Drive down Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s main thoroughfare, and you’ll pass the world’s only seven-star hotel, its tallest building and its largest man-made resort island. But head off into the desert and you’ll hit a modest-looking set of office buildings and construction cranes that promise to be just as superlative. This is the site of Dubai International Academic City: the future home of a Michigan State University campus and the center of the local effort to make the emirate into a new global hot spot for higher education. “There is a war out there for talent,” says Abdulla al-Karam, director-general of Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority, “and we’re not going to let everyone else take the best.”
Dubai, along with its neighbors, is leading a rush of countries trying to erode the dominance of Harvard, Yale and a handful of other, mainly American or British, schools. As of 2005 (the last year for which numbers are available) there were about 138 million students worldwide seeking university degrees, according to UNESCO—up 40 percent in seven years, reports the London-based Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. Traditional academic destinations—English-speaking countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia—are finding it harder and harder to meet that demand. Post-9/11 U.S. visa complications have also helped create a massive pool of international students looking for new places to learn. According to the Washington-based Association of International Educators, the market of postsecondary students studying outside their home countries grew 49 percent between 1999 and 2004, even as foreign enrollments in U.S. schools increased only 10 percent. That’s created an enormous opportunity that will only grow, as the number of students seeking education abroad triples by 2025 to 7.2 million, as the Australian testing company IDP Education projects.
Many countries are eager to pick up the slack, and these efforts stand to permanently redraw the global education map. Traditional Western powerhouses seem likely to remain strong, but new centers in the Persian Gulf, China, Singapore and elsewhere are coming on fast. And those that can’t adapt are quickly falling behind as schools elsewhere embark on bold new projects to increase their competitiveness, hire U.S.-trained administrators (they’re the best at fund-raising) , launch massive capital campaigns and put more and more courses online.
Although New Haven and London won’t soon be replaced by Shanghai or Seoul, they have started to feel the heat. “We [in America] are already looking over shoulders,” says Philip Altbach, director of the Boston-based Center for International Higher Education. “Academic leaders are already saying that if we don’t keep up, we’ll be overtaken … The U.S. still has a significant lead, but imagine if we had this discussion 40 years ago about the U.S. auto industry.”
Consider China, which is leading its neighbors in the race to become an international education center. In the last six years, China has more than tripled the number of foreign students it hosts by investing heavily in its universities—including pouring more than $4 billion into its top research schools. The country has also opened its doors to international partnerships, with over 700 foreign academic programs operating in China as of 2006, according to the World Bank. Hong Kong is making a particularly strong push, increasing its cap on foreign students, offering generous scholarships and loosening employment restrictions.
Other Asian states are following China’s lead, though with more mixed results. Singapore has managed to more than triple its foreign enrollments in the past five years (making international students 13 percent of its student bodies) by partnering with top Western institutions like the University of Chicago and INSEAD, the French business school, and the government hopes to attract an additional 150,000 foreign students to the country by 2015. But the high-profile closing of a number of foreign programs there due to financial concerns and complaints about academic freedom has lately raised questions about Singapore’s long-term potential.
South Korea, for its part, has upped its higher-education spending to 2.6 percent of its GDP—a level second only to the United States’, and more than twice the Western average. Seoul is pumping more than $2 billion over the next five years into research programs at existing universities and is building a 20,000-hectare business and education zone that has already attracted schools like the State University of New York at Stony Brook and North Carolina State University. Still, despite its massive outlay, just 22,000 foreign students enrolled in South Korea in 2006 (compared to more than 66,000 in Singapore) , and 218,000 Koreans opted to study abroad. The country has also struggled to attract Western professors.
Most analysts agree that the region with the best shot at truly threatening the West is the oil-rich Persian Gulf. “The gulf is definitely the buzzword of the moment,” says Veronica Lasanowski, the author of a recent report on student mobility for the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. The tens of billions of dollars in government money being spent on education projects there dwarfs the investment in any of the other educational centers. Enormously wealthy and relatively stable, Dubai and its neighbors have already dethroned cities like Cairo, Baghdad and Beirut, creating one of the more bitter internecine rivalries within the larger global education race (following story).
Together, the emirates have devoted more than $20 billion to cultural and educational projects. Symposiums, independent media, art shows, book fairs, film festivals and other hallmarks of intellectual life are now regular features in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, transforming the gulf coast into what Daniel Balland, director-general of the Sorbonne’s Abu Dhabi campus, describes as “a modern-day Andalusia”—a reference to the great intellectual center in southern Spain that flourished 1,000 years ago through the interaction of Western and Islamic culture.
A bottomless reserve of oil wealth is helping woo prestigious universities to the region. Qatar began the trend by persuading top-tier American schools such as Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, Texas A&M and Northwestern to open branches in the sprawling Education City complex. Not to be outdone, Abu Dhabi has already opened a complete new campus for the Sorbonne and plans to open one for NYU in the fall; ambitious joint projects with INSEAD, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins are also in the works. Dubai, meanwhile, has partnered with Harvard, the London Business School and Boston University, as well as building the new Michigan State campus. “Others may have the vision, but they don’t have the resources” for such projects, says Zaki Nusseibeh, vice chair of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage and a member of the Sorbonne-Abu Dhabi’s board of trustees. “We can do it.”
Indeed, the existing partnerships represent just the tip of the iceberg. Since last year, Qatar, with a population of less than a million, has begun spending $1.5 billion a year on scientific education and research. Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, recently started a $10 billion foundation—in one of the largest charitable donations in history —to “develop world-class knowledge” in the region. His emirate, along with Abu Dhabi and Qatar, is building multibillion-dollar science and technology parks to jump-start research efforts. Abu Dhabi is also pouring millions of dollars into an ambitious book-publishing project, hoping to almost triple the number of books published in Arabic every year—from about 300 to about 800—and translating up to 500 books annually, starting with authors like Milton Friedman, Stephen Hawking and, perhaps most surprisingly, Isaac Bashevis Singer.
While the sheer magnitude of academic spending makes the gulf impossible to ignore, this investment is just one factor shifting the intellectual landscape of the Middle East. Violence and instability have largely spared this corner of the region. And the benevolent and forward-looking leaders of countries like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates stand in sharp contrast to the autocrats who rule Egypt and Syria. Though the gulf states each have their own peculiarities, the emirates generally permit broad freedoms of speech and expression—especially when compared with neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which still practice draconian censorship. The emirates’ governments also afford great social liberties to foreigners, with hardly any legal restrictions on dress, alcohol or gender roles.
Other initiatives are also helping. The heavy investments many of these states have made in airlines and hotels have made them unusually accessible. Visa restrictions (for everyone but Israelis) are among the most liberal in the world, and places like Dubai even offer “smart cards” to regular visitors, allowing them to pass effortlessly through “eGates” without showing a passport. This ease of travel has made conferences like last year’s Festival of Thinkers in Abu Dhabi—which brought together 16 Nobel Prize winners and more than 160 intellectuals from around the world—an almost daily affair in the gulf. Last year 140 conferences took place in Qatar alone.
The ethnic and national diversity now found in the gulf has also helped attract American universities. “You can find people from South Asia, the Far East, Africa, Europe and the whole Middle East [there],” says Hilary Ballon, a former Columbia art history professor recently appointed an associate vice chancellor of New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus. “That kind of cosmopolitan intersection is what drew NYU to the gulf, and it will be a great stimulus to intellectual growth.”
The gulf model has drawbacks, of course, and there’s no guarantee that what works in America will work there. A good school does not just “borrow a curriculum or a few teachers from another prestigious university,” says Mourad Ezzine, a Middle East specialist for the World Bank who oversaw its recent report on Arab education. With a limited pool of high-caliber students, he warns, the region may run into difficulty. Mary Ann Tetreault, who taught at many of the gulf’s new schools on a Fulbright scholarship, says she could offer only “light versions” of her international-affairs courses, and warns that U.S. schools are “putting in programs that [local] kids can’t succeed at” due to “basic skill issues,” including limited math and science training and poor study habits.
None of those issues is unique to the gulf, however, or is likely to slow its push into higher education.
And there are signs that the boom will benefit everyone. “There are more people around the world in universities today than probably went to university in all of human history combined,” says Allan Goodman, president of the New York-based Institute of International Education. “These new places will be competing with America for the best and the brightest, but there are a lot more best and brightest out there.” In other words, competition may be growing—but the world is growing even faster.