Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: international

May 18

Canadian B-Schools and Economic Growth

If there is one thing university Presidents desire, it is to be useful to society – and preferably to the government of the day, too.  After all, post-Humboldt, universities exist to strengthen the state.  The better a university does that, the more it will be appreciated and, hopefully, the better funded it will be.  So it has always struck me as a bit odd how little universities (an business schools in particular) have really done in order to help work on the causes of Canada’s perennially sluggish economy.

Canada’s fundamental economic problem is that outside the resource sector, companies struggle to reach scale.  Outside the oligopolistic telecoms and banking sectors, we are a nation of small and medium businesses.  Judging by the party manifestos in last year’s elections, many people like things that way.  Small businesses are good and deserving of lower tax rates, big businesses are bad and deserve to be taxed more heavily. 

The problem with this little story is that it is simply wrong.  Big businesses are crucial to innovation and hence to economic growth.  Big businesses are the ones that have the money to invest in R & D.  They are the ones that can make long-terms commitments to training employees (if you don’t think firm size plays a role in Germany’s ability to sustain its apprenticeship system, you aren’t paying attention). People may be rightly cautious about the power of capital and its influence on the political process; but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t encourage the formation of large companies in the first place.  Ask the Swedes: their social democracy would never have existed without very large companies like Volvo, Saab and Ikea.

And so the key question is: why don’t we have bigger domestic companies in Canada?  Oh sure, we have the occasional behemoth (i.e., Nortel, RIM) but we don’t seem to do it in a non-ephemeral way, or do it across the board.  And when our companies do start getting big, they often sell out to foreign companies.

We can point fingers in a whole bunch of directions – one favorite is a lack of appropriate venture capital.  But to a considerable degree, it’s a question of management.  Universities like to talk about how they are teaching entrepreneurship but getting people to start businesses and getting those businesses to grow are two very different propositions.  We seem not to have a lot of managers who can take companies from their first million in sales to their first ten million in sales, or to take our businesses out of the Canadian context and into a global one (if you haven’t yet read Andrea Mandel-Campbell’s Why Mexicans Don’t Drink Molson, on this subject, do – it’s revealing).   And for that matter, how is it that our venture capital industry still seems more comfortable with mining projects than life science or biotech?

Can it be – say it softly – a question of education?

We pretend that success in innovation is a function of prowess in tech.  But to a large degree, it’s a function of management prowess: how can staff be better motivated, how can processes be changed to add value, how well can business or investment opportunities be spotted.  Might it be that the education of our business elite doesn’t include the right training to do these things? 

To be clear here, I don’t really have any evidence about this one way or the other.  No one does.  But if I were a university president, or a business dean, it’s a question I’d be asking myself.  Because if there’s an economic conundrum that needs solving its this one, and if there’s any way in which universities can contribute, they should.

April 07

Innovation to Watch at the University of Sydney

Australian universities seem to do “Big Change” a lot better than universities elsewhere.  A few years ago, the University of Melbourne radically overhauled its entire curriculum in the space of about two years partly to create a more North American-like distinction between undergraduate and professional degrees and partly to reduce degree clutter by winnowing the number of different degrees from over a hundred to just six.  (For a refresher, I wrote about this back here).

If you read press reports about the University of Sydney’s new strategic plan (read the full document here,  it’s completely worth it) you might think Sydney is just aping Melbourne: it’s culling of degrees from 120 to 20, mostly by wiping out five-year “double degrees”, and also reducing the number of faculties from 16 to 6.

But the reduction in the number of degrees is actually a much less interesting story than what Sydney plans to do in terms of its curriculum.  From 2018, every program is to have two courses in third-year: one to integrate and apply disciplinary skills and another to apply disciplinary knowledge and skills in context.  Every degree will culminate in a final-year project or practicum.  Every program will have cultural competency embedded within it, and support for international studies will rise so that (hopefully) the proportion of students with an international experience will rise from 19% to 50%.  A strong framework to support career transitions will also be set up. Involving both curricular and co-curricular efforts

Here’s the most interesting bit: And an entirely new “open learning environment” will be created within the university, which will provide short, on-demand courses in areas such as entrepreneurship, ethics, project management, leadership (you know, all the employability-related skills universities usually claim students pick up by osmosis).  Some of these courses will be online, while some will be blended online/workshop; some will be non-credit and some will be small-credit. 

Did I mention they are going to develop a university-wide approach to measuring how desired graduate qualities such as disciplinary depth, interdisciplinary effectiveness, communication ability and cultural competence have been attained?  Yes, really.

What makes this kind of change deeply impressive – and potentially highly significant – is that it is not coming from a second-tier, ambitious institution trying to catch attention by doing something new.  This is the country’s oldest university.  This is a big, old prestigious institution taking big serious steps to actually change the undergraduate degree structure in order to provide students with better skills without sacrificing academic rigour.  It’s a research university that cares enough about undergraduate learning outcomes that it will measure them in some way beyond graduation rates and immediate employment rates. 

This is cutting edge stuff.  It may even be a world first.  We should all hope it is not the last; this kind of approach needs to spread quickly.

March 11

How Much is a Brand Worth? Evidence from Doha

The Washington Post had an absolutely fascinating article earlier this week regarding the sums that the Government of Qatar is paying various American universities to be part of its set up at Education City.

For those who are unfamiliar with Education City, a slight diversion.  About 15 years ago the Qatari royal family got frustrated with the state of local education and hit on the idea of creating a world-class educational facility by inviting top US universities to come in and each run one faculty.  So Virginia Commonwealth was invited to set up a visual arts school, Georgetown came in to run the school for the foreign service, Weill Cornell did the medical school, etc.  (Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, and Texas A&M also have campuses there).

Now this wasn’t your typical branch campus arrangement.  These institutions were not over there to make money by offering degrees for high prices.  Rather, the Qatari Royal Family was paying them big dollars to educate their students in situ (there’s a similar arrangement in place for the NYU and Sorbonne campuses in Abu Dhabi).  The universities themselves had nothing at risk: each one received its own gorgeous building fully paid for by the Qataris.

But nobody knew exactly how much they were getting until the WaPo article this week.  Using tax records, Department of Education data and freedom of information requests, the paper managed to lift the veil on the financial arrangements.  As it turns out, the Qataris are paying them, collectively, just under $405 million per year to operate their Doha campuses.  Weill Cornell rakes in the most (hey it’s a medical school) at $121.7 million, and Virginia Commonwealth the least at $41.8 million.

On their own, these are eye-watering figures.  But to truly get a sense of how insane this is, you have to look at what this translates to in per-student terms.  These are actually pretty small operations – according to the data I was able to piece together the six campuses collectively only educate about 2000 students.  So the actual expenditure per student is actually just over $205,000. 

Qatari Government Expenditure per Student, Education City Campuses

ottsyd 20160310 Doha Brand

In other words, these schools are making out like absolute bandits.  Free buildings, six figure per student incomes – this is heaven.  But the question really is what on earth possessed the Qataris to pay this kind of price?

It’s instructive here to look at what the Qataris are paying the College of the North Atlantic to run their community college a few kilometers away from Education City.  It’s the same deal – Qataris built the campus and pay an annual fee to CONA to run the place.  Details on the post-2013 CONA contract are scarce, but the first ten-year contract was worth $500 million so let’s just say it’s worth $50 million/year (the CONA Annual report gives figures in the $10-11M range, but I’m fairly sure that’s profit not operating).  But CONA educates more students than all the Education City campuses combined: with roughly 3000 in total – I make that out to be $16,500 or so per year – or about an eighth of what the cheapest institute at Education City is getting.

Now obviously, that’s not a bad deal for CONA (In comparison, the college receives about $84 mil in provincial grant in aid and tuition to educate its 8888 students in regular programming back in Newfoundland, which comes to about $9400/student), and obviously there are some differences in delivery costs for college and university programs, but they aren’t that big.  Georgetown’s campus is a pure social sciences operation, and at Canadian universities those rarely cost more than $15,000/student.  So where’s that extra money going?

Well, to student amenities, partly.  These places are like little educational wonderlands(check out Georgetown’s student life page).    But mostly, this is pure rent.  Unlike CONA, these American institutions have global prestige.  And that in a nutshell is what the Qataris are paying hundreds of millions a year for – the right to be associated with these institutions’ prestige.

That’s what brand is all about.  And apparently, it’s worth up to a couple of hundred thousand dollars per student.  Nice work if you can get it.

March 09

Better Know a Higher Education System: Jordan

I’ve had occasion recently to take a deeper look at higher education in a couple of Arab states, and one system I’ve found to be especially fascinating is that of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Jordan is a middle-income country (gdp/capita = $12,000 or so), but one with a lot of problems on its hands.  Not only is it dealing with a multi-million refugee flow from neighbouring Syria, it has also lost a huge amount of remittance income as low oil prices have hit the Gulf.  So there isn’t a lot of money for higher education: in fact, public expenditure on higher education is only about 0.3% of GDP, which makes it one of the lowest-spending governments in the world as far as higher education is concerned (the Gulf States are lower but they are spending off a much lower base and of course are only concerned with educating a small fraction of their population).

So you’d kind of expect higher education there to be a shambles.  Except it’s not.  It has participation rates that are right about average for a country at that level of development.  Compared to most OECD countries, it is heavy on science and technology programs – its distribution of students by field of study looks more like Korea or Germany than it does like Canada or France.  Among Arab countries it has a relatively high research profile and almost alone among countries with GDP/capita under $15,000, it places two universities in the Times Higher Education top 800 rankings.

How does it manage all this?  Simple: tuition fees.

All Jordanian student pay tuition.  Under the restrictive way students enter university, the students who do best on their high school exams get their pick of programs at the more prestigious public universities at below-cost rates (about US $1650).  Poorer performing students simply get assigned to wherever there is space.  If they don’t like it and want to study something else, they have to pay a higher price (often  around US $4000) at public universities, or they head to one of the private universities (between $4000 and $5000).  Add all this together and what you get is a country which devotes a little over 2% of GDP to higher education in the form of tuition fees.  That puts Jordan in some pretty rarified territory since only Chile and South Korea have ever hit this level (both are slightly lower than that today).  And in total it means that the tertiary ed sector in Jordan receives about as much in GDP terms as Canada’s does.

Total (Public & Private) Spending on Tertiary Institutions, as a Percentage of GDP, selected countries, 2011 or latest


Now, what’s a little odd about the Jordanian system is that it has achieved this while keeping the higher education system mostly in the hands of public universities.  There are private universities but they only educate about a quarter of all students – in both Chile and South Korea, private institutions educate about 80% of tertiary students.  So Jordan is somewhat sui generis as a developing country where public universities are essentially privately funded.

It’s also sui generis in that it has no functioning system of student aid beyond a few scattered scholarships.  All these costs are being borne directly by families, without the help of any student loan program or system of fee waivers for poorer Jordanians.  Although there are no studies on how this situation is affecting access to Jordanian universities, it’s reasonable to assume that the barrier is a pretty severe one and that the system as a whole would be much better off with a decent system of loans and grants.

But of course that would mean making new government investments in an area which allows the cost burden to be shifted but doesn’t directly help universities.  And universities keep clamouring for more money (as they usually do).  That may seem a bit ungrateful in a country which is among the world leaders in university income, but of course since they operate in an international environment, they are paying world prices for scientific equipment and libraries, and above-the-odds in local term for academics as well.  Simply put, 2.4% of GDP doesn’t go as far in Jordan as it does here.  And so they clamor for more.

Jordan’s going through a rough period right now and the likelihood of a lot more public money showing up anytime soon is pretty remote.  So development, if it occurs, is going to have to happen through judicious management of what effectively is a system entirely dependent on fee-paying students, just like South Africa and Chile did. 

It’s an experiment that bears watching.  And it’s another reminder that in some contexts at least, tuition fees are what create educational opportunities, not deter them.

March 04

A New Logo for Canadian Higher Education

Last week, the government of Canada announced to great fanfare (Hip Hip Hooray! Caloo Callay!) that Canada has a new international education brand.  They actually meant “logo” not “brand”, but whatever – long past due because the old logo was terrible.  To wit:













Ridiculous, right?  “Education in/au Canada”?  Most students who want to come study in Canada do so in order to improve their English, and Ottawa comes up with a logo that requires you to already be bilingual in order to understand it.  Mercy.

Now, here’s our new logo:











Um… OK.  That’s a little bit better, I guess.  But who in their right mind thinks the Canada word mark and the CMEC logo belong on this thing?  Are they worried that prospective students in Izmir, Lagos, or Dnepropetrovsk would think less of us as a study destination if those logos weren’t there?  That some eager would-be student from Togo would begin to get heart palpitations about the potential quality of higher education in Canada if the word mark wasn’t there?  That a potential Colombian graduate student would interpret the lack of a CMEC logo as evidence of a scam?

But if you really want to shake your head in despair, take a look at the Study in Canada website, which is probably even dumber than the old logo was – note that despite the big announcement, no one seems to have found the time to actually update the logo on the website.  Anyways, the website is a monstrosity.  Fifty per cent of it is blank space, and its overall web sensibility would have been considered primitive even back in the MySpace era.  Literally, the only thing you can say about it is that it meets official federal government web guidelines.

And this, in a very real sense, is the entire problem.  The logo, the website – pretty much everything about our  international education effort – is centred around what makes sense for governments and their bureaucracies.  It is not centred around students.  Go ahead, take a look at the Study in UK website, the Study in New Zealand website, the Study in Australia website, or even the German DAAD website.  Do you see a lot of white space?  In the case of DAAD – an organization partially funded by the Germans states (provinces), do you see any CMEC-equivalent logos cluttering up the visuals?

No?  Me neither.  Apparently, the awfulness of Canada’s efforts in this area are unique.  But as all those other efforts show, it doesn’t have to be this way.  We can do better.  It starts simply by asking: “are we doing this because it will make sense to students?  Or to governments?”

February 19

The Dollar Quandary

If you haven’t been hiding under a rock these last few months, you may have noticed that the US dollar is on a roll.  And it’s not just on a roll in Canada, where the price of oil has reduced the value of our own currency; since mid-2014, the US dollar is up over 20% against a trade-weighted basket of currencies. This creates some interesting conundrums and strategy options for pricing international education.

The change in the dollar’s status means that everyone’s price has been reduced vis-à-vis those at American universities. If you’re a university in, say, Sweden, it doesn’t matter much because practically all of your competitors are European. Basically: if your price isn’t changing relative to that of your main competitors, then the fall of the dollar is fairly meaningless.

However, if the fall in the value of your currency is greater than that of your competitors, then this does actually create some room to maneuver. I was in Russia last week, where the fall in the value of the rouble (76:1 USD, down from 37:1 USD at the end of 2014) means that their product is now much cheaper, relatively speaking, than that of their competitors, and that makes them a more attractive destination.  As a result, the Russians are now marketing themselves as a “bargain” product because, let’s face it, Russian universities have a brand image problem after the disasters of the 1990s. Their strategy is to go low price, high volume, and admit as many Asian and Latin American students as possible.

That’s one strategy. But there are others. If you are an Australian or a British university with a reasonable reputation, you might ask why you should keep your prices constant in local currency. If you think your main competitors for international students are American schools, you might also think it makes sense to take advantage of your lower currency, and increase prices a bit. It won’t necessarily hurt you with recruitment, and you can make a little bit of extra money in local currency terms. Basically, in these situations, universities have a choice between marketing themselves as a “bargain” institution (take advantage of low price to increase volume) or as a luxury institution (risk volume to increase price).

Now in Canada we have a somewhat different set of issues at play, for two reasons. First, we actually have a lot of American students, institutional pricing strategies need to take account of that market. Second of all, unlike European universities, Canadian schools can be very sure that US institutions are a major source of competition, and hence we have more scope to re-price based on currency changes. So here’s the question: should institutions take the “bargain” route and keep prices steady in local terms, or a “luxury” strategy that sees us raise prices, or perhaps even start charging in US dollars?

Essentially, this is the choice every institution needs to make over the next couple of months. I think there’s a pretty clear case for Toronto, UBC, and McGill to move to USD pricing, and keep last year’s fees constant in USD terms (that is, raise them by about 20% in $CDN terms). Will they lose some applicants? Probably. But they have the brand power to deal with that, and the students for which they are really competing are going to be paying more anyways to go to an American university. And the prize is a big whack of extra cash.

For everybody else, it’s a trickier proposition. Some institutions – particularly if they are experiencing recruitment shortfalls (say Trent, or any one of a dozen Atlantic universities) – will probably see more benefit in going the “bargain” route, and aggressively going after students looking for a “cheap” North American experience. Others – Windsor, perhaps – might decide to take that pitch directly to American students. The institutions with the trickiest task are the other U-15 universities. They might be tempted by the USD route, but may be unsure if they had the brand power to make it work. Expect a period of experimentation, not all of it successful.

In any case, for those interested in looking at price elasticity as a function of institutional prestige, the next couple of years promise to be quite interesting.

January 22

Higher Education in Developing Countries is Getting Harder

Here’s the thing about universities in developing countries: they were designed for a past age.  In Latin America, the dominant model was that of Napoleon’s Universite de France – a single university for an entire country, which was all the rage among progressives for the first half of the nineteenth century.  In Africa (and parts of Asia), it was a colonial model – whatever the University of London was doing in the late 1950s, that’s basically what universities (the bigger ones, anyway) in Anglophone Africa are set up to do now.  We think of universities as being about teaching and research; by and large, in the global south, universities were about training future governing elite and transmitting ideology.

Of course, for a long time now, governments and foreign donors have been trying to nudge institutions in the direction of modernization.  By and large, the preference seems to be something like a 1990s Anglo/American model: market-focused for undergraduate studies, more of an emphasis of knowledge creation, etc.   This has been a tough shift, and not just because of the usual academic foot-dragging.

The problems are manifold.  If you want research, you need PhDs.  In much of Africa and Latin America, less than half of full-time academics have them.  And because only PhDs can give PhDs that’s a pretty serious bottleneck.  A few years ago, South Africa announced that it wanted to triple the number of PhDs in the country.  Great, said the universities.  Who’s going to train them?

And of course you need money, but that’s in exceedingly short supply.  Money for equipment, for instance (quick, how many electron microscopes are there in sub-Saharan African universities?  Take out South Africa, and I’m pretty sure the answer is zero).  But also money for materials, dissemination, conferences, etc.  In some African flagship universities, close to 80% of money for research comes from foreign donors.  That money is welcome, of course, but it means your research programs are totally at the whim of changing fads in international aid programs.

As for being market-focused: how does that work in countries where 80% of the formal economy is dominated by government and parastatals?  What’s even the point of building up a good reputation for graduating employable students when public sector HR managers aren’t allowed to discriminate between universities when hiring?

Now, making things worse are some fairly worrying macro-economic trends.  Not the commodities collapse, thought that doesn’t help.  No, it’s the secular change in the way development is actually happening; specifically, that countries are starting to de-industrialize at ever lower levels of manufacturing intensity (a phenomenon that economist Dani Rodrik explains very well here).  To put it bluntly, countries are no longer going to be able to get rich through export-driven manufacturing.  There aren’t going to be any more Taiwans or Koreas.  In future, if countries are going to get rich, it’s going to be through some kind of services and knowledge-intensive products.

This, to put it mildly, places enormous pressure on countries to have institutions that are knowledge-intensive and market-oriented.  When human capital trained for services industries become the only route for development, universities become vital to national success in a way they simply are not in a society that already has a major manufacturing base.  Simply put, no good universities, no development.  And that’s a world first because the developed world – including China – got rich before it got good universities.  It’s simply an unprecedented position for higher education anywhere.

But it’s a job for which these universities are simply not ready.  In Africa at least, even when the nature of the challenge is fully understood, universities are neither funded nor staffed adequately for the task; not only are their own internal cultures insufficiently entrepreneurial, but also they simply lack entrepreneurial partners with whom to work on knowledge and commercialization projects.

Getting a whole new set of challenges when you’ve barely got to grips with the old ones is a tall order. It’s a structural issue that international development and co-operation agencies need to think about, and invest in more than they currently do.

January 15

Political/Economic Risk and International Student Recruitment

A couple of big events occurred internationally over the last few weeks, which will matter to folks in the international recruitment field.  Briefly, they are:

1) The Saudis are pulling back.  Things are moderately bad in the kingdom right now.  Their gambit of driving down the price of oil in order to run the American fracking industry out of business is not working as quickly as they hoped, and may have re-established an era of cheap, $50 (or sub-$50) oil for the foreseeable future. (And yet Jeff Rubin still gets paid to dispense expertise.  Life is not fair.)  Plus they’ve gotten themselves stuck in a costly war in Yemen.  Result: Government deficits running at 12% of GDP.

Now, this isn’t the end of the world because their sovereign wealth funds are sitting on roughly a gazillion dollars in assets, and they can draw those down for awhile.  But still, economies have to be made, and that’s a tricky business in a country where the social contract is that the al-Sauds pay for everything in return for everyone agreeing to let slide the fact that the al-Sauds own everything.  Put it this way: foreign scholarships aren’t top of the list for cutbacks, but they’re not at the bottom, either.

It seems the way this is going to play out is with typical Saudi opacity.  Very quietly, schools are being told they are no longer eligible to be in the program.  It seems to have little to do with quality of individual schools or programs – the entire Atlantic region suddenly got cut off last month.  How many schools will this eventually affect?  Too soon to tell.  But even top schools need to be looking towards 2020 (the program’s current end-date) and wondering what comes next.

2) Brazil is suddenly hostile to overseas education.  Go back a couple of years and everybody loved Brazil.  They were spending money like nobody’s business on foreign scholarships through their Science Without Borders Program.  But things have been going sideways for Brazil lately for reasons eloquently described in last week’s Economistand the repercussions are severe.

Back in September, the government imposed a 40% cut to the program, which basically meant they could not accept any new students.  Now, a new draft law has been put forward, which places a tax of between 5 and 33% on any tuition fees paid outside the country (and yes, that does sound difficult to police – I think it’s only going to apply to fees paid through an agency, but it’s hard to tell from the article).

Of course, stories like this always bring up the dreaded question: what if the China market tanks?  Regular readers will know I am skeptical about talk of any China “bubble” in higher education, let alone a pop: in my view, political risk will likely increase the short-term flow of students rather than decrease it.  So there’s no need to get too panicky.  But these events should remind people that a sustainable recruitment policy requires some geographic diversification.

June 03

International Speed-Dating in Boston

I spent part of last week at the National Association of Foreign Student Advisers (NAFSA) meeting in Boston. It was my first time at what is really quite an extraordinary event and I was pretty blown away by it all. If you want to understand all the glory and nuttiness that is higher education internationalization, I highly recommend a visit.

In theory, NAFSA is a traditional professional conference. And from a certain angle, it still resembles one, despite having 11,000 or so delegates. There are plenaries with big name speakers (e.g. Malcolm Gladwell), and there are a couple of hundred small conference sessions and panels. (I spoke at one of those, on the subject of rankings). But what tells you right away that you’re not in Kansas anymore is the floor show put on by the exhibitors.

I couldn’t tell you exactly how many exhibitors there were – my guess would be somewhere between 500 and 700 – but they came in all shapes and sizes. Recruiting agents were there, of course – some big, some small. Big vendors of services like language testing companies and pathways agencies. Individual educational institutions or – more often –booths for national agencies charged with promoting internationalization with lots of individual universities sheltering underneath the national banner. Plus there were a few little independent companies trying to drum up business for some occasionally quite oddball ideas. My favourite among those was a group which had somehow come into possession of some really quite stunning property in the Basque Country, and want to turn it into a kind of reverse-Minerva: people come from around the world while studying virtually elsewhere – the value-added being that the campus would provide ample support for experiential learning, and in particular applied research projects with local and international companies. As an idea, it’s just crazy enough that it might work if the right partnership arrangements can be made.

In fact the floor show is so overwhelming that it kind of overshadows the actual sessions. People simply wander around from booth to booth without ever making it to a session. Why would anyone do that, you ask? Well, this is the part that can make someone who views internationalization (among other things) with something of a skeptical eye a bit queasy. Obviously, all those booths are wonderful in the sense that they give you a sense of how many educational opportunities there really are in the world. But on the other hand, the economics of all this are quite puzzling. Remember, there are no actual students or parents – that is, people who might bring some kind of direct return on investment – seeing these booths. Mostly, the audience is other institutions. And so all that frenetic activity one sees o the floor is actually just a massive speed-dating event – institutional reps looking for other institutional reps with whom they can sign partnership agreements. That would of course be fine if partnership agreements actually meant anything. Problem is, most of the time they don’t: no one’s ever calculated the mode number of students coming to any institution via a given partnership agreement, but I’d lay serious money on that number being zero or one. Spending thousands of dollars on fees and sponsorship costs and hotels to do this is a bit weird, frankly.

And it’s not just individual institutions who seem to be spending over the odds for what they’re getting in return. Why are tiny Peruvian universities shelling out five figures to be platinum conference sponsors? Why was “Study in Turkey” one of the largest exhibitors (seriously, outside the Middle East, who wants to study abroad in an emerging authoritarian state)? There is an undercurrent of conspicuous consumption at the event, as if spending simply showing up here and making a spending a lot of money means you’ve arrived, internationalization-wise. The series of receptions and parties that surround the event reinforce that impression.

Put it this way: there’s lots of good stuff at NAFSA. There are plenty of excellent people to meet from around the world and you can see some of the most interesting aspects of internationalization in higher education as its being practiced around the world. But it’s also a schmooze-fest, with more than an occasional whiff of being a junket. Institutions wishing to attend or exhibit would be well advised to set some serious, meaningful goals for participation (preferably ones which do not prioritize signing yet more partnership agreements) in order to ensure value for money.

January 26

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, King of Saudi Arabia for the past ten years (after effectively being regent for the ten years before that, due to his brother King Fahd’s incapacitation from stroke), died last week.  There can have been very few individuals who have had a greater effect on their country’s system of higher education.

Perhaps his best-known initiative was the creation of his eponymous institution, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Opened in 2009 near Jeddah, KAUST made headlines because of its lavish construction and endowment ($20 billion worth – third in the world after Harvard and Yale) and its attempts to recruit star faculty from around the world.  KAUST to date hasn’t set the world on fire – for all the money on offer, there aren’t a lot of serious scientists interested in moving to Saudi Arabia, even if women are allowed to drive and be unveiled within the university’s heavily guarded compound – and there is some truth to the jibe that there are more buildings than professors.  But it’s early days yet, and KAUST remains an interesting strategy to try to build the elements of a knowledge economy to help the country eventually transition away from petroleum.

The outside world focused on the KAUST story because it was a big, single institution, a contained story that fit the money-to-burn Gulf Arab stereotype.  But Abdullah’s agenda wasn’t simply about KAUST.  Over the course of his (effective) 20-year reign, 36 new universities were built in Saudi Arabia.  Enrolment in universities rose nearly sixfold, from a little over 200,000 to 1,200,000, the majority of whom are women.  Gross enrolment rates went from 18 to 50.  Few countries anywhere can match that kind of record.  Perhaps even more significantly for the outside world was his creation of the King Abdullah Scholarship Program (KASP), which funded Saudis to get their education in the west, primarily the United States.  The Scholarship sends 125,000 students abroad every year at a cost of about $2 billion (Canadian universities collectively receive about 9% of those students).

With Abdullah’s death, many people wonder about the fate of KASP and KAUST: what will be their fate under King Salman?  My guess is that KAUST is considerably more vulnerable than KASP.  That may seem counterintuitive since the former has an endowment while the latter’s funding is recurring, but the politics are different.  KASP benefits a lot of middle-class Saudi families, there is much demand to go abroad for school, and in the wake of the Arab spring, Gulf monarchs tend not to cut back on popular subsidies.  KAUST may have its own massive endowment, but it still faces financial challenges if corporate donations slow.  Saudi Arabia doesn’t tax corporations, but companies that work there do get a lot of “suggestions” about what causes they should support, and in what amounts.  What causes get supported has a lot to do with the interests of whoever’s running the country; hence, a change of regime is likely to affect patterns of philanthropy.  Unlike KASP, KAUST is seen to benefit foreigners as much as it does Saudis and would therefore make an easier target.

How do we evaluate such a legacy?  The problem is that Saudi Arabia challenges many western notions about higher education.  Though we shrink from talking openly about universities’ “civilizing” function because it’s deeply uncool in a post-colonial world, the fact is most of us in the west still implicitly believe in that function.  Yet despite all these impressive increases in educational attainment – even western education – Saudi Arabia remains in our eyes a deeply uncivilized kind of place: the beheadings, the floggings, the misogyny all evoke notions of barbarity.  The spread of higher education in the country has done precious little to change that.  Whether that says more about Saudis or about higher education is an exercise for the reader.

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