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U.S. colleges offer degrees in Asia

The Durham, N.C., university, which had been looking for ways to expand to Asia, leapt at the offer. But the school 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 officials 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.”

American universities have long been content to let their brand names draw foreign students. But as competition for Asia’s booming education market is stepping up, a growing number of big U.S. schools are opening their own graduate programs over there. Some universities are rushing in headlong, franchising their degrees to existing private colleges who offer students a prestigious U.S. 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.

Singapore, which offers schools preferential real-estate terms and tax-free status, has in the past five years attracted a number of top-ranked U.S. schools, including Cornell University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and Johns Hopkins University to open programs under various arrangements.

Most of the universities offer specific degrees rather than the entire curriculum, and degrees are mainly on the graduate level. A few have built stand-alone campuses, but even then offer single program degrees — the University of Chicago, for instance, opened a small campus in 2000, but only for its executive M.B.A. program.

Other schools have opted for joint ventures. Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration recently set up a joint master’s degree with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. Stanford has offered a joint environmental-science and engineering graduate degree with the same university since 2003. In Hong Kong, Northwestern University’s Kellogg business school has a joint executive M.B.A. degree with the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Graduates receive degrees from Cornell, Stanford and Northwestern because they are part of joint programs. It’s possible that students at some of these programs can get their degrees without ever setting foot in the U.S., although some may spend a few weeks or a semester at the main campus in the U.S. The executive M.B.A. programs are equivalent to earning a full M.B.A. in the U.S. — courses are packaged differently for students who work.

Universities say the admissions criteria is the same for its Asian programs as it is for their U.S. campuses. Northwestern’s Kellogg, for one, says it only admits students into its Hong Kong program who could have gotten into the U.S. program. The universities’ Asian programs attract a diverse group of students — not only Asians but Americans and Europeans who are working in Asia, for instance. Programs are taught in English.

Like Duke, some universities are approaching the Asian programs cautiously. MIT set up a joint engineering master’s degree program with two Singapore schools in 1998, and only this year upgraded that program so students actually receive an MIT degree. (Students previously received a master’s degree from the local university and a certificate from MIT.)

“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’s School of Hotel Administration. “We’ve put a lot of resources into this hybrid model to make it work.”

For Cornell’s joint venture, professors from its Ithaca, N.Y., main campus will serve as the dean and vice dean. Cornell professors will spend a substantial amount of time in Singapore working on research and teaching classes; students in Singapore will spend half their 12-month term in Ithaca. Graduates will receive joint degrees from Cornell and Nanyang.

The move already has paid off for some of the universities. French business school INSEAD, which opened a stand-alone Singapore campus in 2000, says it took in $18 million in revenue last year and has an enrollment of 300 full-time M.B.A. candidates.

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

“The finances were never the motivation for us; our students [both those who study in the U.S. and those in the Asia program] are being recruited by global companies and they need global expertise,” says Depak Jain, dean of Northwestern’s Kellogg school.

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 M.B.A. program, and conduct research into local business trends. Kellogg’s program in Hong Kong is open to students from any country, but it attracts students already working in Hong Kong.

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

It’s not a significantly less expensive route to a degree. While Asian students may save a bundle on travel and living costs by studying closer to home, most of the schools charge the same fees as their U.S. campuses. The University of 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 in Chicago. Cornell will do likewise with its joint venture in Singapore.

As many Asian countries face a massive gap between demand for higher education and the supply of home-grown universities, some governments are encouraging Western schools to set up shop. Malaysia began allowing foreign schools to offer degrees in the late 1980s through “twinning” arrangements with local colleges. In those cases, students attend the local school for the first few years and head overseas for the final year or two. About 30 foreign universities now have similar ventures in Malaysia. China, where only 17% 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.

Singapore aims to draw 150,000 foreign students from across Asia within 10 years. In 2002, the government drew a list of high-profile schools and began knocking on doors. One recent coup: The University of New South Wales, one of Australia’s top universities, agreed last year to build a $245 million 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 Duke, which had been courted by schools from all over Asia, the fact that Singapore’s offer is from a government known for quality control calmed many fears. The dean and vice dean of Duke’s medical school will spend about a third of the year in Singapore. Professors hired for the Singapore program will get an adjunct appointment at Duke while Duke professors will travel to Singapore for research.

“In the future, there won’t be a U.S. model or a Singapore model — it’ll be a global model of education,” Duke’s Dr. Dzau says.

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