

The establishment of overseas/branch/foreign campuses, and substantial international university linkage schemes, continues to generate news announcements and debate.

Over the last two months, for example, Queen Margaret University in Scotland announced that it would be Singapore’s first foreign campus set up by a UK university (a fact that received little media coverage in Singapore).

The University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) announced that their Singapore-based campus would be doubling in size by 2009 (a fact that received much media coverage in Singapore), while the University of Chicago’s Financial Mathematics Department announced it would establish a graduate program in Singapore, likely in association with Chicago’s Stevanovich Center for Financial Mathematics. Further details are available here.

Finally, on the Singapore front, MIT and Singapore’s National Research Foundation (NRF) jointly announced the establishment of the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology Centre (SMART), a “complex of research centres set up by world-class research universities and corporations working collaboratively with Singapore’s research community”. As MIT describes it:

SMART is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) largest international research endeavor and the first research center of its kind located outside Cambridge, Mass. It will offer laboratories and computational facilities for research in several areas, including biomedical science, water resources and the environment, and possible additional research thrusts that encompass such topics as interactive digital media, energy, and scientific and engineering computation.

Besides serving as an intellectual hub for robust interactions between MIT and global researchers in Singapore, the SMART Centre will also provide MIT and Singapore new and unique opportunities to perform interdisciplinary experimental, computational and translational research that takes advantage of MIT’s long-standing collaborations in Singapore.

The joint press release can be downloaded here. Needless to say this was also a high profile media item in Singapore.

Noteworthy, too, is the fact that the Chicago and MIT initiatives in Singapore involve regular (versus contract) base campus faculty and researchers, reflecting core principles guiding their respective internationalization agendas. This is clearly enabled by direct and indirect Government of Singapore support, and relatively high tuition fees.

Meanwhile, in the Middle East and East Asia, the University of Calgary-Qatar (a joint venture between the University of Calgary and the Hamad Medical Corporation), and the University of Nottingham Ningbo, have both been busy searching out faculty (contract/contingent/secondment/visiting only, it seems) for their respective campuses.

nottningboroom.jpgEmployment sites always provide insights into how these types of ventures are represented, and how the transnational staffing dimension is handled, so check out what is on offer at Calgary-Qatar and Nottingham-Ningbo. I must admit, however, that the sterile curtained room on offer to three year-long contract faculty in Ningbo (photo to the left) does not exactly look appealing, exciting though China (and Ningbo) are. Perhaps they just hired a bad photographer:)

Over in Saudi Arabia the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which we have written about before, is filling media outlets like the Economist with full page advertisements for senior and mid-level administrative staff. The largesse available to KAUST, and the Singaporean influence on its development model, was also evident when it announced, incrementally in globally circulated press releases, that it was moving forward on substantial collaborative ventures, at an institutional scale, with the American University in Cairo, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Imperial College London, Institut Français du Pétrole, National University of Singapore, Stanford University, Technische Universität München, University of California, Berkeley, University of Texas at Austin, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. These are substantial and lucrative linkages, according to Changing Higher Education, with Berkeley’s Mechanical Engineering Department (the lead linkage unit at Berkeley), for example, receiving US $28 million to participate in this scheme between 2008 and 2013.

KAUST is also attempting to leapfrog in the development process by buying in individual scientific support via their Global Research Partnership (GRP) Investigator competition. This scheme, which will initially support 12 “high caliber researchers” from the “world’s leading research universities”, allows KAUST greater flexibility to target individual researchers in fields or universities that might not be enabled via institutional linkage schemes like the ones mentioned above.

kaustcampus.jpgInterestingly KAUST’s graphic design consultants have worked very hard to create a sunny high tech image for the campus, which is still being developed, though they actually have less to work with (on the ground) than does Nottingham in Ningbo, not to mention significant security concerns to plan for when foreigners (especially US citizens) are involved. It just goes to show you how much work good or bad graphics (still & video, including the fascinating five minute long campus profile below) can do in creating distinctive representations of campuses such that they might appeal to mobile faculty and researchers living outside of the host country.

And on the analytical news front, Inside Higher Ed, and the New York-based Social Science Research Council’s new Knowledge Rules blog, both posted critical articles on the overseas campus institutional development model by Andrew Ross, a professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University (NYU), a university we profiled with respect to institutional strategic issues last autumn. Finally, Inside Higher Ed provided coverage of one initiative that had California Polytechnic State University, working with Jubail University College in Saudi Arabia, to develop approximately $6 million worth of programs for Jubail’s male only student population. But, as Inside Higher Ed notes, moving forward on this initiative might rub against (in a dejure or defacto way) core elements of Cal Poly’s internal code of conduct, and the national legal system it is embedded within (in this case U.S. equal employment laws that bar discrimination). The issue was put this way:

Faculty skeptical of the project — and by some accounts there’s plenty of skepticism on campus — wonder: Will opportunities truly be equally available to all Cal Poly faculty? Would women feel they can apply for an on-site director position in a country where they, unlike their male colleagues, would be barred from driving? What about homosexual faculty? Would they see good professional options in a country where sodomy is punishable by death? What about Jewish faculty in an Islamic country without religious freedoms?

The administration says that the bulk of the work to develop the programs would likely happen on the California campus. But site visits and long-term director positions abroad would be available. And there aren’t just opportunities, but also money, at stake here: The proposed base annual salary for a senior faculty member working on the project is $180,000.

Transnational complications, indeed.

Entangling institutional infrastructures from different countries cannot help but generate some inter-cultural and institutional conflict: indeed this is sometimes the rationale for supporting the concept of overseas campuses. But the Ross articles, the Cal Poly-Saudi debate, and Amy Newhall’s entry in GlobalHigherEd last autumn (‘Liberal education venturing abroad?: American universities in the Middle East‘), are but a few reminders that much more thinking is required about the underlying forces facilitating the development of such ventures, the nature of the deliberative processes on campuses that are considering such ventures (which has been, to date, driven in a top down fashion, for good and for bad, by what I would deem administrative entrepreneurs), and the nature of the memorandum of understandings (MoUs) and legal agreements that lock in such linkage schemes (usually for a five year period, in the first instance).

The evidence, to date, suggests that there is incredible diversity in drafting overseas campus and linkage arrangements, ranging from the unsophisticated and opaque to the sophisticated and transparent. It is perhaps time for some systematic rules and guidelines to be developed by international organizations like UNESCO and the OECD (extending the UNESCO/OECD guidelines on “Quality provision in cross-border higher education”). It is also worth pondering why publicly supported institutions are not active, and indeed sometimes hostile to, the public release of relevant MoUs and legal agreements. Public release clauses could, after all, even be built into the MoUs and agreements in the first place; a “non-negotiable” item in the terms of participants at a recent American Council of Education Leadership Network on International Education meeting. One of many unfinished debates about this emerging global higher ed phenomenon…

Kris Olds

The ripple effects of the global fossil fuel boom: a view from inside the University of Calgary

Editor’s note: the global boom in fossil fuel production is generating uneven development processes that are reverberating through higher education systems. For example, the boom has fueled the breathtaking expansion of indigenous and foreign university campuses in the Middle East (e.g., King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST), Qatar Education City, NYU Abu Dhabi). Canada, the US’ largest supplier of oil (a fact off the radar screen in the current geopolitical climate) is also witnessing a vast economic transformation as an “empire from a tub of goo” (the Alberta oil sands) emerges. The national Globe and Mail newspaper is current running a series of stories on this historically unprecedented development process. This transformation has been praised and criticized from a social and environmental perspective. It is, though, also interesting to see how economic development proceeds (esp., increased revenue) are impacting the Albertan higher education system. Today’s guest entry is by a professor of anthropology (Alan Smart) at the University of Calgary. Professor Smart is an economic anthropologist who mainly works in China. We’ve commissioned this piece after reading an interesting Globe and Mail article (“Will Alberta’s energy boom revolutionize higher education?” January 2, 2008). Given our knowledge of Professor Smart’s ethnographic skills we felt that he had the capacity to develop an informed and grounded commentary regarding the inevitably uneven impacts of this transformation in his own university and province. We also recommend that you look at this commentary by Martha Piper (a former senior university official in Alberta and British Columbia).


When I read Elizabeth Church’s glowing account in the Globe and Mail (“Will Alberta’s energy boom revolutionize higher education?” January 2, 2008) of the post-secondary sector in Alberta and its prospects, I immediately thought, “that’s exciting, I wish I was there instead of in a university where we continue to suffer from budget cuts and lack of direction”. But then I realized that I was there, the University of Calgary to be specific, in the heart of Alberta’s economic boom, but the experience of the liberal arts faculties bears no resemblance to the gushing prose such as “People will look back at this time and marvel” (Dr. Samarasekera, President, University of Alberta). Many of us at U of Calgary are already marvelling: at how there can be such disarray, budgetary crisis, and abysmal morale in a place where so much money is sloshing around. To be fair, the reports from U of Alberta sound much better than at U of Calgary: Dr. Samarasekera apparently recognizes the importance of liberal arts in the university.

uc2.jpgThe shocking thing is that in almost twenty years at the U of Calgary, I do not recall a period when morale among faculty was lower than it is at present, and that includes during the 23% cuts over 4 years in the early 1990s. The only faculties that seem to be benefiting from our President’s vision are Medicine and Engineering. Some might argue that this is a sign of the corporatization of the university. It might indeed be, but only in the sense that the university concentrates on things that the dominant business community would like to see done, not in the sense that the university is acting like a profit-seeking enterprise. If it were, we might expect to see investment in profit centres at the expense of other units, but it tends to operate the other way around. The Faculty of Social Sciences, with the largest number of students on campus, has a budget that is basically equal to the tuitions paid by its students, even though Alberta policy is that tuitions should not be higher than 25% of the operating budget. Obviously, given this, Social Sciences (and the other core arts and sciences to a somewhat lesser extent) are being treated as a cash cow for Faculties that cannot cover their own costs. One could point to the substantial research funds brought in by Medicine in particular, but this has little positive effect on the university’s financial situation since grant overhead payments are very low in Canada, unlike the situation in the United States. In any case, the usual pattern when a medical researcher has a breakthrough or receives a major grant is that they get offers from other institutions and turn to the administration to say that they couldn’t justify staying without a new lab, additional colleagues, postdocs, graduate students, etc. This doesn’t produce any real advantage to the administration’s budget, unlike the large number of bums on seats in the arts and sciences faculties. Especially when those bums on seats are being taught by sessionals. A sessional being paid $5,250 for a one-semester course with 400 students paying $500 each for that course generates a profit of $194,750, or a return on investment of 37 times. What profit-oriented business would turn down returns like that? Yet, because tuition goes to the central administration without any direct return to the department or faculty offering the course, such courses provide no benefit to the unit offering the course, despite intense student demand. If this is a corporate model, it would seem to be a very dysfunctional corporate model. But I think that it follows a different logic, one based on status. Presidents like to brag about their neurology or cancer treatment or energy research centres, and transferring resources into sexy high profile fields makes it possible for them to swagger when they get together with other Presidents or potential donors, and hopefully step up to a better job before the house of cards collapses around them.

The Province of Alberta must bear its share of blame. Funding per student in Alberta compares quite well with other provinces, apparently. But the lack of understanding and mistrust of universities by the Conservative Party has been so great that most new funds have been tied to particular new programs, projects and buildings that the Provincial Conservatives and their supporting interest groups see as useful. The proportion of university grants that don’t have strings attached dropped precipitously after the election of Ralph Klein. And the problem is that these grants bribe us to do expensive and unsustainable things. There is never quite enough money to do them, so subsequently money has to be channelled from sustainable things to finish off the shiny new building or keep the sexy new program afloat. If we could simply allocate all the money we get from the province and tuitions to the most sustainable and sensible things, we would be in pretty good shape. The amazing thing is that most of these are the things that universities (at least those without massive endowments) should be doing, providing a well-rounded education in the liberal arts and sciences, with a smaller set of appendages in the professions doing the far more expensive but ‘sexier’ things. Instead of being seen as essential, the body of the U of Calgary is being gutted to support a host of showcase programs and projects much larger than the modest financial reality can support. Thus, the ‘fiscal conservatives’ in the ruling Conservative Party of Alberta and the downtown business community (who dominate our Board of Governors) have seduced and bribed us into a fiscally disastrous route. And the answer? Ever more of the same. Marvellous, indeed.

Alan Smart