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Expanding Educational Empires

Expanding Educational Empires

Higher education is not immune to the effects of globalization.

Based on an interview with Mitch Leventhal, vice chancellor for Global Affairs at the State University of New York, as told to Diana Friedman.

The concept of "study abroad" experiences has changed drastically since I began my career in education. Thirty years ago, studying abroad was thought of as something "those humanities students do." Rather than being seen as integral to succeeding in a future career, it was a life experience, and it was heavily concentrated on Europe, the humanities, and female students.

Flash-forward three dozen years and international student mobility is a huge trend with the numbers of students crossing borders for education increasing by the day. While the US is currently the top destination for education in terms of raw numbers, it is losing market share, as higher education becomes more commoditized and students can "shop around" for their education the way we might shop around for a car.

Part of the reason for this is that there is a growing awareness that being prepared for the workforce means being prepared to work between not only job verticals, but cultures—and with some frequency (the average person now has 4.6 jobs in their lifetime). Even one job can require a transition between cultures and languages. A means to gain these skills is exposure of an international context, whether through a distinct study abroad time period, or the undertaking of an education entirely in a different country.

One of the benefits of higher education is that it is a large and growing market, not a zero sum market. To capitalize on this, many universities are looking to move into regions where the opportunities for expansion are greater than at their home bases. The State University of New York (SUNY), for instance, recently launched a physical campus in Korea. I believe these expansion efforts are generally positive, both for universities and potential students, so long as they are undertaken with care.

It is hard work to set up an overseas branch campus with comparable quality and experience as the original location (some universities franchise their brands to third-parties, resulting in significant compromises). It is even harder to do it and create a situation where the branch campus is economically sustainable—that is, it is sustainable on tuition alone. This can be difficult as many students look to international schools for good educational value.

There are success stories, however: INSEAD's Singapore-based outpost of the European business school has been so successful that it can command tuitions similar to the original location, and students go back and forth between the campuses in France and Singapore to further strengthen their education.

Just as globalization has contributed to the geographical spread of universities, branch campuses can have globalizing effects on their geographical areas. To start, there's a multiplier effect on the local economy because of the sheer number of businesses and services that are required to support international students. Right here in New York, we now have the Cornell University/Technion–Israel Institute initiative—a New York City-based engineering campus. Having a lot of Israeli and Middle East researchers come to the US for engineering education may change the trade relationship between these countries.

There's also often a cultural impact as well. One can hope that the University of Nottingham and New York University—both of which now have campuses in China—may help the Chinese liberalize their approach to undergraduate education. As for SUNY, we look forward to expanding our global reach not only through programs established abroad, but also through cross-cutting research and teaching—bringing the benefits of international education to students at all of our campuses, whether local or abroad.