A semester abroad does not qualify as “going global”

American universities need to invest in actual campuses overseas.
American universities need to invest in actual campuses overseas.
Image: Getty Images/Hong Wu
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“Go global” may be the rallying cry for international business, but it has yet to fully penetrate academia. Universities can produce lists of exchange programs they have forged with academic institutions around the world, but these are not deep relationships. Going global has been more academic tourism than a powerful commitment to creating a global academic village.

Today the mere mention of academic globalization, beyond exchange and study abroad programs, sends some university administrators and faculty running for cover. Around the globe, institutions of higher education are wary of internationalizing their campuses and programs for fear of losing control over quality and academic freedom. These are legitimate concerns, especially when trying to operate in a country that is far from your home campus and embodies a culture that may conflict with your own.

Yet the same virtuous cycle that exists in the global marketplace can be adapted to serve the academic community. Globalization brings opportunities and efficiencies in higher education. It creates complex networks and builds international bridges. It allows for knowledge sharing on a grand scale and for deeper connection. It also permits universities to transform themselves from the narrow confines of their own communities to compete globally. In short, it ups their game.

I have seen this happen with my own institution, the George Washington University (GW). As we anchor deep into China—far beyond simple exchange agreements—we have had to challenge university protocols, set up new international organizations with which the university had no experience, figure out the complexities of hiring locally, and deal with the nuances of high-level governmental relationships. The process has changed the university.

A handful of universities are pioneering this internationalizing strategy. A system where students can start a degree on one campus and finish it on a distant campus in another country is an appealing future for higher education—a future imagined by New York University (NYU) with its vision of a global network university. Such a university would not be tied to a single location but, rather, would have a physical presence on multiple continents and the ability to move personnel and programs seamlessly among campuses.

This vision hasn’t been widely adopted yet, due, in part, to academia’s reputation for being stodgy and parochial. But the provincial approach to learning must change in the 21st century. Higher education is fighting for its very life today, and most people inside academic institutions don’t even know it. The marketplace is challenging its business model. Technology is making its boundaries obsolete, and students are no longer wed to its traditions. Smart administrators are embracing change to stay relevant and to stay viable.

Branch campuses make far more sense today than at any point in academia’s history. Students are mobile. Knowledge is fungible. And, thanks to technology, the free movement of ideas doesn’t recognize political borders. By leveraging technology and a commitment to educational innovation, universities can participate in a global academic village that expands their reach and resources while serving students around the world who are desperately seeking an education.

Seeing the opportunity, a number of universities are opening campuses in far-flung places. A December 2012 report from the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a United Kingdom research group, identified some 200 international branch campuses in operation. Another 37 campuses are scheduled to open by 2014. While half of the home institutions were in the United States, other prominent home bases included the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada.

In addition to the powerful learning opportunities, overseas campuses bring a benefit that while of less importance to educators is persuasive for administrators. Globalization of learning can be self-supporting after an early investment. Foreign students bring enormous wealth to universities and countries. An analysis by the International Institute of Education showed that international students and their dependents contributed some $21.8 billion to the US economy alone during the 2011/12 academic year. By creating a series of respected and fully functioning branch campuses, following the students rather than making them come to traditional locations, the resources are likely to follow.

The growth in branch campuses is remarkable, but it comes with risk. Globalization’s defects have troubled the business world for decades and these defects likely will transfer to academia. Intensified competition from other universities, swings in academic costs, and the constraints of another culture’s rules and regulations promise to complicate the drive to globalize higher education.

Another critical factor that threatens the expansion of branch campuses is the lack of support from faculty members at home institutions. At times, the faculty has been asked to fulfill the promise of branch campuses without contributing input into their creation. Even the forerunners of this new breed of global academy such as NYU have tripped at this necessary but complicating stage.

NYU has a new campus in Abu Dhabi, a campus being constructed in Shanghai and 16 others locations (including the 57-acre estate, La Pietra, in Florence) on six continents. NYU President John Sexton has run into problems from a significant body of critical faculty at his home campus in New York City. Critics say he has not empowered faculty members to make key decisions about these new campuses, and the faculty delivered a no-confidence vote on Sexton, in part, because of his aggressive global vision for NYU.

I face similar complaints from some of my faculty members as I push for an assertive approach to developing a permanent campus for GW in China. These efforts are never easy, and the paperwork alone often threatens to derail them, but I am certain that the work we do today to secure a GW branch in China will benefit our students, here and in China, for decades to come.

What is lost on critics of academic globalization is the sad reality of the university enterprise today. Under fire from all sides and desperately seeking to remake itself, universities are being held back by 20th century thinking, turf battles and fear. Some believe that predictions about higher education’s future are hyperbole, the ranting of a few academic crusaders. I believe the institutions that fail to take advantage of global expansion will see their competitors stumble occasionally, but they will also watch them grow significantly. I do not discount some of the complaints about the failure to seek faculty buy-in, but that approach over the long term is akin to fighting over deck chairs on the Titanic.

The answer to the risk of globalization is not to avoid or ignore it. Such tactics show a shockingly narrow view of the world and a failure to understand history. Universities benefit from globalization because it forces them to press their limits, to transform in the face of new expectations and to look for better ways of securing and delivering knowledge to students. Globalization strengthens universities and emboldens their students for a new age.

Universities that fail to understand this reality will fail. That is not hyperbole. That is fact.