Mark Hay. In mid-2006, the Emirate of Dubai broke ground on a new development located 12 miles outside of the city proper and cordoned off by a series of major roads. Dubai International Academic City, as developers dubbed the project, sought to establish a site in the emirate dedicated to the foundation and free operation of international university centers, branches, and satellites. Within less than six years, DIAC has grown from a few shovels in the ground to a massive complex of 27 universities, 26 of which are non-Emirati—six British, five American, and four Australian. In 2012, construction will cease at DIAC, already the center of study for 20,000 students from 137 nations (only a minority hail from Dubai). And by 2015, DIAC plans to accommodate 40,000 students while deepening and broadening its ties to international higher education.
But DIAC is not the only international academic hub in Dubai. Three years prior to DIAC, the emirate built Knowledge Village, which quickly reached capacity and necessitated rapid expansion. Projects of equal or greater scale are simultaneously under way in nearby Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Qatar. Singapore and Hong Kong are also proving to be hotbeds of international educational expansion.
Students at Columbia look to our Global Centers project and wonder at the enthusiasm with which we have erected seven centers—in Amman, Jordan; Beijing, China; Istanbul, Turkey; Mumbai, India; Nairobi, Kenya; Paris, France; and Santiago, Chile—from 2009 to the present day. (That’s not to mention a potential center in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and a scuttled center once intended for Kazakhstan.) Compared to our peers’ growth, however, Columbia’s has been mild. New York University famously opened a large “portal campus” in Abu Dhabi in 2010,but also operates 12 other centers (in Accra, Ghana; Berlin, Germany; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Florence, Italy; London, England; Madrid, Spain; Paris, France; Prague, Czech Republic; Shanghai, China; Sydney, Australia; Tel Aviv, Israel; and Washington, D.C.), and further expansion is planned for the future.
Columbia’s international expansion, and even the activities of host city Dubai, constitute just one placid chapter in a rapid churn of international higher education expansion by American, Australian, and British universities within the last 10 years. The expansion has been carried out suddenly and swiftly and has not yet been fully digested by academics, policy makers, or students. American universities explain the process through vague and mollifying rhetoric that relied on terms like “global citizenship” and images of utopian academic missions leading the charge toward a fully globalized, integrated world.
While there’s a strong flavor of truth to the rhetoric, international educational expansion is hardly the product of a benevolent global mindset. Yet neither is it a clever form of neocolonialism. Universities pursue this course out of a keen sense of business acumen and awareness of a changing educational economic landscape. They pursue it hotly, with little knowledge of how to go about it, flitting through starts and failures, taking large and small gambles on various forms of international campuses. But it is not irrationality that drives this mad rush. It is the knowledge, held by both universities and their host countries, that international education must flourish by some means, or else both partners face a future with few certainties. And those that do exist are grim.
A Brave Rhetoric for a Global Society

Despite the concentrated and far-reaching push for global education, one cannot easily tease out a single sound bite or causal link that sums up the phenomenon. Part of that fact is the result of an urge for differentiation among universities, with each branding its expansion efforts in separate terms. Michigan State University speaks of its expansion in terms of international centers, while NYU aims to create a cohesive “global network university,” and many British universities speak of branch campuses, satellite campuses, or other related but slightly different projects. With each name comes a slightly different rhetoric, spreading across a wide spectrum.
A reflection published at the end of 2010 by NYU President John Sexton best captures the rhetoric used to describe international educational expansion by American universities. The lengthy document mixes cultural critique, academic analysis, philosophical musing, and pragmatic reasoning into a colossal justification and explanation of NYU’s plans for rapid expansion.
In his opening, Sexton harks back to the Greek academy with references to Herodotus and the Nile, fitting the modern global expansion into a natural impetus of scholars and mankind to expand to new worlds and unravel the mysteries of the earth. He interprets universities as long-standing and latent transnational institutions, apt at bridging the gaps between worlds, although currently trapped and at least partly defined by the cities and cultures in which they reside. For Sexton, it thus becomes not just enjoyable and possible but logically necessary for universities to slip loose of their local bounds and take up their position as truly international institutions in an age of increasing globalization.
NYU Abu Dhabi spokesperson Josh Taylor echoes his president’s sentiments, claiming that “the architecture of the [Global] University incarnates in the free flow of its community, the free flow of ideas that has long characterized the academic disciplines and the advancement of thought.”
Columbia’s Vice President for the Office of Global Centers Kenneth Prewitt, describing our university’s distinct system, distances himself from the architecture, scale, and realization of NYU’s program. However, he still voices the same rhetoric in more staid terms. In one view, the University’s Global Centers are the natural and logical deepening and broadening of age-old partnerships between international institutions into more solid and perpetual relationships, linking a mutual but sporadic flow of information into a permanent and transnational link.
This talk of the natural academic pathway and impulse is firmly rooted in current realities. Alessia Lefebure, who teaches a class on Asian higher education policies and directs the Alliance Program, which links Columbia to top French universities, says universities recognize that training responsible citizens and leaders is part of their job. A big part of realizing that goal is the demand that students and academics engage with global issues and challenges. In increasing the size and mobility of the global elite and the chance that graduates will need global skill sets to engage in almost any college graduate occupations, globalization certainly directs the mission of the university.
Lefebure notes, however, that international expansion is not necessarily the most logical way to meet the need for global academic engagement. Universities could train faculty differently, teach differently, or develop stronger relationships with native institutions of education.
The focus on boots and bricks on the ground, on nameplates and foreign students receiving American degrees, does not arise as logically and naturally as Sexton might have one believe from the cognitive legacy of Herodotus. Universities choose global academic centers as a means of engaging with a new world and a new demand on higher education largely because they are a potentially smart and necessary business decision for universities operating in America, Australia, and Britain in the modern era.
The Win-Win Scenario

The age of global options and travel has measurably changed students in the Western world, according to Lefebure. Students want to travel and are increasingly choosing colleges based on their global reach. Not to mention the fact that nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development region are hemorrhaging domestic students, especially graduate students. According to Spencer Witte, an associate with Ishtirak, a Middle Eastern and African business consultancy with ties to Gulf State international education projects, Western nations see it as imperative to attract pools of talented students to their domestic universities, to snap up academic markets in nations with little tradition of local higher education, and to build a presence and identity as an international university.
Philip Altbach, the director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, simplifies the equation: Colleges choose to develop a physical presence abroad “to make money. That’s largely it.”
American, Australian, and British universities want to make sure that their enrollment numbers stay high and that they can continue to bring in students and tuition fees to help them expand and remain competitive with other institutions. Part of that competitive edge now involves making sure that one’s university has established global outposts and has a strong brand name around the world, attracting students, prestige, patronage, and wads of cash into the coffers of their institutions in the long run.
British universities embrace global expansion precisely for these reasons. According to Vanderbilt University Professor of International Education Policy Stephen Heyneman, local regulations and restrictions on tuition, enrollment, and other administrative matters within the nation’s borders drive British universities to take more risks and establish more aggressive presences in foreign nations to assure their continued economic viability, competitive brand, and top status by limited indicators.
Select foreign nations gladly embrace the profit- and security-seeking universities based in Anglo countries. “For each country there is a different reason,” Lefebure says. But “encouraging branches or other forms of presence is part of larger policies, not disconnected from the whole economic development of a city, country, region.”
Broadly speaking, cities like Singapore and those on the Chinese coast wish to move part of their economy to the knowledge sector by creating poles and cities that can become more attractive to economic investment. Attracting foreign universities allows for the development of local educated human capital, research and development, and attraction of families of high-skill individuals who will stay in and enrich the region. Foreign universities can develop faster and require less investment than the long process of developing local institutions and educational systems. Additionally, the matter of building a brand that businesses and students will trust is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.
It is better and easier for places like Dubai to draw in Anglo universities, which have the cachet of high international rankings, recognizable names, well-established educational models, and strong support networks for local centers and which use a generally accepted academic language—English—that allows Dubai and similar cities to attract students from expat, diaspora, international, and local populations. The centers ultimately provide students and funds to American universities and reap returns for the host in innovators who remain in the country, attractiveness to diversifying businesses, and strong connections to the resources of American universities. Thomas Trebat, executive director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia and a party involved in the development of our Rio de Janeiro center, claims this latter incentive is a large motivator for local actors supporting the center’s development.
Lefebure stresses that global educational hubs are a point of converging interests in complex systems. If, for instance, Singapore wishes to become a global economic hub, it must also become a global educational hub. Like Hong Kong, Singapore has less interest in research and development and thus eschews importing all the bricks and mortar, but it still reaches out to Yale, among other prestigious universities, to draw upon its name, educational model, and partnership to create institutions carrying Yale’s DNA, periodically examined and approved by Yale. Singapore gains legitimacy, an attractive educational model, and a strong selling point for its city, while Yale gains a strong brand in Singapore. Yale builds relationships that pour immediate money into its coffers while guaranteeing a familiarity in Singapore with its name and model of education and thus encouraging graduates and later undergraduates to direct their energies and applications toward Yale as opposed to Harvard or MIT. And those students Singapore loses to graduate school and the diaspora, it replaces by attracting students from Southeast Asia at large into its academic system. Singapore and Yale realize that their interests converge, strike up a deal, and benefit mutually.
This system carries risks and limitations. Take South Korea, which, Altbach and Lefebure note, has been trying to attract international educational expansion because of its economic benefit. However, many young Koreans go abroad for higher education, and they have developed a strong taste for “the real thing,” Altbach says. This creates less of a demand for a local equivalent of Yale or Columbia. Likewise, because American schools already have a strong tie to the academic market of Korea, the investment of time and money, even with sweet financial incentives from Seoul, does not make sense to American universities. Even in places such as India or Pakistan where the market of students seeking international education is larger, the corruption, fractiousness, or bureaucratic structure of local government makes it harder to accommodate international universities. In general, Heyneman says, it pays best when universities open small campuses that promote high specialization.
Universities usually only step in when they see the possibility of high enrollment at low costs, with heavy subsidies from the local government. NYU received $50 million up front for its Abu Dhabi campus and turned down Dubai when it could not front the money, according to Witte. Still, Altbach and Heyneman stress that the uncertainty and governments’ conflicting interests in international campuses make failure a real possibility. Even small projects with low costs, if they fail, can stain the brand names of universities. Hence, Heyneman explains that universities with less recognized names are willing to take greater risks than previously well-established schools like Harvard, which is secure enough in the strength of its name to attract money.
The international arena is littered with failed models that ought to give pause to universities with much to lose. Ben Wildavsky, a scholar of education policy at the Kauffman Foundation and author of The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World, stresses that no university has ever successfully globalized. There is no road map, and as such, there is no predictor for success, even when interests align and the arrangement promises economic success. But the needs of universities drive them to create dozens of models of international engagement. “We’re going to see lots of experimentation,” Wildavsky says. “We’re letting a thousand flowers bloom,” waiting to see which one will prove stable and profitable.
Michigan State University and the Failure of Brick and Mortar

In 2007, just after the birth of DIAC, officials from Dubai approached Michigan State University with an early offer for involvement. It seemed like a good idea: MSU has a strong tradition of international engagement but virtually no partnerships or research in the greater Middle East. But when the board of trustees signed off on the deal, they had little reason to suspect that MSU’s Dubai campus would turn out to be an utter disappointment, a financial drain, and, largely, an overall failure within three years.
MSU Dubai was not the first international university facility to close down, nor the most devastating closure. The failure of George Mason University in the Persian Gulf and Johns Hopkins University in Singapore were more damaging to the brand names of their institutions and more financially dire failures. However, MSU Dubai’s failure drew attention mainly because the university had chosen to pursue an old-fashioned brick-and-mortar project in the Emirates. The failure of this archetypal form of international expansion played a major part in the disenchantment of the concept of a “satellite” campus.
“Satellite campus” is a confusing term that does not accurately capture the early models of foreign engagement. This term often conjures the image of a carbon copy American university transplanted with full facilities and programs into a foreign nation. In truth, MSU’s model was not a mirror image of its American counterpart. Its administration consisted of one full time faculty member, its student body reached around 400, and it offered less than a tenth of the majors available at their East Lansing campus. This early model sought to copy as much of MSU as it could in a Dubai context. Many who study the phenomenon refer to such establishments as “brick and mortar” centers.
“We made the decision that we were not going to devalue the quality of our brand by diluting academic expectations,” says Eric Freedman, Michigan State University’s associate dean of international studies and programs. They required applicants to fill out the same form as if they were applying to the East Lansing campus, meet the same academic requirements, and undergo the same modes of instruction. The campus hired few local instructors, favoring the option of periodically flying out MSU academics from America. The Dubai campus also set its price tag close to American tuition, which made it more expensive than other American education in the region, including schools with stronger brand names—MSU wound up with a student body less than one-fourth the size it expected and was funding majors no one was pursuing. These shortcomings, exacerbated by the financial collapse and the failure of private construction firms to provide promised infrastructure, led to the center’s closure in 2010.
Freedman now admits that the MSU Dubai center in DIAC was not a sustainable or attractive model. But MSU did not totally pull out of Dubai. When Freedman’s office was given control of MSU’s operations, its masters programs still remained in the city.
MSU dropped all pretenses of copying its academic standards and campus model in Dubai by 2011. It shifted from a brick-and-mortar structure to a network structure based in Knowledge Village with less infrastructure, allowing the fluid establishment of programs that proved they had local demand and could sustain themselves. These programs gained access to students while making sure not to encounter significant risk or feed financially off of the central university. Although these programs became narrower and the model less a carbon copy of MSU, the programs achieved success by working with the local dictates of Dubai and its students’ demands.
The Success of Flexible, Situational Models

While the story of MSU in Dubai may make the International Academic City seem like an inhospitable location to foster growth, in the hands of the right model it has proven to be an ideal hosting facility. In fact, the first facility to establish a presence at DIAC is Heriot-Watt University, a medium-sized Scottish institution based in Edinburgh. Its model has not only proved successful at DIAC, but has become one of the most successful examples of international expansion in the world.
Heriot-Watt shared MSU’s background as a school with a strong international profile, although its initial reasons for entering Dubai were more pressing. The vice-principal of Heriot-Watt, Andrew Walker, says that because Britain places caps on tuition and growth in the United Kingdom, international expansion is the best way for them to grow overall. They already worked with approximately 50 learning partners—universities allowed to use the Heriot-Watt name and model and monitored for quality—incorporating some 10,000 students.
Its facility, also at DIAC, cut down on costs and instruction barriers by employing its own academic staff and handling its own infrastructure while maintaining strong communication with the Edinburgh staff. While Heriot-Watt wanted to maintain its educational quality, it did adjust its admissions process, tuition, and educational model to fit Dubai. Heriot-Watt created a measured education targeted at a small group of local Emiratis, a larger community of expats, and large communities of foreign students from protectionist educational environments like India. The university attracted 2,700 students in total, effectively selling to other Muslims the ability to get a Western education that acknowledges and refers to Muslim traditions.
This flexible, site-specific programming that focuses on the interests of students and host governments while maintaining a baseline of quality and continuity, allowed Heriot-Watt to develop a low-impact presence. Walker acknowledges that these regional accommodations mean that the global campuses are not totally academically free, but as an interconnected network, they retain their holistic academic integrity. Heriot-Watt’s model accomplishes all that international education seeks to accomplish in terms of expanding student pools and brand names while avoiding any harm or potential cost to the university. This type of limited-engagement, targeted, interconnected campus that stresses the ability to pursue research without imposing on or angering host nations has proven wildly successful for Heriot-Watt.
Success in Dubai has led to nuanced emulations (and independent recreations) of this networked-centers model. NYU’s Abu Dhabi portal campus represents a similar goal of targeted and limited engagement. It is able to justify its $50 million in infrastructure costs because of its grant from the local government. It contributes positively to brand growth, student growth, depth of research, and interconnection with centers tailored to local consumers all over the world.
Name-Plate Networks

American universities, though, do not face the same pressures in most cases as Heriot-Watt. The desire for a competitive international presence and access to the research and academic talent pools still drive these universities, but the risks of even minimal physical campuses with degree-granting capabilities like the current MSU incarnation or Heriot-Watt can seem too high for players with comparatively less to gain and more to lose in terms of their brand’s value. The trend in America, Witte observes, is moving away from any remains of the brick-and-mortar model and toward low-risk, lower-impact, low-footprint centers, typified by Columbia’s Global Centers.
“Columbia centers have no infrastructure other than a name,” Heyneman says, summarizing the Global Centers model succinctly. Although this is a bit of an overstatement, Columbia has indeed focused more on name building, research facilitation, and the creation of a network than on the building of physical structures that grant degrees. The Global Centers have grafted themselves onto pre-existing locations where Columbia research was already well established. Urban planning projects in Mumbai and the Reid Hall programs in Paris were both used as foundations for Global Centers. The university merely raised $250,000 to $1 million per center, usually from local donors (in Santiago, local businessmen paid for almost the entire center, while Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan heavily funded the center in Amman), to pay for minimal office space and administration to help strengthen local projects. “Very little of what the centers will do could not have been done without them,” Prewitt admits, “but maybe without the value added of a place to land in every world region,” which does ease and facilitate research.
Prewitt elaborates that Columbia’s idea is to establish a situation in which the university can strengthen its presence and that makes it easier to undertake research within different nations and in conjunction with foreign colleagues. This develops a network wherein limitations to the freedom of research in Amman will ideally lead to cooperation with Nairobi and Beijing to complete large-scale projects. Prewitt admits that the centers are a long way from that level of fluidity, but at the very least the centers allow Columbia to develop strong ties with local academic communities, giving access to education markets abroad.
A willingness to cooperate with local restrictions, as well as a low-impact model, allows Columbia to be involved in countries with less money to offset establishment costs or with more protectionist or hesitant governments. Columbia is embracing the open nature of its Global Centers, letting them develop as they may. As President Lee Bollinger once said, “Part of my whole theory here is, ‘Do not plan this—do not overplan this.’”
Columbia’s model represents the opposite impetus from MSU’s initial Dubai campus. Small and compact, appealing directly to brand growth and presence, the Global Centers can flourish almost anywhere. They are much less likely to be financially successful, but the damage if one fails and the risks tied to Columbia’s brand and position are much lower than even Heriot-Watt faces. It represents an increasingly favorable model for the economic concerns of big American universities.
What Campuses May Come

Everyone interviewed for this piece agrees that no one can know what the future holds for international educational expansion. Some believe we will know which models work best within five years, and others believe it will take 25. But, as Wildavsky stresses, the modern era is one of experimentation and risk taking. Universities will continue to develop new models of their own, differentiating themselves from their peers while reacting to the successes and failures they witness.
Thus far, Witte believes, universities have learned a few basic lessons from pre-existing models: Almost every model now focuses on thoroughly vetting potential partners. Anglo universities check to see if the nations they choose have the funds to facilitate their model, the leeway and freedoms to establish the brand the university desires, and the ability to attract the student population universities need. Whether in the form of Heriot-Watt-style networks or Columbia’s minimalist centers, the trend favors tailored and small institutions.
However, even this model remains uncertain. “I think this is a bit of a bubble,” Altbach says of the massive expansion of universities abroad. Someday that bubble may pop and destroy dozens of the hundreds of models acting and reacting abroad. Even then, if MSU’s failure is any indication, universities will simply rebound and reinvent their models. They have to, Witte says. Some just need to stay on top. For others, building a competitive brand and presence abroad is a matter of survival for the institution as a whole.