Uh-Oh…It seems that the recession is also hitting the higher education sector.
March 1, 2009
George Mason University, Among First With an Emirates Branch, Is Pulling Out
By TAMAR LEWIN
In 2005, George Mason became one of the first American universities to open a branch campus in the United Arab Emirates — but in May, it will become the first to close its campus there, never having graduated a single student.
“Our partners there changed their policy three months ago with regard to the amount of subsidy they were willing to provide,” said Peter N. Stearns, the university’s provost. “They did not tell me directly, ‘We’re getting hit, you have to understand our situation,’ but given the timing, I think it’s fair to say this was about the economy.”
George Mason has struggled since it opened its branch in Ras al Khaymah, an emirate with neither the dazzle of Dubai nor the oil wealth of Abu Dhabi.
It never attracted many students, with about 120 in degree programs and 60 in its English-language program. None of the faculty members came from the home campus, there was constant turnover in the leadership, and the branch had not completed the lengthy process of gaining local accreditation.
In recent years, many American universities have been drawn to the Persian Gulf by lucrative deals in which a local entity — in this case, a government-supported foundation — provides all of the infrastructure and financial support, and the American university oversees the academic program.
New York University is setting up shop in Abu Dhabi, Michigan State in Dubai. Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth all have programs in Qatar.
And recently, Bryn Mawr has been in discussions about starting a women’s college in Abu Dhabi, although college officials did not answer repeated requests for comment about the status of the discussions.
But the George Mason experience highlights some of the difficulties overseas branches face.
To maintain their credibility, they must admit students by the same standards overseas as at their home campus. But finding students with excellent English skills, SAT scores comparable to their American counterparts and college-ready academic preparation is not easy.
“You cannot give an American degree if you don’t maintain your standards, so in that sense we were doing exactly the right thing,” Dr. Stearns said. “But it is a real recruitment barrier. Education leaders in the emirates themselves acknowledge that the preparation is not at the same level.”
There is also the question of academic control. The vice president running the branch campus reported to Dr. Stearns, as United States accreditation requires. But the job has recently been held by an interim leader, and the local backers did not want to pay to hire a new vice president, seeking instead a leader who would report to them.
Dr. Stearns said he hoped the Ras al Khaymah students, mostly expatriates from South Asia and other Middle Eastern countries, would transfer and attend George Mason in Virginia, where he said they would get a discount on out-of-state tuition. But, he said, there is no guarantee that they can get visas.
And because of the lack of local accreditation, the students’ would have limited ability to transfer within the United Arab Emirates.
Despite its experience in the gulf region, Dr. Stearns said, George Mason remained interested in overseas campuses and was discussing possibilities in other parts of the world.