But, just how significant is this for the international relations between nations?
It is widely acknowledged that higher education facilitates the movement of a large number of individuals (faculty, students, and staff) between nations and cultures. Indeed, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 3.7 million tertiary level students studied outside of their home country in 2009. Colleges and universities also provide important functions in terms of foreign-language acquisition, area studies, and intercultural appreciation.
Moreover, institutions of all types—public or private, for-profit or nonprofit, two-year or four-year, liberal-arts focused or research-oriented—have developed offshore presences. These include a range of foreign outposts such as branch campuses, research labs, and outreach offices in dozens of countries. Furthermore, an increasing number of colleges and universities are entering into relationships (e.g., dual degrees, joint degrees, collaborative research projects, consulting contracts, and others) with foreign higher-education institutions. These activities represent the creation of multinational educational enterprises and suggest colleges and universities to be international actors.
Moreover, it is not just that higher education increasingly transcends national borders; it is also the types of activities in which these institutions engage that can affect international relations. For example, we’ve written previously about the size and scope of international branch campuses (there are now about 200 operating globally). In addition to educating students, their service and research work may also support the development of other influential actors. For example, Northwestern University in Qatar works with Al Jazeera, the widely-watched Arabic news channel; and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar is charged with training international affairs specialists for the Arab Gulf region.
Colleges and universities also provide consultancies in the creation and evolution of foreign educational institutions. In the 1960s and 1970s, MIT helped to establish the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, India; the Birla Institute of Technology and Science in Pilania, India; and the Aryamehr University of Technology in Iran. More recently, Houston Community College has been contracted by the Qatar government to help establish the Community College of Qatar.
Institutions also operate teaching and research locations that serve to support ventures based at the home campus. For example, Michigan State University has created project offices in Burundi, China, Dubai, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, India, Tanzania, and Zambia to assist their faculty researchers in coordinating projects in foreign countries. Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation created its Studio X program. With architecture studios located in the heart of cities in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia, the Studio X program supports faculty and student engagement in some of the most rapidly developing metropolises in the world. Furthermore, MIT has offices in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America to help create internship opportunities for their students.
Clearly, some colleges and universities now have extensive international engagements. All of these activities and many more that we did not reference, help facilitate the creation of global connections between current and future institutional and government leaders. They are a source of new resources and financial investment for foreign nations, developed and developing. Their actions and activities can affect the perceptions of prospective and current students; and those students may eventual hold leadership positions in business, government, and civic society.
But, what does this all mean for the relationship between nations? Is there a role for higher education in diplomacy? Are colleges and universities legitimate sources of soft power? To what extent do international-education professionals recognize that their actions, positive and negative, can have lasting effects on their nation’s credibility? Are governments purposeful in using colleges and universities as instruments of public diplomacy? Should colleges and universities be concerned about the diplomatic implications of their actions?
The consensus from our meeting was that it is clear that higher-education institutions are now major actors in the international environments. It is time to accept this fact and begin the search for the answers to these questions. See also Oversight of Internationalization—Who’s Responsible, Building Capacity in India: What Role for Cross-Border Higher Education.