Sowing Seeds

The campus architecture suggests Arabia, and the surrounding sands stretch to the horizon. But for 350 students, this is a tiny patch of Scotland in the Dubai desert. They'll receive their degrees from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, educated largely by a faculty who speak in British accents. "Our university was created to serve a developing country--Scotland--180 years ago," says Brian Smart, the Scottish professor who heads the local faculty. "We thought, 'Let's take the same model and plug it into other countries around the world'."

These days that's hardly an original thought. With backing from the Dubai government, a cluster of overseas colleges--from India's Mahatma Gandhi University to the St. Petersburg State University of Engineering and Economics--have set up outposts here in the Knowledge Village since it opened in 2002. Nor is Dubai the lone gulf state pursuing a role as an academic hub. Local students looking for a U.S. education can train at Cornell's medical school or Georgetown's school of foreign service, both in Qatar's Education City. Indeed, the trend is global: Britain's Nottingham University has a branch near Shanghai, the Rochester Institute of Technology has one beside the Mediterranean in Croatia, and Australia's Monash University has one in Malaysia.

Forget the days when a coveted foreign degree meant costly travel and a few years away from home. Today it's often the institution--not the student--that moves. Since 2000, the number of branch campuses worldwide has roughly doubled to about 80, as more colleges tap into the growing demand for a prestigious Western education; foreign satellite campuses have become a small but fast-growing segment of the $30 billion international-education industry. America still dominates this market, but other providers--notably the British and the Australians--are pushing in. All are realizing that it makes sense for universities to invest in bricks-and-mortar facilities close to the richest markets, namely in Asia and the Middle East. Says Line Verbik of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a London-based research group that monitors education trends: "What we are seeing is a really big increase both in the number and diversity of players."

And this is a game in which all players can win. Students receive a high-prestige education for maybe half the cost of going to Europe or North America. Rapidly growing economies like India and China get top-rated schools to plug the gaps in their own educational systems. Countries looking to a future without oil or natural gas get a few big-name foreign universities--and the research facilities that accompany them--to help build a knowledge-based economy that won't depend on finite natural resources. Small wonder, then, that aspiring nations now vie to attract the right foreign schools. Inducements can be lavish. Qatar, for example, pays not only for the shiny new buildings but also for staff bonuses. Governments know that the best colleges bring the best recruits, including those from neighboring states, whose tuition contributes to the economy. By 2012, for example, Singapore hopes to pull in 150,000 outside students--three times the 2002 total. The bait: a list of branch campuses from world-renowned schools ranging from the French-based business school Insead to the Technical University of Munich and MIT.

For their part, the incoming institutions get the chance to internationalize their reputations and build a global brand. "Sitting here in the United States, we see the world changing and evolving, with economic development moving to the Pacific, and we would like to be part of that world," says Mark Kamlet, provost of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, which has a second base in Qatar. A stint overseas gives the teaching staff a broader international perspective as well as the chance to scout for possible postgraduate talent, while home students welcome the possibility of study overseas at a familiar institution.

A well-run college can also make a handy ambassador in corners of the world where the West is suspect. "This is a good way for the United States to represent itself overseas, particularly in Arab countries where in the past most of the trade has been in guns and oil," says Antonio Gotto, dean of Weill Cornell Medical College, which opened its Qatar campus in 2003. The school now attracts students--70 percent women--from across the Middle East including Syria, the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Iran.

To be sure, managing cross-cultural relations can be tricky. When money is involved, host nations want returns. Only last month, Singapore announced it was cutting off funds to a biomedical-research facility from Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University, claiming that it had failed to meet performance targets. "We cannot justify the continuation of public funding for a collaboration that has failed to yield results for Singapore," said Andre Wan of the government's science-and-technology research agency. College bean counters with long memories will also remember an overenthusiastic expansion into Japan in the '80s--followed by a spate of campus closures due to culture clashes and disappointing enrollment figures.

Certainly, there may be easier ways for universities to earn cash. Many Western institutions now offer their degrees through franchise arrangements with local partners, and the spread of the Internet has broadened the opportunity for distance learning. But standards can easily slip without the regular controls that go with an on-the-ground presence. And establishing a permanent campus abroad demonstrates faith in the host country's future. "A branch campus is about commitment--not just renting out your name," says Stéphan Vincent-Lancrin, an expert on higher education at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

There are some powerful financial imperatives at work these days. Tight-fisted governments are pushing the state-funded universities of Britain and Australia, for instance, to raise more cash for themselves. The inflow of foreign students--once a dependable source of extra revenue--can no longer be guaranteed, thanks to rising competition among countries for high-paying nonresidents. Enterprising colleges in Germany and the Netherlands have even introduced more coveted English-language instruction to lure foreigners. The number of Chinese students taking up places at British universities fell 21 percent last year, due in part to growing opportunities closer to home.

Given such obstacles, exporting education can seem more practical than importing students. "We are grateful for foreign students who come here, but we are competing with top international universities, and that competition is going to get tougher and tougher," says Douglas Tallack, a professor at Britain's Nottingham University. His university's solution: an outpost in Malaysia and a partnership with a Chinese corporation that has created a 38-hectare campus close to Shanghai--complete with a near-replica of Nottingham's neoclassical central building. Student numbers are rising fast and should reach 4,000 within five years. When it comes to education, location isn't everything; provenance is.