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U.S. colleges offering degrees in Asia

By Cris Prystay, The Wall Street Journal

A few years ago, the government of Singapore made Duke University an offer it couldn’t refuse: The city-state would underwrite a new $310 million graduate medical school and hand the entire budget over to Duke. The Singapore school would use Duke’s curriculum, and Duke would run the show, from hiring the staff to selecting the students.

The Durham, North Carolina, university, which had been looking for ways to expand to Asia, leapt at the offer. But they refused one thing: to call the Singapore degree a Duke medical degree — at least right away.

Concerned that it could take time to build a program of the same standard they offer at home, Duke proposed the actual degree be granted by the National University of Singapore, where the graduate medical school will be built, when it opens in 2008.

“The Duke trustees said ‘This is a great experiment, but we don’t know if, at this point, we should give a Duke degree,’ ” says Dr. Victor Dzau, president and chief executive of Duke University Health System, the entity that oversees the university’s teaching hospitals and medical research. “But we’ll be quite ready and happy to do it in a couple of years, once we have some experience over there.”

Universities around the world are looking for ways to globalize their staff and curricula — and grab a slice of Asia’s booming education market. About 45 percent of the 1.8 million students who chose to study at universities outside their home country in 2000 came from Asia, according to Unesco. That figure is expected to jump to 7.2 million by 2025, when Asia will account for 70 percent of global demand for international higher education, estimates IDP Research, an Australian organization co-owned by the country’s universities.

American colleges have long been content to let their brand names draw foreign students. But as competition for Asia’s students is stepping up, some big U.S. schools are getting into the game there. While universities in Australia and the U.K. have offered degrees in Asia for years, a wave of U.S. academic heavyweights are now entering the market.

Singapore, which offers schools preferential real-estate terms and tax-free status, has in the past five years attracted more than 15 top-ranked U.S. schools, including Duke, Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins University.

Educators say it’s not just about raking in more fees, but also about tapping research, scientific and business trends to make their own programs more competitive and relevant.

“The finances were never the motivation for us; our students are being recruited by global companies and they need global expertise,” says Depak Jain, dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg business school, which set up a joint executive MBA degree with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in 1996.

The move also allows Kellogg to broaden the courses it offers and the kind of research its professors do. Kellogg’s professors fly to Hong Kong to teach modules for its weekend executive MBA program, and conduct research into local business trends. It recently set up an elective on doing business in China.

“It’s very important that our professors have a global outlook, says Mr. Jain. “We can’t just have a U.S. perspective.”

Some universities are rushing in headlong, franchising their degrees to private colleges who offer students a foreign diploma without ever having to leave home. Others, like Duke, are wading in slowly, torn between concerns about diluting their brand and being left behind.

And it’s not exactly a cheaper route to a degree. While Asian students may save a bundle on travel and living costs by studying closer to home, most of the U.S. schools charge the exact same stiff fees as they do on their main campuses. Chicago’s Graduate School of Business charges the same tuition in Singapore, $38,800 for 10 classes in the 2005-2006 academic year, as it does at home in Chicago. Cornell, which is setting up a master’s degree in hospitality management in Singapore, will do likewise.

But other factors are driving Western schools to Asia, where many countries face a massive gap between demand for higher education and the supply of home-grown universities. So some governments are encouraging Western schools to set up shop.

The Malaysian government, for example, began allowing foreign schools to offer degrees in the late 1980s through “twinning” arrangements with local colleges. In those cases, students take the first few years of a degree at the local school before heading overseas for their final year or two. About 30 foreign universities now have similar ventures in Malaysia, with many now offering a degree’s entire course work there.

China, where only 17 percent of students who passed national university entrance exams got a place in a local university last year, has followed suit, licensing dozens of joint-venture schools.

While many academic forays are deemed successful, others have proved less so. In 2003, Australia’s Newcastle University became the center of controversy after 15 students at the Malaysian campus of its joint-venture partner were caught plagiarizing essays from the Internet. In the end, Newcastle ended the partnership.

For Duke, which had been courted by schools from all over Asia, the fact that Singapore’s offer came from a government known for quality control calmed many fears. The dean and vice dean of its medical school will spend about a third of their year in Singapore. Professors hired for Singapore will get an adjunct appointment at Duke and professors from Duke will travel to Singapore to work on research projects. Duke will also get a licensing fee for its curriculum; the school declines to say how much.

The academic intermingling, however, is as much the driver behind the push East as the extra fees, Dr. Dzau says. “It’s totally consistent with what’s happening around the world, which is globalization,” he says. “In the future, there won’t be a U.S. model or a Singapore model — it’ll be a global model of education.”

Singapore aims to draw 150,000 foreign students from around Asia within 10 years. In 2002, the government Economic Development Board drew a list of high-profile schools and began knocking on doors. Some schools, like French business school INSEAD and the University of Chicago business school, have built their own stand-alone campuses. Others, like MIT, offer specific degrees through ventures with state-owned universities. One recent coup: The University of New South Wales, one of Australia’s top universities, agreed last year to build a $245 million, 22-hectare campus over 15 years that will offer the university’s full range of graduate and undergraduate programs to 15,000 students, beginning in 2007.

For some of the new entrants, the move has quickly paid for itself. INSEAD, which opened its Singapore campus in 2000, says it took in $18 million in revenue last year and has an enrollment of 300 full-time MBA candidates. And about half of the business school’s research projects get some sort of funding from the Singapore government.

Even as top-tier universities look for ways to tap that market, they are looking for ways to manage potential risks.

For Cornell’s prestigious School of Hotel Administration, which recently agreed to set up a joint master’s degree with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, professors from its Ithaca, New York, main campus will serve as the dean and vice dean. Cornell professors will spend a substantial amount of time in Singapore working on research projects and teaching classes; students in Singapore will spend half their 12-month term in Ithaca.

“The major concern of any brand leader is that when you take the brand further afield, how do you protect it? This was a question we asked at every level,” says Leo Renaghan, associate dean for Academic Affairs at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “We’ve put a lot of resources into this hybrid model to make it work.”

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