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Are U.S. Branch Campuses Paying Off for Gulf States? Study Says No

Over the past 20 years, Arab Gulf states have managed to attract a large number of foreign universities to open branch campuses in the region. However, the cost of these institutions’ existence appears to highly exceed the knowledge return they provide, a recently published study concluded.

“There is a huge gap between the intended goals and the actual fulfillment of the purposes for which they were founded,” said Christopher Davidson, the study’s author and a former professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in England.

Some academics were quick to disagree with the study’s results, however, saying the campuses bring both tangible and intangible benefits to the region and play a vital role in advancing research, education and diversity.

Davidson’s study, titled “US University Campuses in the Gulf Monarchies: Building Knowledge Economies in Limited Access Orders,” was published in a book titled “The Political Economy of Education in the Arab World,” edited Hicham Alaoui and Robert Springborg.

The study mainly focuses on “big brand” U.S. university campuses in the Gulf that are funded by oil-rich governments, specifically those of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar has six branch campuses of U.S. universities, while the U.A.E. has four. (See a related article, “Importing Higher Education: A Qatari Experiment.”)

The research was based on U.S. government data, and interviews with faculty members at five of these university branches. It concluded that the funds granted to these universities will decline and the governments may not renew their contracts with them, especially in light of the sharp drop in oil prices in recent years. (See the related articles “International Campuses in Dubai Feel Pressure From Covid-19” and “Why 25 UAE Colleges Will Close by 2025.”)

“These universities are expensive investments, and like all investments, their returns should be measured by identifying the extent of achieving the goals for which they were founded.”

Hicham Alaoui
An editor of the book that contains Christopher Davidson’s study

“These universities are expensive investments, and like all investments, their returns should be measured by identifying the extent of achieving the goals for which they were founded,” Alaoui, an editor of the book and a researcher at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, said in a phone call. (See a related article, “Are Private Universities Worth the Money?”)

 The Costs of Attracting Campuses

Over the past two decades, many Gulf countries’ governments have sought to entice foreign universities to establish branch campuses in their lands by committing to paying the operating costs for their branches, providing privileges to their faculty members, and donating generously to these universities in the United States and sending students there on government scholarships. The study referred to a U.S. government report documenting contributions from Gulf countries that accounted for about a quarter of the foreign gifts and scholarships these U.S. universities received between 2012 and 2018.

The U.A.E. also provided about $80.7 million in support to New York University in Abu Dhabi, while the six U.S. university campuses in Doha received financial support amounting to nearly $1.3 billion, according to figures Davidson cites.

As for the reasons behind such support, Shafeeq Ghabra, a Kuwaiti scholar who was the first president of the American University of Kuwait, believes that the spread of U.S. university campuses of all kinds in the Gulf countries was “linked to the political developments the Arab region witnessed in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, and the mutual desire to open or localize education with an American character in these countries.” (See a related article, “Shafeeq Ghabra: A Scholar of the Palestinian Cause Confronts Illness With Research and Hope.”)

In turn, Alaoui points out that opening these universities came with the announcement of the desire to diversify the economies of the host governments by helping to produce high-quality graduates, capable of contributing to “knowledge economies,” transferring skills and experiences to local institutions, as well as improving the international relations of the host governments.

Yet Alaoui said there is little evidence these branch institutions have succeeded in transferring technology to their host countries, or even in graduating large numbers of their citizens and integrating them into local workforces. (See a related article, “UAE Higher Education: The Struggle for Quality.”)

Defending the Campuses’ Role

But other scholars disagree with Davidson’s study’s findings.

Among them are Laith Abu-Raddad, a professor of health-care policy and research at Weill Cornell Medicine–Qatar, which is part of Cornell University in the United States and one of the campuses mentioned in the study.

U.S. branch campuses in Gulf
NYU—Abu Dhabi is one of the U.S. branch campuses in the Gulf that was included in a recent study of the costs and benefits of these campuses to their host countries (Photo: NYU–Abu Dhabi website).

“These universities have a major role in advancing the research and educational process in the Arab region, and in promoting a culture of diversity on their campuses—something any international academic institution around the world aspires to,” Abu-Raddad said in a phone call.

As an example, he pointed to recent work on Covid-19 he led at the college’s Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Biomathematics Research Core.

“This helped the host country design policies to combat the epidemic, besides supporting research projects in the Arab region,” he said. (See a related article, “Genetics and Artificial Intelligence Drive Qatar University’s Covid-19 Research.”)

Academic Freedom Issues

Besides questioning the knowledge benefits these institutions provide, the study also says that their presence has not enhanced academic freedom in the Gulf. On the contrary, it says, incidents that occurred on some branch campuses revealed restrictions on freedom of expression in classrooms, prohibiting professors from teaching for political reasons, and prohibitions on circulating issues that are considered taboo to talk about.

For example, a 2018 report by a faculty-student coalition at New York University’s main campus in New York accused the university of not taking enough steps to eliminate the possibility of forced labor at the Abu Dhabi campus years after the issue first surfaced. (See a related article, “NYU Abu Dhabi Work Force Is at Risk, Report Says.”)

The university disputed the coalition’s allegations at the time the report was released. NYU–Abu Dhabi had not responded to Al-Fanar Media’s inquiries about the new study’s findings as of this article’s publication date.

Some U.S. university campuses in Qatar also banned the discussion of many issues with a political dimension in their classrooms, the study says.

“The presence of these institutions is important and has many unseen benefits, including attracting Arab-American professors to come back to the region and establishing major research centers.”

Shafeeq Ghabra
A Kuwaiti scholar who was the first president of the American University of Kuwait

Davidson says that the conditions of freedom of expression in the Gulf countries also affected his work. He was unable to access government information about how these branches, which are subject to a high degree of secrecy, are funded, or how their graduates are hired in the public or private sector.

A Push to Enroll More Local Students

Some institutions affiliated with the governments of host countries have sought to increase the number of local students enrolled in these branch campuses by concluding contracts that obligate educational institutions to accept local citizens up to “at least 70 percent” of their students. However, these efforts have not succeeded in raising the number of accepted residents of these countries, according to data published in the study. (See a related article, “Are Private Universities Worth the Money?”)

Nevertheless, Abu-Raddad does not believe that American universities are responsible for this. Some 40 to 50 students graduate from Weill Cornell Medicine–Qatar annually, he said, the majority of whom are from other nations. “Part of the environment of any academic institution is diversity, differences and different cultures,” he said.

“A quarter to a third of the college students are Qataris,” he said. “While two-thirds are non-Qataris, most of them are from the Arab world. This is an added value to the university.”

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While the study concluded that it will be difficult for these institutions to continue in the region, given their limited impact on these countries’ higher education systems, Ghabra, the Kuwaiti scholar, disputes that finding.

“The presence of these institutions is important and has many unseen benefits,” he said, “including attracting Arab-American professors to come back to the region and establishing major research centers, which will have an impact on the national higher education system in the Gulf countries, and enhance its image abroad.”


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