- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2001

Last fall in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, one of China's foremost economic powerhouses, a new Chinese-American joint venture was launched only this time not in the manufacturing sector but the hitherto sensitive field of higher education.
A large public entity, South China Normal University, teamed up with a private university in Texas, Incarnate Word, to open a novel institution offering American degrees initially at the associate degree level, and integrated with the Chinese partner's four-year curriculum to fee-paying Chinese students, backed by private American and Hong Kong investors. I understand that both sides had to make a few academic compromises: The U.S. required religious studies course was altered to the "Study of World Religions" to keep both parties happy.
The gleam of new buildings inaugurated by representatives from the Cantonese provincial government, State Department officials, academics and businessmen symbolizes the reach of globalization. They also reveal more powerfully than any traditional diplomacy the attraction of American ideas, values and opportunity to new generations the world over. A subtle and irresistible export. The vagaries of political relations between China and the United States do not dim Chinese students' appetites for an American higher education. In fact the scope, shape and number of U.S. academic programs in China has multiplied exponentially since such early examples as Johns Hopkins' Nanjing Center, responding to spiraling demand as World Trade Organization membership approaches.
At my university this past fall we saw the same forces in action. We received our first group of Chinese undergraduates under a new "global degree" program linking American University, a British partner (University of Central Lancashire) and Chinese partner institutions in Shanghai and Guangzhou. Some 20 dynamic young Chinese students, their tuition paid by their families, with no government involvement on either side, are now studying with us and pursing internships at Merrill Lynch, the Brookings Institution or even the U.S. Department of Agriculture (where they are designing web sites for U.S. taxpayers). Then they will go on to Britain and receive their undergraduate degree. These are tomorrow's leaders for China.
Higher education is itself being re-framed by the scope and demands of globalization. In Guangdong, it was the U.S. private investor who made the project possible. These are initiatives not subsidized by governments.
Indeed, private investment in higher education is encouraged or tolerated by governments because it relieves pressure on the state to meet grossly unsatisfied demand. The World Bank's International Finance Corporation has begun funding such private ventures in higher education throughout the "emerging market" countries. The private sector in education is exploding in China: In the prosperous regions of Guangdong, Shanghai or its neighboring province of Jiangsu, private universities have established themselves as serious alternatives to their public counterparts. Even in less developed areas far from the coast the trend is the same. In the central province of Xaansi there are more than 60 private colleges competing for students. All of these institutions charge tuition at least double that of the state system.
Global demand for higher education is in fact increasingly being met by the private sector. Not all students seeking an alternative to the state's education can travel overseas. Distance education is a growing option, often provided by a collaborative effort between academics and for-profit distributors. International education and the Internet were made for each other. But U.S. companies are now going so far as to set up private universities overseas (Sylvan or Apollo International, for example), aiming to offer efficient management and international standards. In the not-for-profit sphere, my own university manages under contract the newly-built American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates a major institution providing a comprehensive American education adapted to Gulf and Middle Eastern social and cultural requirements.
So many taboos are falling. Chinese students pay fees to listen to American political science lectures. The state turns to the private sector to help in the precious task of educating its children. American institutions open private universities some for profit, some not-for-profit overseas. The free market of ideas and opportunity is transforming higher education, which in turn becomes a more potent force for social change than most politicians could muster.


Michael Stopford is senior assistant to the president of American University.

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