Branching Out: Why Are US Campuses in the Gulf Struggling?

The past decade has seen a marked increase of International Branch Campuses (IBC) in the Middle East. IBCs are places where a student can earn an premier education from a foreign university without leaving the region.

In January 2012, “Times Higher Education” reported that the number of overseas branch campuses set up by universities reached 200. The Gulf is home to two of the largest host countries for IBCs: United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Kuwait also boasts a substantial number of IBCs. 

There are tremendous benefits for the many American universities that have established branch campuses in the MENA region. Often, there is little financial overhead for American universities because local governments, especially in the Gulf, subsidize the cost of construction and sometimes even faculty salary. Besides boosting the international profile of an institution, US branch campuses have the potential to act as conduits for better understanding and relations between America and countries in the MENA region. By studying with youth from the region, scholars can use the classroom as a forum for understanding first-hand how the US is perceived abroad. The success of US branch campuses is an essential component to combating misrepresentations of the West in the region.

Despite the benefits these institutions provide, there have been shortcomings and major challenges for these establishments. Often, IBCs over extend themselves in the region by opening up in countries with small populations like in the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar.  Because of this, some universities have had to reevaluate their programs. The Rochester Institute of Technology in Dubai is struggling, George Mason pulled out of Ras Al Khaimah in 2009, and Michigan State University scaled back its operation in Dubai in 2010.

A major challenge for branch campuses is actually attracting students in the region. Students from the MENA region tend to gravitate toward local and public universities often for financial reasons and due to a lack of engagement from branch campuses. In fact, many branch campuses opt to recruit students from South-East Asia instead of focusing locally.

Students in the MENA region also turn away from IBCs because they offer limited undergraduate programs in host countries. Many IBCs in the region place more emphasis or are specialized in niche subjects like business, management, and engineering over liberal arts programs.

IBCs also have a hard time competing with the growing demand among youth in the Gulf to study abroad. Universities in the UK and the US are attractive alternatives for prospective students from the Gulf region. There are 170,000 Saudi students currently studying abroad, 120,000 of which are studying in the United States. Malaysia has also become a major host country for students studying abroad, recently attracting approximately 25,000 students from the Gulf.

The lack of academic freedom in the region is also cause for concern.  In one case, a scholar was barred from attending a conference at the American University of Sharjah in February 2013.  Authorities in the UAE acknowledged that the professor was forced to return home because he has written critically about the Government of Bahrain.  This event calls into question whether branch universities in the region can honor the cherished values of free speech and open dialogue that prevail on campuses in the US and Europe. 

Beyond subject material, another challenge for IBCs is convincing faculty from home campuses to teach for an extended period of time overseas.  Faculty from home campuses might have pressing family commitments and some in the sciences might be hesitant to leave their labs to work in a facility abroad that is not as advanced as their own.

Branch campuses can make certain changes in order to succeed and be effective representatives of their home institutions and the United States.  Recruitment efforts should focus more on attracting eligible students from the greater MENA region by touting the academic benefits of attending a branch campus. Having more students from the MENA region attending US branch campuses can potentially turn these academic outposts into effective incubators of dialogue and understanding between two cultures.      

Creating scholarship programs for students in Arab countries that fall outside of the GCC is essential to creating a more diverse student body. This would aid in exposing a wider swath of the population in the Arab world to American institutions and help allay suspicion of the US. There should also be serious consideration given towards expanding the amount of undergraduate and liberal arts programs in order to provide a well-rounded curriculum.  Another way to strengthen the profile of IBCs is to offer attractive incentives to faculty from home campuses to teach for a temporary period of time overseas (i.e. monetary bonuses and other incentives).

The problem of academic freedom is a complicated issue that will have to be addressed. University administrators should make every effort to arrange (with host governments) for special conditions for academic zones. They can do this by making the argument that facilitating critical thinking in an academic setting would enrich both students as individuals as well as provide the host country with a more effective, capable and educated workforce that would better serve the region. If changes like these are implemented, branch campuses can act as a boon to both the economy of the region as well as US relations in MENA.