Do foreign universities just serve the global elite?
It is not just an American question, although most non-American universities have settled on being in their cities, like the German University in Cairo, while international branch campuses often duck the issue, using a space (NYU Abu Dhabi), colon (Northwestern University: Qatar campus) or an entirely different preposition (Texas A&M University at Qatar).
Beneath the light-hearted terminological dispute is a serious question: what is the place of universities with such explicit international affiliations in the Arab world today?
Where they come from
The oldest of these institutions reflects a missionary impulse: the American University of Beirut began in 1866 as the Syrian Protestant College. Before it was established in 1919, the trustees of the American University in Cairo, or AUC, briefly called it Cairo Christian University. By the time AUC opened, however, the explicitly religious purpose of these universities was already giving way to a secular, if paternalistic, commitment to promoting education for moral character and enlightened citizenship.
The middle of the 20th century saw the establishment of national universities across the Arab world to produce the administrative cadres of new and ambitious states. Private tertiary education was virtually unknown except in Lebanon, and free public higher education became a pillar of the developmental states of the region.
Like the states themselves, however, government universities soon grew inefficient, underfunded and ineffective, failing to meet the needs of the fast growing population. (Ultimately, youth unemployment would be higher in the Arab states than anywhere else in the world, estimated today at more than 30%.)
Private higher education
In confronting this challenge, as in so much else, governments in the region turned to the private sector: 70% of the approximately 600 universities in the region today were established after 1990, and about 40% of those are private, accounting for about 30% of the region’s university enrolments.
And, in the era of neoliberal globalisation, the private sector turned to the world. Thus, many of the private universities in the Arab world advertise themselves as attached to, modelled on, or otherwise associated with international establishments.
In the United Arab Emirates alone, there are nearly 40 institutions that bear names that are identifiably American, European or Australian. Some are cleverly marketed vocational schools and training institutes, but a substantial number are genuine efforts to provide a reasonably good undergraduate education, often drawing on the American liberal arts tradition.
Some aspire to support serious graduate and research programmes, as their efforts to win international – often American – accreditation attests.
Similarly, the establishment of branch campuses, particularly in the Gulf – from the outposts of Carnegie Mellon University’s engineering programmes and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar’s Education City, to New York University’s branch campus in Abu Dhabi, for example – and ambitious initiatives like Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology seem to be promising signs of investment in bringing international faculty, curricula, pedagogy and governance practices to education and research in the region.
What they do
Yet, the extent to which these universities could play the catalytic role envisioned for them was always an open question. Obviously, they will never meet the regional demand for literally millions of new university places. Yet, as models for local universities, whether public or private, they often represent technology transfer at its most inauspicious since the barriers to widespread adoption of the purposes, policies, practices and products of these universities are virtually insurmountable.
To start with, the language of instruction in international universities (even the region’s German universities) is English, which both ensures they can recruit distinguished international faculty and restricts their local student applicant pool dramatically. These international faculty, whose reputations rest on the assessments of academic peers around the world, naturally publish their research in English, limiting its exposure in the region.
They strive to meet the specialised standards of their disciplines and fields, selecting research questions and methods with an eye toward academic tastes and techniques, as measured in all-important citation indexes and impact factors, rather than harder-to-measure social value or public consequence.
The universities in turn reward these well-published faculty because their work contributes to raising institutional rankings – and high rankings draw funding, applications, government approvals and international esteem. In the self-contained system of global higher education, it all makes sense.
What they do not do
But from the regional perspective, this also means a chasm between the international institutions introduced to improve higher education in the Arab world and the societies they were supposed to benefit.
In fact, the audience for these universities – their applicants, the visitors to their on-campus art exhibitions and musical performances, the employers of their graduates, their alumni and donors – is a cosmopolitan elite quite distant from the communities outside their walls, more comfortable in New York or London than downtown Cairo or suburban Beirut.
Indeed, because they are often intended to anchor new development – technology hubs, new residential areas, cultural centres – some of these university campuses are closer to the nearest international airport than they are to the urban centres whose names they bear.
And, today, this isolation is exacerbated by the collapse of the popular uprisings of 2011 throughout the Arab world in brutal restorations and vicious civil wars. After all, few host governments want their foreign guests in harm’s way, while among the universities themselves there is little appetite for risk-taking.
Thus, from Cairo to Beirut, Doha to Dubai, universities increasingly look past the region to a global horizon that seems both more promising and less perilous.
Some of the long-established institutions still note their regional foundations: the American University of Beirut declares among its purposes “to serve the peoples of the Middle East and beyond”. The American University in Cairo is “dedicated to making significant contributions to Egypt and the international community[…]”. The American University of Sharjah, one of the Emirates’ oldest international universities, is “grounded in the culture of the Gulf region”.
But many others are far less securely anchored in their locale. The American University of Iraq prepares its students for “a modern, pluralistic society and a global environment”. NYU Abu Dhabi equips its students “for the challenges and opportunities of our interconnected world”. The American University of Kuwait simply “enriches society”.
There is much to be said for providing the best possible education for the global elite to whom we entrust our future. But, as our bewilderment about the Arab world today suggests, that education will be incomplete if it is not grounded in – or born of, or even aimed at – the cities and communities where its institutions are located.
Lisa Anderson is former president of the American University in Cairo and senior research fellow at New York University Abu Dhabi. E-mail: email@example.com. This article was first published in the current edition of International Higher Education.