Letter from the Gulf

“We Gulf Arabs are not as rich as the world thinks we are.” The speaker is a government minister worried not only by the prospect of oil and gas running out but also by not having enough education. She looks out on a vast construction site in a grand new ministry building and sees the potential of solar power and other renewable sources to replace what many oil countries take from beneath their deserts and from the sea. As that happens, and population grows, her young people will need jobs. Right now they don’t receive the education that will make them employable.

So she and her head of state are turning to building a new university focused on science and health problems and solutions. The plan is to engage the private sector to reflect and respond to its needs and to encourage a spirit of entrepreneurship so that young people can create their own businesses too.

The university will seek international partnerships and I was visiting the country to see how the Institute could help. What is wanted is, as the minister said, “the North American model” of quality assurance, critical thinking and student-centered learning.

And I am hearing exactly the same thing in more places than ever before: namely, that higher education is a key driver of economic development. That is why there is a construction boom in so many places for new universities.

What struck me, though, is that I don’t hear this kind of talk in the U.S., where especially public university budgets are the first things to be cut (and deeply so) in response to budget stringencies they did not create.

It is significant that other countries are looking to a largely U.S. model. And that they are finding it more cost effective to build an American style university than send their students abroad.

The question is who and what will fill the demand. For example, there are entire and growing Australian universities that do not actually have any campuses on the home continent. More international students are being educated by UK universities offshore than at home. And the American-based for-profit Laureate group now has more than a million students enrolled in two dozen countries.

There are also many obstacles to real success. American quality assurance processes are not global. And American-style campuses are being built that cannot find U.S. faculty. In many places that I visit, moreover, what is really needed is a quality community college system to feed in to four-year institutions. But there are strong biases against education that is considered vocational and remedial.

America’s gift to the world in education is the know-how to create what is needed for new societies and economic development. Between our land grant universities and community college systems we actually have what most of the world I visit needs right now.

So if I were king and we had an international education foreign policy, I would make sure that every U.S. or UK-educated minister had a partner in our country to help them achieve their vision (which, strikingly, is ours as well). In many ways this is what I find that most ministers now want most of all to be made in the USA.