20,000 students “just like that”: American universities in Kuwait
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 20, 2009
This post isn’t about the upcoming Lebanese elections, or funny words in Arabic, or even about my prospects as a dictator. Its about Kuwait, and by extension about the many countries around the region who have been working over the past few years to partner with American, Australian, French, and UK universities as a way of making world-class higher education available to students within their national borders.
Its a tricky process, I think, and requires a great deal of trust on both sides. The article is long, but if you are a student, an educator, or simply an interested citizen, I think you will find it a good and useful read.
By ANDREW MILLS
Sharply dressed in black suits and bright red ties, the two recruiters latch onto high-school students as they walk through the gates of Exhibition Hall No. 8 at the Kuwait fairgrounds.
“I want to tell you about the American University of the Middle East,” one of the recruiters says, following a visitor into the university fair.
“We’re affiliated with Purdue University, from the United States. Do you know Purdue?” his sidekick adds, brandishing a clipboard emblazoned with the Purdue logo. “Would you like more information? Just fill out this card and visit our booth. We have a coffee bar there.”
These recruiters have figured out that the key to selling private higher education in Kuwait is to emphasize what may be their year-old institution’s most important asset: its affiliation with a top foreign university.
“The international affiliation is very important. Purdue is a good American university. Its reputation is known,” says Ahmad Al-Jaber, one of many high-school seniors who swarm around the American University of the Middle East’s booth. “And it’s not going to put its name with a school that is not good. Is it?”
This implied assurance of quality is more than just an institutional strategy. It’s a national one. When Kuwait lifted a ban on private higher education less than a decade ago, it decided that the best way to ensure the development of academically sound universities was to require all new institutions to have foreign partners.
That policy has helped the country rapidly build a credible private higher-education system where none existed before. In only eight years, eight private colleges have opened in this sprawling city-state, catering to some 13,000 students. Nine additional institutions have been authorized to open in the next few years.
Two other Kuwaiti universities have paired with American colleges. The Gulf University for Science and Technology, a polytechnic, teamed up with the University of Missouri at St. Louis; and the American University of Kuwait, a liberal-arts college, is in partnership with Dartmouth College. Other private colleges have Australian or European partners.
To be sure, Kuwait’s private universities have not yet established the kind of academic profile needed to place the small nation on the academic map. When it comes to the Middle East’s higher-education renaissance, nobody mentions Kuwait’s colleges in the same breath as New York University’s soon-to-open campus in Abu Dhabi or Qatar’s Education City, whose six U.S. branch campuses have established Doha as a college town on the Persian Gulf.
But here in Kuwait, the private universities have transformed the local scene.
For more than three decades, private higher education was banned in Kuwait. The giant, state-owned Kuwait University was the only option for students who wanted to earn a college degree in this emirate at the northern end of the Persian Gulf.
But as the number of Kuwaitis edged close to a million during the 1990s, Kuwait University simply could not keep up with the demand.
Qatar and the United Arab Emirates faced similar challenges. But the unopposed rulers of those petrodollar-rich monarchies could set aside the kind of public money needed to build flashy campuses and lure top foreign universities to fill them up.
Politics are much more complicated in Kuwait, an aspiring democracy where a tumultuous parliament frequently exercises its power to oppose the ruling family’s decisions, including on the national budget. Public money has never been as easily available as it has been among Kuwait’s neighbors.
So the Ministry of Higher Education settled on a more cost-effective approach: It turned to the private sector.
The government has set out a number of requirements for private investors wishing to develop their own universities. The foreign partner must be ranked among the top 200 by The Times Higher Education Supplement or appear on U.S. News and World Report’s top tier of colleges. The relationship between the Kuwaiti institution and its foreign partner must be a meaningful one.
“We don’t want to be in a situation where we’re buying degrees — fancy degrees, with fancy names, but not enough meat,” says Imad Alatiqi, secretary general of the Private Universities Council, which regulates all private universities in Kuwait. “We want substantive relationships, where there is a commitment of quality from the local people and from the international people.”
Within those requirements, though, there is quite a bit of variety. The University of Maastricht Business School, in the Netherlands, and the Box Hill Institute, in Australia, have opened branch campuses or franchises of their home institutions in Kuwait. The Kuwaiti partners take a back seat when it comes to day-to-day operations.
Other local investors have chosen to seek advice from their foreign partners, but manage their own academics and operations.
In those cases, the Private Universities Council requires the foreign partner to submit a formal opinion every time the Kuwaiti university makes a major academic decision, such as starting a program or hiring an academic officer.
The council, which licenses and accredits all institutions, also sets the standards it expects private universities in Kuwait to meet.
“Any arrangement between the two universities that can deliver those standards, we welcome,” Mr. Alatiqi says.
A Liberal-Arts Alternative
In 2003 a group of investors led by Sheikha Dana Nasser Al-Sabah, a member of Kuwait’s ruling family, wanted to establish an American-style liberal-arts college. They approached Dartmouth, which offered the kind of curriculum and approach to teaching they hoped to emulate.
They first called Dale F. Eickelman, a Dartmouth anthropologist. It was clear to him, he says, that the Kuwaiti investors wanted to develop a deep relationship.
“From the start, their instinct was to say to us, ‘We don’t just want you to sign off on things for us, we want you to help us aim for the highest level,'” says Mr. Eickelman, who has spent more than three decades working in the Middle East.
Dartmouth found the idea of helping build a liberal-arts college in the Middle East, a relatively uncommon concept here, hard to resist.
Six years later, hundreds of students now mingle in the shaded courtyards of the American University of Kuwait, switching seamlessly from Arabic to English and back again.
The compact campus on the outskirts of this dusty city, with its palm trees and glass buildings, could not seem farther from Hanover, N.H. But inside its classrooms, the approach to learning is similar.
The largely Western-educated faculty members do not expect their students to memorize lectures, as is common in Middle Eastern universities. Instead, Dartmouth has helped the American University of Kuwait set up the kind of curriculum and structure that, Mr. Eickelman says, encourage students to learn how to form their own opinions.
The university emphasizes a broad liberal education. After the Private Universities Council concluded that Kuwait had no need for anthropologists, Dartmouth worked with university officials to successfully argue that degrees in anthropology and sociology would prepare students for a wide variety of careers.
Dartmouth’s agreement with the American University of Kuwait, which extends until at least 2013, is intentionally vague, says Laurel R. Stavis, executive director of the Dartmouth College-American University of Kuwait Project. There is no pro forma checklist of things the two institutions must do for each other.
Instead the relationship is an “organic” one that changes to meet the Kuwaiti university’s needs as it matures, Ms. Stavis says.
Administrators and faculty members from the American University of Kuwait are able to turn to a group of Dartmouth consultants, selected by Ms. Stavis and Mr. Eickelman, for advice on issues like governance, faculty recruiting, and communications.
Students from both universities have begun traveling back and forth. This summer an American University of Kuwait faculty member will be awarded a fellowship to spend a month conducting research in Hanover.
Ms. Stavis is also helping develop a dual-degree program that would enable Kuwaiti students interested in engineering degrees, which are not offered by the American University of Kuwait, to complete their studies in New Hampshire, earning a Dartmouth degree.
The Kuwaiti university covers all of Dartmouth’s expenses, but it is hardly a money-making opportunity for the college, Mr. Eickelman says.
“The amount of money is a joke. Let’s just say it’s tremendously little for the work that is being done,” he says, declining to say exactly how much money Dartmouth has brought in.
Building Up the Sciences
Joel Glassman, associate provost and director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, says his university is more interested in helping to build indigenous institutions overseas than in cloning the home campus and transplanting it to the other side of the world.
“It’s not so mysterious,” says Mr. Glassman, who heads up Missouri’s work with the Gulf University for Science and Technology. “They’re asking for our advice. Academics are not shy people. There is nothing we love more than being asked for advice.”
Administrators and faculty members from St. Louis have helped the Kuwaiti university develop academic programs and curriculum, recruit faculty and staff members, and build the university’s administrative organization.
The Gulf University for Science and Technology, which opened in 2002 and enrolls about 2,600 students, modeled its programs after those offered in Missouri. Students can earn undergraduate degrees in computer science, English, business, and mass communications, and a master’s in business administration.
Like the American University of Kuwait, it requires all undergraduates to take a set of general-education courses.
The university has ambitious plans to spend $100-million to expand its campus to house a full-fledged engineering college.
This is Missouri’s second such partnership in the Persian Gulf. It has advised the Modern College of Business and Science, in Muscat, Oman, since it opened in the early 1990s.
Now Missouri is helping the science-and-technology university as it seeks accreditation from AACSB International: the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
Robert Cook, vice president for academic affairs at the university in Kuwait, is in the process of hiring 38 faculty members.
He says the relationship with the Missouri campus has given the university’s recruitment efforts a boost. Attracting quality faculty members is often the biggest challenge new universities face in the region.
“For potential faculty members who have never been to the Middle East before, Kuwait can seem an intimidating place,” says Mr. Cook. “So we did all the interviews for American candidates on the St. Louis campus, and a University of Missouri-St. Louis faculty member in the same field sat in on the interviews.”
That assured candidates that the Gulf University for Science and Technology is a serious institution, strongly linked to a serious U.S. university, Mr. Cook says.
The Kuwaiti university has not yet built much of a regional reputation, but here in Kuwait its skills-based programs are highly regarded.
Mr. Cook boasts that 80 percent of its graduates are employed within six months of graduation. Unlike most public-university graduates, who are automatically given government jobs, graduates of the Gulf University for Science and Technology typically find work in the private sector, where employers demand the best candidates, he says.
Back at the university fair, the American University of the Middle East’s recruiters have done their job: The university’s booth is surrounded by teenagers filling out applications for next fall.
The campus is still in its first year of operation. About 100 students are enrolled in three degree programs — business, design, and information technology — which operate out of a single building at the edge of a windswept stretch of land.
Purdue has agreed to help the Kuwaiti university design and build “some very Purdue-like programs that will, over time, morph into the kind of programs they need in Kuwait,” says Andrew Gillespie, Purdue’s associate dean of international programs.
Kuwait’s private universities face a clear challenge as they continue to expand. The best Kuwaiti students still prefer to study abroad. And two out of every five students — 20,000 of them — take advantage of generous overseas government scholarships every year.
Mr. Al-Jaber, the Kuwaiti student, says that his first choice is to study abroad and his second choice is to study at the American University of Kuwait. But, he adds, the American University of the Middle East is not a bad third choice.
While that suggests that many Kuwaiti students still don’t have confidence in the quality of their own higher-education system, Mr. Alatiqi, of the Private Universities Council, prefers to see the students as an untapped market.
“So you can see why we’re so concerned about building quality universities,” says Mr. Alatiqi, snapping his fingers. “We can pick up 20,000 more students just like that.”