Drive down Sheikh Zayed Road, Dubai’s main thoroughfare, and you’ll pass the world’s only seven-star hotel, its tallest building and its largest man-made resort island. But head off into the desert and you’ll hit a modest-looking set of office buildings and construction cranes that promise to be just as superlative. This is the site of Dubai International Academic City: the future home of a Michigan State University campus and the center of the local effort to make the emirate into a new global hot spot for higher education. “There is a war out there for talent,” says Abdulla al-Karam, director-general of Dubai’s Knowledge and Human Development Authority, “and we’re not going to let everyone else take the best.”
Dubai, along with its neighbors, is leading a rush of countries trying to erode the dominance of Harvard, Yale and a handful of other, mainly American or British, schools. As of 2005 (the last year for which numbers are available) there were about 138 million students worldwide seeking university degrees, according to UNESCO—up 40 percent in seven years, reports the London-based Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. Traditional academic destinations—English-speaking countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia—are finding it harder and harder to meet that demand. Post-9/11 U.S. visa complications have also helped create a massive pool of international students looking for new places to learn. According to the Washington-based Association of International Educators, the market of postsecondary students studying outside their home countries grew 49 percent between 1999 and 2004, even as foreign enrollments in U.S. schools increased only 10 percent. That’s created an enormous opportunity that will only grow, as the number of students seeking education abroad triples by 2025 to 7.2 million, as the Australian testing company IDP Education projects.
Many countries are eager to pick up the slack, and these efforts stand to permanently redraw the global education map. Traditional Western powerhouses seem likely to remain strong, but new centers in the Persian Gulf, China, Singapore and elsewhere are coming on fast. And those that can’t adapt are quickly falling behind as schools elsewhere embark on bold new projects to increase their competitiveness, hire U.S.-trained administrators (they’re the best at fund-raising), launch massive capital campaigns and put more and more courses online.
Although New Haven and London won’t soon be replaced by Shanghai or Seoul, they have started to feel the heat. “We [in America] are already looking over shoulders,” says Philip Altbach, director of the Boston-based Center for International Higher Education. “Academic leaders are already saying that if we don’t keep up, we’ll be overtaken … The U.S. still has a significant lead, but imagine if we had this discussion 40 years ago about the U.S. auto industry.”
Consider China, which is leading its neighbors in the race to become an international education center. In the last six years, China has more than tripled the number of foreign students it hosts by investing heavily in its universities—including pouring more than $4 billion into its top research schools. The country has also opened its doors to international partnerships, with over 700 foreign academic programs operating in China as of 2006, according to the World Bank. Hong Kong is making a particularly strong push, increasing its cap on foreign students, offering generous scholarships and loosening employment restrictions. (MORE)