An increasingly global society underpinned by an interconnected economy has forced Purdue and other higher education institutions to consider the breadth of their international influence.
At Purdue, those considerations have resulted in cooperation with entities across the globe. In some cases, that means working with foreign companies to conduct research. And in some, it simply means study abroad locations are established.
Other times, the cooperation takes the form of consultation. As was the case with The American University of the Middle East, a university tucked just less than 2 miles from the coast of the Persian Gulf in the Dahar district of Kuwait.
Established in 2008, the university sought guidance from Purdue not long after its founding in areas such as the “design, implementation and assessment of its degree programs and curricula,” according to Purdue Managing Director for Global Partnerships Heidi Arola.
Regardless of the nature of a particular arrangement, Purdue and other universities usually stand to receive some level of financial incentive as part of the deal.
But Purdue's push across national borders represents just a small part of a widespread trend among universities across the world to expand their presences internationally, according to Penn State University professor Kevin Kinser, who specializes in the globalization of higher education and other education policies.
Benefits of global relationships
In the United States, that push is at least partially driven by the clear, monetary incentive, Kinser said. The need to seek out such funds can be traced back to the sluggish increase in federal funding for education.
Independently sourced sponsors are just one tool Purdue uses to ease that shortage, according to Arola.
“Public-private and international partnerships are increasingly important for Purdue in an environment of generally flat U.S. federal funding,” she wrote in an email. “Funding from private-sector sponsors over the last few years has been over one-quarter of the total awards, a very high percentage for universities.”
The effort also connects scholars from around the world.
Purdue professor of agricultural economics Ken Foster has been working with his academic colleagues in Colombia for approximately five years, tackling topics such as food security and sustainability. In that time, he’s seen the benefit of international cooperation firsthand, particularly when addressing problems with global implications.
“We all have unique perspectives and unique knowledge based on our geographies and experiences that we can share,” he said.
Types of relationships differ, however, depending on the focus of that particular institution.
“For a research university like Purdue, the idea of developing a teaching campus is not as attractive as it is to develop a research-based partnership that might facilitate other kinds of activities and provide a foothold in an important country that might might serve to benefit the institution more broadly,” Kinser said.
He warned, though, that the motives of some other countries might not be as altruistic.
Dark side of diplomacy in education?
Universities from Australia, Canada, the U.K. and France are all making similar moves. But countries like China and Russia, Kinser said, are using the trend to spread what amounts to propaganda along with their academic and cultural perspectives.
In the case of China, government-backed Confucius Institutes have been a point of controversy in recent years. Republican Senator Marco Rubio proposed in a March letter to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to limit federal funding to universities accepting money from the Chinese institution.
“When a college or university accepts a Confucius Institute, it should become ineligible for a proportional amount of federal funding,” he wrote.
Currently, universities receiving federal funding are only required to report foreign gifts that total at least $250,000. Legislation Rubio introduced with fellow Republican congressmen Tom Cotton and Joe Wilson would lower that threshold to $50,000.
A 2017 report from the National Association of Scholars placed some of the blame on the United States for allowing those tactics to gain traction. In the case of Chinese-backed Confucius Institutes, for instance, it found universities provided the institutes undue influence on campuses.
Though the authors hedged their findings on Confucius Institutes in the 183-page report, they said, “to a large extent, universities have made improper concessions that jeopardize academic freedom and institutional autonomy.”
Purdue is home to a Confucius Institute, but the Department of Education report listed no money from the institution that exceeded the $250,000 threshold. It is unclear if gifts below that amount were received.
The use of educational institutions as quasi-diplomatic arms is not isolated to those countries, Kinser noted. American universities, he said, often act in the same way, if only informally as their initiatives abroad are not orchestrated by the federal government.
“Our higher education institutions act fairly autonomously, but they do sort of represent the country that they’re from,” Kinser said. “So when an American university has a campus in the Middle East, that’s going to be seen as a representation of the United States and indicative of U.S. policies and procedures. It’s natural for that to occur.”
Qatar and other 'branch campuses'
Some universities have opted to establish independent campuses and degree programs abroad, often offering the same degrees available at its home campus. Kinser said branch campuses allow universities to widen their reach while theoretically exemplifying western academic ideals in places where they might not be traditionally held.
“(They) make it into an effort in engagement," he said.
It’s an opportunity, Kinser said, to showcase what an open educational model looks like.
Qatar, a country bordering Saudi Arabia, is a leading purveyor of American educational resources.
The Qatar Foundation, a nonprofit in the country with informal ties to the government, funded the creation of an entire locale, called Education City, to house branch campuses near Qatar’s capital, Doha. Well-respected institutions like Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Georgetown, Texas A&M and the Big Ten’s Northwestern are just some of the American universities that have set up shop in the education hub.
Purdue itself planned to establish an aviation management program in Qatar, but that arrangement fell through despite being approved by Purdue’s Board of Trustees as recently as 2014.
Elizabeth Barajas, global programs coordinator for the Polytechnic Institute, which led the negotiations for Purdue, said a change in leadership at the Qatar Foundation resulted in a change of foundation goals that did not include Purdue.
Georgetown’s branch campus in Education City represents just one of hundreds of the university’s international relationships. Those relationships, in general, act to advance Georgetown’s mission, its president, John J. DeGioia, wrote in a statement to The Exponent.
“As institutions dedicated to the creation and sharing of knowledge, universities bear a special responsibility to engage the forces of globalization to advance the betterment of humankind. At Georgetown we exercise this global responsibility in the formation of our students, the inquiry of our faculty, and service to the global common good.”
While its campus in Qatar was established in 2005, six years before the Department of Education report's first date, Georgetown received $291,998,901 from the Qatar Foundation over the seven-year period for which data is available. It should be noted that the report does not explicitly indicate from where the money comes.
Kinser estimated that global expansion of higher education began in its current form in the 1990s. The pace accelerated through the early 2000s but has since steadied.
The slow but steady growth of global partnerships, he said, likely isn’t slowing in the foreseeable future because a growing, global middle class continues to increase demand. And the ease of travel and communication is only making the arrangements more feasible.
“The justification for doing so has changed,” he said. “Early instances of it were people saw it as this as ‘Oh, look this great big new market and we’re going to make a lot of money.’ I think a lot of people have really matured about in their perspectives now and are being much more strategic about where they’re going, why they’re going and what they hope to get out of it."
And it’s not all about money.
“It’s not really about making money in sort of a direct way, at least for most of these (American) campuses,” Kinser said. “But it’s really a matter of saying, ‘Well, where are the important places that we think we need to be in order to be a global institution of higher education?”
Other countries, he added, are trying to ensure they grow their access to global markets.
Countries that might see increased attention in future years from foreign higher education institutions, he predicted, lie in central Asia, including Uzbekestan and Khazakstan.