Status Report

AIP FYI #88: International Expansion of U.S. Universities Explored

By SpaceRef Editor
August 26, 2007
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The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News

Number 88: August 24, 2007

In this new era of globalization, U.S. universities are experimenting with overseas expansion, trying a variety of models of partnerships, programs, and campuses abroad, with a variety of motivations. According to witnesses at a July 26 hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee, universities’ objectives may include creating more overseas experiences for U.S. students; developing globally-aware faculty; reaching new markets of international students; filling educational and humanitarian needs; enhancing existing curricula; engaging in unique research opportunities; and leveraging research expertise outside the U.S. As other countries aspire to replicate the American higher education system, the U.S. cannot afford to “rest on our laurels,” warned the committee’s Ranking Minority Member, Ralph Hall (R-TX). But, as Research and Education Subcommittee Chairman Brian Baird (D-WA) noted in his opening statement, “we know very little about how university globalization will impact America’s competitiveness.”

The panel of witnesses, faculty and leaders of top U.S. colleges and universities, highlighted the positive aspects of university expansion abroad. For the U.S. to maintain its economic competitiveness and leadership, testified Cornell University President David Skorton, universities “must instill an international perspective in all our students” and “must collaborate with others internationally as never before.” He dismissed the idea that American institutions with programs abroad were “giving something away,” saying that the expanding pool of knowledge and exchange of ideas would benefit all and that unique research conducted elsewhere could be applied to problems in the U.S. as well. According to Philip Altbach, Director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, as academic programs, texts and curricula become more uniform and academic degrees accepted more internationally, the global academic marketplace will expand. He claimed that monetary gain was the central motivation for university expansion, but Gary Schuster, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology, pointed out that Georgia Tech’s overseas programs were revenue-neutral and were established to complement and enhance the institution’s research opportunities and benefit its students. “We do not undertake international activities to make money,” he said in his statement.

Mark Wessel, Dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management, noted that as other countries develop their own higher education institutions based on the U.S. model, U.S. universities must continue to provide added value, such as developing a global perspective, equipping students for a multinational future, and locating where business and societal needs can be met. The challenges he cited included managing institutions on an international scale; maintaining high standards of quality and ethics; and undertaking the financial risks involved in establishing overseas programs in varied, changing, and uncertain tax and regulatory environments.

There was agreement among the witnesses that such overseas branch campuses and programs would not lead to a significant decline in foreign students coming to the U.S., at least in the near term, and would even give higher visibility to American institutions. But they cautioned that the U.S. must ensure a welcoming atmosphere and an efficient visa process for students coming, staying, and leaving for short visits home. Wessel remarked that not only student visas but also work visas were an issue: many foreign students come to school here to gain access to the U.S. job market, and if work visas are difficult to get, it will influence their decision to attend a U.S. educational institution. Skorton said that balancing the ease of getting visas with national security was “a tough sweet spot to find.”

Hall asked whether the goals of establishing research and educational programs overseas and attracting the best students and faculty to the U.S. were “mutually exclusive.” That’s “the $64,000 question,” replied Skorton, who said it would take a careful balancing act but did not feel the goals were in conflict at this time. Schuster said that U.S. universities would remain the “gold standard” and would not be facing serious competition from universities in China and India any time soon because of the strong U.S. emphasis on meritocracy rather than a “culture of hierarchy.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) argued that taxpayer-funded U.S. universities were intended to provide an education for American students, “not a public service for foreigners…. Saying that we live in a global world just doesn’t cut it with me.” Skorton countered that research universities also need to be leading in research and innovation, and thus need a global network of interactions and the best minds from around the world. “Don’t we have a great pool of Americans” to rely on rather than bringing in people from overseas? Rohrabacher asked. “We are not doing as good a job on the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] pipeline in this country as we need to be,” Skorton answered. If the U.S. keeps supporting federal R&D agencies and programs to fill the pipeline, he said, “then what you’re saying might come to fruition someday,” but now the U.S. needs international talent to carry out its research programs. Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) questioned whether foreign workers in the U.S. brought down the salaries in science and engineering fields, making those jobs less attractive to American students. Wessel responded that there was no evidence that Carnegie Mellon’s international students earn less after graduating than their American counterparts. Attracting more American students to STEM careers, he said, is a “serious, serious challenge.”

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
The American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

SpaceRef staff editor.