The following blog post provides a brief overview of what American higher education branch campuses offer to Gulf states. It also touches on some of the challenges these branch campuses face on issues such as gender and academic freedom. This post is intended to provide a broad introduction to the topic and serve as a basis for further exploration and consideration.
As they start moving away from oil dependency and begin preparing for necessary economic diversification, Gulf Cooperation Council states are making massive investments in developing a more educated workforce – moving quietly, yet steadily, toward educational reform. Among the most important of these academic investments is the importation of branches of Western, particularly American, higher educational institutions. Western education offers critical thinking skills, freedom of thought, and an emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) disciplines, that are intended to equip Gulf students with the skills and training to be competitive in a globalized world economy. American branch campuses in the GCC face significant academic, political, social, and cultural challenges. How does a Western institution “branch out” in an environment where some of its core values are not customary?
Among the key factors contributing to the rise of these branch campuses are financial gains, academic prestige, expanding international collaboration, and cultural awareness. Currently, there are 232 branch campuses in operation worldwide. The largest host countries are the United Arab Emirates, China, Singapore, and Qatar, while the largest source countries are the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Some of the American branch campuses in the UAE are NYU Abu Dhabi, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Hult International Business School. Qatar has also become an educational hub with its Education City, which houses six American universities including Texas A&M, Northwestern, Virginia Commonwealth University, Georgetown, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Carnegie Mellon University. Other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait, host branch campuses from other Western countries such as Canada, Australia, Germany, and Ireland.
Education City in Qatar and the UAE’s Knowledge Village and Academic City have emerged as leading examples of this process. The idea behind Education City was to create an educational hub for research, investments, and development. The project was established in 1995 by the government’s Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development. The project is seeking to influence and encourage other local universities, ministerial schools, and institutions to transform their curricula and approaches to teaching.
In branch campuses, typically student enrollments are not nearly as high as in home institutions, with entire student bodies smaller than freshman classes at home campuses. NYUAD estimates total student enrollment for the 2015-16 academic year at 880 students, compared to just the freshmen enrollment of 5,917 at NYU’s home campus. VCUQatar reports that 323 students are enrolled in total, while at VCU’s home campus in Richmond, Virginia there are 4,090 freshmen enrolled. Branch campuses aim to provide quality education to the local population and diverse student body. The 10 most represented countries in NYUAD’s student body, for example, are Egypt, Jordan, India, Pakistan, Nepal, South Korea, Japan, Hungary, and the United States.
Even though these institutions promote themselves through catchy phrases such as “world class” facilities, “top ranking” programs, and “global universities” to lure administrators, students, and professors to the region, there are numerous challenges in maintaining high academic standards and values. It is difficult for branch campuses to maintain academic standards because they have to select from a smaller applicant pool often emerging from less rigorous secondary education. Public schools in the GCC have traditionally relied on rote memorization instead of developing critical thinking skills for their students. In an academic setting, these techniques tend to hinder students. The academic standards that branch campuses bring to the region have prompted a growing range of reforms in the local K-12 education systems that promote critical thinking so that students can compete in these higher education environments. Because branch campuses are trying to maintain high academic standards, the pressure, at least in theory, is on the local population and school systems to meet these growing demands. In The New York Times, Leila Hoteit, a research analyst at Booz & Co., said “these universities insist on keeping the student recruitment standards high and may open a foundation or bridge program for nationals who don’t meet requirements, without quotas. These bridge programs are not a long-term solution, and many universities have noted that even an effective full-year program will not be able to address fully the gaps left by below-par K-12 education.” The Academic Bridge Program founded by the Qatar Foundation teaches students core subjects such as math and English along with the analytical skills necessary for academic achievement.
In contrast to the gendered-segregated structure in Qatar’s public schools, courses offered at Education City campuses are taught in coeducational classrooms. Varying cultural sensitivities are significant. Education City might be the first place where a student interacts with classmates of the opposite sex, coming from different countries, religions, and backgrounds. Women have benefited the most from these changes, with United Nations Development Program and U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization reports estimating that Qatari women now outnumber men five to two in higher education enrollment. This phenomenon is occurring across the GCC, with women increasingly outnumbering men in higher education. At NYUAD, approximately 55 percent of the student body consists of women, while men account for only 45 percent.
The education of women is widely seen as a positive indicator for social, political, and economic development. However, the impact of this educational disparity raises some troubling questions about the role of men in the labor force and broader society. Instead of correcting the gender divide in education, data suggests that it is reversing, with men increasingly less educated than women in some Gulf countries. If that trend continues, it raises new and significant questions regarding gender roles in the workplace, home, and family.
Academic freedom is another major challenge facing branch campuses. These principles, and the tenure system that defines them, are aimed at protecting and advancing the autonomy and quality of teaching, learning, and research. But they are contested in an array of contexts at branch campuses. Academic freedom was developed in, and poses little threat to, Western democratic societies. In countries with other social and political structures it doesn’t fit as well with cultural norms. NYUAD came under fire in 2015 for problems related to academic freedom. NYU Professor Andrew Ross was barred from traveling to the UAE after his criticism regarding the exploitation of migrant workers. According to Marjorie Heins, who serves on the academic freedom and tenure committee of the American Association of University Professors and was formerly an NYU adjunct professor, “The lack of respect for freedom of speech [demonstrated in this case] permeates the entire enterprise.” Is academic freedom truly guaranteed, or even really implementable, on branch campuses in nondemocratic societies? Can every value, mission, and objective of the home campus be replicated in the branch campus?
A former administrator in Education City explained that at Gulf branch campuses it is unrealistic at this point to expect full, unfettered academic freedom. However, he is optimistic that Gulf states will develop viable standards of academic freedom over time. Nonetheless, he believes that, given forms of governance in the Gulf that generally foster self-censorship, a lack of openness to full academic expression will persist. Although many branch campus faculty members are tenured, this broader environment limits the opportunities for cutting edge research and inquiry.
A current NYUAD student offered a different perspective on the question of academic freedom. He noted he has been pleasantly surprised at the wide range of autonomy students and professors are given in researching, presenting, teaching, and discussing controversial topics at Gulf branch campuses. He said these academics have “pushed plenty of envelopes” through bold conversations on controversial topics such as labor and human rights, and even on issues regarding sexual orientation. He has experienced and witnessed few restrictions, but cites an interplay of cultural and political norms that contribute to a complex reality involving academic freedom in these countries. From his perspective, if academics, researchers, and administrators work within the context of the local system, they will find significant space for intellectual engagement, and be able to avoid segregating themselves from their international colleagues and disciplines.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is limited reporting on academic freedom in the GCC. Some important stories have centered on the denial of entry visas to controversial scholars or the implications of some academics criticizing governments, but this provides only a glimpse into the limitations of academic freedom at these branch campuses. It is unclear to what extent Gulf academics are free to seriously pursue Western standards of academic freedom or whether this goal remains aspirational.
Western campuses cannot be easily – or perhaps conceivably – replicated in a non-Western host country. Indeed, simple replication shouldn’t be the goal. These institutions ought to develop to meet the demands of the local population. At the same time, they must also deal with tensions that can arise when social and cultural differences clash with academic standards and values. Much can be done, however, to enhance and facilitate the development of these branch campuses. Critical thinking should be incorporated and integrated into local K-12 school curricula at an early age so that students are encouraged to develop analytical capabilities. Branch campuses have much to offer GCC states as they transition toward more diversified economies based not simply on energy, but on knowledge and a more skilled workforce. However, to maximize their impact, Gulf societies must develop in ways that will promote educational excellence.