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US Universities Expand Overseas - 2004-07-23

University students, set your alarm clocks. Getting to class might take a bit longer, if part of the campus is now halfway around the world. While crossing borders just to get to get to class might not be necessary, universities are expanding in a big way. Top U.S. research universities are entering into an increasing number of international partnerships, sometimes building extensions of their campuses abroad.

United States universities are developing many different educational exchange and degree programs in other countries. Driving the educational system toward change are globalizing market forces, improved distance-learning technologies and a need for other countries to accommodate their growing numbers of students. Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Charles Vest says those things are fueling cross-border collaborations.

"Most of the growth has been in interactions between U.S. universities and countries around the world, whose economic and industrial development is rapidly increasing, places like China, South Asia, the Middle East, where what those countries' leaders really want to do is jumpstart their university system," says Mr. Vest. "Most of the collaborations that they seek have to do with science and engineering and, perhaps to a lesser extent, medicine. They're trying to build their capability, so they can be more competitive in the world."

The nature of these partnerships ranges from scholar exchanges to joint degree programs to full fledged campuses abroad. Cornell University President Jeffery Lehman says his school has a number of projects in Africa and Asia. These include a campus in Doha, Qatar, and a new set of research partnerships launched this July with top universities in China. Mr. Lehman says that higher education must internationalize to keep up with the growing interdependence of the world's cultures, economies and political systems. "In the 21st century, a great university is a transnational university. A great university sees its constituency as the entire world."

Mr. Lehman explains that by moving research abroad, universities can get around some of the recent restrictions the United States has placed on foreign student visas since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. Mr. Lehman says visa issues have threatened international academic exchange, but he notes that they did not cause this current trend.

"The motivations for these partnerships go much much deeper than a simple response to a recent phenomenon in the political environment," he says. "Even if there had been no 9/11, even if there had been no visa restrictions, we would still be doing exactly the same kinds of projects."

Cross-border education also supports trade and technology. Mr. Lehman explains that increasing research in all fields primes an economy for international trade. He says that, in fact, higher education itself is a commodity. "For the United States, higher education has long been a strong part of our export economy. So, all of these opportunities for collaboration and exchange serve to strengthen the position of American higher education in the international market," he says. "In addition, we also know that, as economies progress and develop and acquire greater technological sophistication, their ability to participate in systems of international trade is enhanced."

Mr. Lehman adds that cross-border collaborations can strengthen trade because countries working together on commercial research can share any technologies they develop.

Education analyst Madeline Green says international academic partnerships are increasing, but there is no central data yet on the number and type of American programs abroad. Ms. Green from the non-profit American Council on Education, says international programs can help a country build its educational infrastructure, especially those programs that give more people a chance to get university degrees. However, she says, such a project must offer financial assistance to less wealthy students, so that the collaborations do not just benefit the elite.

"One of the problems with offshore education is that it is geared to people who can pay. So, if you're Chinese or African, and you have money, and an institution comes in, you're going to pay tuition. It's not going to be free," Ms. Green says. "So, it creates some issues, not so much among countries, but I think on the population of the receiving country."

Ms. Green's group is working with international accreditation organizations to develop recommendations for how governments and universities engaging in research partnerships can improve monitoring and maintain high academic standards.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, President Charles Vest thinks that linking universities in a network of international collaborations could allow individual schools to become very good in particular fields. In turn, that increased specialization would require universities to cooperate more closely, leading to a tight community of global education.

"Eventually, what we will see is the evolution of a worldwide web of education," he says.