US Higher Education Influence Takes a Different Turn

The official opening of the American University of Malta (AUM) on Friday 8thMarch foregrounds a new trend in USA Higher Education influence in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. The term ‘American’ is being applied to universities which are not US-driven at all but which simply adopt the US university style of operation and system.  The AUM is run by a Jordanian Company, the Sadeen Group.

The Sadeen Group’s official statement says that “Through the years, the group has its reputation and had been made known to various engineering consultants, business travelers, investors and other business organizations for being committed to produce a high quality and excellence services. Today, Sadeen Group has recorded a sizable growth in the field of construction, travel and tourism services. The group is a graded class in building constructions both on commercial and industrial RCC, pre-engineered building, water treatment plant construction, correspondence and their business with the utmost secrecy and confidentiality.”

It has been reported that it had bought the programmes on offer at AUM from De Paul University in Chicago. This is as far as ‘American’ goes with respect to the ‘for profit’ private university in question.  It has been effectively operating for the last two years, while works were being carried out on the campus site, attracting few students to date.

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding this university in Malta because it was originally meant to be set up on ODZ (outside development zone) land and also because it uses as its current premises a building which has great historical value, dating to the time of the Knights of St John who governed the island for 268 years.  The building formed part of the now closed and refurbished Dock no 1 of the former Malta Drydocks which has been privatised. This type of institution has been criticised for being an example of the ‘American’ brand being attached to business higher education enterprises which have little that is ‘American’ about them in terms of ownership. Philip Altbach, a key and widely published researcher on higher education and a regular blogger on Inside Higher Ed, pointed to the danger of ‘business interests starting universities to make money using the American brand.’

This represents another trend in the long influence of US higher education in the Mediterranean. This influence may get even stronger as the heralded USA-driven liberal arts concept continues to make its way into the region, in view of its being attributed great importance with regard to the fourth industrial revolution (4th IR). A lot is being made of the institution for studies in this area set up in Singapore by Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS): Yale- NUS College; the Mediterranean area can easily follow suit.

The region has a long history of US Higher Education involvement which is worth outlining at this stage, an interesting situation given the attempts made by the Union of the Mediterranean to develop a common Higher Education and Research Area, as well as the EU itself in trying to extend the Bologna process to areas outside its domain, perhaps with a view to attuning students from these areas to its system which can condition their choices when it comes to furthering their education abroad.

The Mediterranean region comprises countries forming part of the EU and whose universities fall under the Bologna agreement, aspects of which have appeared in the discourse around Higher Education in countries such as Turkey and Morocco, earning those who promote this system the appellation of ‘Bologna missionaries’.  This is one way of enticing students towards Europe and its universities. European higher education institutions are being called upon to engage in internationalisation, apart from Europeanisation (harmonisation across EU universities with transfer of credits between the institutions).

Internationalisation entails attracting students from outside the EU fold to EU universities as these universities are being exhorted to compete with their US counterparts in this regard. The USA enjoys the lion’s share in terms of attracting foreign students. The setting up of AUM demonstrates how US-style university education has a strong presence throughout the region.

US universities, genuinely USA-driven, with both local and American accreditation, have, for many years, been prominent in cities ranging from Cairo and Beirut to Sarajevo, Paris and Rome. The American University in Cairo (AUC), especially through its Humanities and Social Science School (HUSS School), and the equally prestigious American University of Beirut (AUB) are widely believed to have been instrumental in foregrounding practices of liberal education and critical thinking in the Middle East region. In the words of prominent AUC alumni, Asef Bayat and Linda Herrera, both established academics at the University of Illinois, Urbana –Champaign and well known for their co-edited book Being Young and Muslim: New Cultural Politics in the Global South and North (Oxford University Press, 2010), “Students repeatedly, over the years, have talked about being transformed in their thinking…and consequently changed the direction of their lives, after taking courses in HUSS.”

Some Mediterranean universities owe their origin to US driven colleges. For instance, one of Turkey’s most prestigious universities, Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University was founded, in 1863, as Robert College, the first American higher education institution established outside the USA.  American schools in Italy, such as the American University in Rome, or overseas campuses of top US universities, such as Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Relations, set up in Bologna in 1955, were established, according to a particular interpretation, as a means to extend US influence in the countries, especially after World War II, with the country having veered towards the US political orbit.  There are Mediterranean universities, such as the University of Malta, which have been developing joint master’s programmes in areas such as Conflict Resolution, with prominent US universities. The Conflict Resolution joint degree programme in Malta is developed with George Mason University.

The connection between many US-driven universities in the region and those established in the USA itself can be gauged by the fact that many of the former’s graduates proceed to ‘ivy league’ and equivalent universities to pursue their studies.  Top US academics form part of their faculty which comprises locals many of whom have been educated in the USA. This constitutes a strong area of US Higher Education influence in the region and other parts of Europe with which the EU has to compete to attract more international students (students from outside the EU) to its higher education fold. For the moment, the USA rules supreme in this regard.

The main struggle for institutions such as the new AUM, situated on an island at the heart of the Mediterranean, strategically posed to attract students from North Africa and Europe, is, not only to attract an adequate number of students (this has been incredibly low to the extent that some recruited academics were dismissed before the end of their probation period), but, one would imagine, to establish links with US universities and perhaps seek accreditation from important USA agencies.

The US based universities would recognise this institution by attracting its graduates for further study in their fold, thus rendering its undergraduate and possibly master’s programmes more marketable, as in the case of say the American University in Cairo or the American University of Beirut. The AUM has been granted EU recognition via Malta’s National Commission for Further and Higher Education. Whether it gains similar recognition by US institutions and accreditation agencies remains to be seen, should it attempt to achieve this status with a view to rendering the name ‘American’ more genuine.

Exposing international students to a US type of higher education can be a step in the direction of channelling students to further education in the US. It would be one of many institutions in the region doing this. It would constitute another institution forming part of the already strong US sphere of Higher education influence in the Mediterranean, Europe and beyond. This constitutes a significant sphere of influence with which the EU has to contend in its bid to outdo its US’s rivals in attracting international students to its Higher Education fold, that is to enhance the ‘internationalisation’ of its universities and tertiary institutions.

Peter Mayo is Professor at the University of Malta and author of Higher Education in a Globalising World: Community engagement and lifelong learning (Manchester University Press, June 2019).