I had the pleasure of attending the Laureate International Universities' annual Leadership Summit last June. As readers of this blog know, Laureate is a for-profit corporation that runs a world wide network of higher education institutions, both brick-and-mortar and online. Laureate is one of my potential disruptors. Not surprisingly, while listening to some of the talks at the Summit, I found myself musing about some of the very different ways that various players in higher education are conceptualizing globalization, and how this was related to the place-based identity of most higher education institutions.
I have written about what I called the place-based identity of higher education institutions, and how it impacts globalization efforts. Most higher education institutions were created in response to local needs, typically with funding either from individuals of the area or local (or state) government. They initially served primarily students from their surrounding regions. Thus, they responded to the special contexts of their regions - they were place-based both physically through their campus and also programmatically through their focus on response to local conditions and needs . As time went on, the contexts of regions changed and became more complicated, and successful institutions responded to those changes, keeping in step with those changing regional contexts. In addition, some institutions began to view themselves as national, not regional, institutions and so the context to which they were responding became much larger and national in scope. However, the simpler, geographic component - the campus- of place-based identity generally did not change in any significant way. Most institutions continued to maintain one main campus right where it started. If there were offshoots, they were generally small and designed to better serve their region. This maintaining of the original campus as the "main campus" further connects today's institutions to their origins even as they change to respond to new contexts.
For most higher education institutions, globalization efforts are simply a response to another change in regional or national context. The forces of globalization have impacted conditions in every region of the globe, and educational institutions must respond accordingly in order to continue to serve their traditional local constituencies. Thus, for most in traditional higher education in the US (and the West generally), globalization implies actions that improve the education of our home campus students: e.g. bringing international students to our campuses and sending our students abroad to study; and hiring more international faculty.
More recently, we have also been establishing branches in other countries in order to bring a US higher educational experience to offshore students - or as one recent meeting announcement put it, "export of the US university model abroad." In general, this process involves exporting our place-based model to a situation in which the context is very different from that of the original. NYU's new campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai provide one model of this approach, and each promises to create a learning experience "identical" to that found in New York City. Indeed, a place-based university such as NYU is under considerable pressure to ensure that the international campus does provide an "identical" experience to that of its home campus in order to preserve its place-based brand.
In fact, as we look around, we find significant demand from countries around the world to have branches of US universities that promise to provide education "identical" to that of their home campus, or to have help from US universities to set up a local US-style institution. One can reasonably argue that universities modeled on the US universities will come to be the dominant model of the globalized world. Ben Waldavsky makes a good case for this point of view in The Great Brain Race: How Global Universities are Reshaping the World. But to what extent will this dominant model be "just like" the US originals? How important is place and its context?
There are some obvious rejections globally of the entire US model. A recent meeting organized by the Universiti Sains Malaysia ( Science University of Malaysia) called The Conference on Decolonizing our Universities brought together delegates from four continents to decry the the influence of western universities:
Too many of (our universities) have become pale imitations of Western universities, with marginal creative contributions of their own and with little or no organic relation with their local communities and environments. The learning environments have become hostile, meaningless and irrelevant to our lives and concerns....
We leave Penang with a firm resolve to work hard to restore the organic connection between our universities, our communities and our cultures. Service to the community and not just to the professions must be our primary concern. The recovery of indigenous intellectual traditions and resources is a priority task.
Some at this conference called for a rejection of essentially everything that could be called Western, including Western science. This position is unlikely to find widespread traction, given the demonstrated successes of numerous aspects of the Western approach as detailed by Waldavsky among others. However, one sees the theme of the organic connection between our universities, our communities and our cultures appearing in numerous globalization efforts of non-Western universities. This theme is just another definition of place-based, and so its appearance should not be surprising given its centrality in the origins and growth of American higher education.
For example, a more nuanced expression of this theme is reflected in the recent announcement of a partnership between Yale and the National University of Singapore (NUS) to create a new liberal arts college in Singapore. According to several well placed colleagues (but not confirmed by anything in writing that I am aware of), this desire to enforce organic connections between the new college and the local culture was behind the decision of the Singapore government to require that Yale have a Singapore partner, NUS, in the new college. Indeed, while this new venture will have most of the characteristics of a Yale undergraduate experience, its curriculum has an interesting, non New Haven, variation:
The new curriculum will synthesize Western and Asian perspectives with an integrated general education spanning the first two years of study before concentration on a major.
This point was emphasized by Tan Chorh Chuan, the NUS President, in the joint announcement:
The most distinctive feature of NUS' education is that it is global, while at the same time, addressing the contexts of Asia. NUS' landmark partnership with Yale will give students at the Yale-NUS College the benefit of the unique strengths of both universities, brought together to create an enriching liberal arts educational experience that is both global and Asian.
Few would deny that NUS is a successful and prestigious global university. However, Professor Tan's comments emphasize that it was not built responding to the issues and conditions -contexts- that formed the US model of higher education, but to Asian issues and conditions. This does not mean that NUS does not have many characteristics in common with the US model (it does), but that it itself is place-based -- but created to respond to Asian contexts rather than American contexts. And the new college has been created by taking many of the characteristics of an American college and modifying them in a way that makes it place-based in Singapore, not New Haven.
This theme of fundamental connection to local place can be found in mission statements of many institutions that are incorporating some aspects of the American university model. For example, The Tecnológico de Monterrey is one of the largest private universities in Latin America and has a growing global presence. Its website states:
Since its foundation, Tecnológico de Monterrey has lived a continuous innovation process to respond to the educational demands that emerge from social, economical, scientific, labor and technological changes, and to the challenges that the country development faces.
Similarly, KAUST seeks to have many of the characteristics of an American research university, but its mission statement makes it clear that it also is place- based while global:
KAUST advances science and technology through bold and collaborative research. It educates scientific and technological leaders, catalyzes the diversification of the Saudi economy and addresses challenges of regional and global significance, thereby serving the Kingdom, the region and the world.
Thus, what we may see growing most rapidly in the near future is not "just like" copies of US universities, but equally place-based institutions that incorporate some elements of the successful American model while being firmly part of their own communities and cultures.In other words, it appears that everyone is building place-based institutions, with the limitations that that puts on their potential responses to globalization.
But there is another model, and that brings me back to the thoughts I had while listening to the folks at Laureate International Universities. Laureate has no historic "home campus". It has grown primarily by buying existing higher education institutions around the world. However, Laureate recognizes that place is very important in an educational institution, and has not tried to homogenize its institutions around any single model:
Every institution in our network operates as its own unique brand, guided by local leadership, proactively involved as a member of the community in which it operates.
Laureate improves the value of the individual brands by suggesting best practices in both administration and education, offering specialized programs from one campuses to others, making available infrastructure and expertise for online learning, etc. How and when such aid should be used is left up to the local leadership, who are best able to evaluate how it can best be used in the context of their campus. Thus, Laureate International Universities might be described as "places- based" rather than "place-based".
This difference provides some important benefits in a globalizing world. For one, there is the ability to match each campus to its context without worrying that differences from the "home" campus will cause brand damage. With this worry out of the way, expansion to additional sites is much less problematic. In addition, the variety of contexts that exist in the Laureate system enables much broader educational experimentation than is possible in a one-context system.They might get it right first! Finally, the whole issue of student exchange programs takes on a new perspective when the exchanges are within one system:
Across our network of more than 55 institutions and more than 100 campuses in 27 countries, Laureate International Universities students are encouraged to take advantage of ever-expanding opportunities to study abroad through affordable and life-changing international learning experiences.
Issues of credit transfer and affordability do not go away, but become more manageable.