Marketplace Middle East - Blog
A Degree of History
This time of year one can find plenty of tourists at Cambridge – especially from the faster growing emerging markets such as China, India and the Middle East.

Few students are back, but boat traffic on the River Cam is high and tours at the center of Cambridge, near Kings College, are still bustling.

Come mid-September that will change and more of those coming to fill the spaces available for study will be from the Middle East. Cambridge University says those attending from the region are up 15 percent in the past decade. This is not a one-university phenomenon. According to Ucas, Britain’s admission service, applications from the Middle East have surged five-fold since 2001.

It looks like the perfect storm benefiting British education. A number of factors converged at the same time to account for the one way traffic. Let’s call the first one the “H-Factor” as in the long history of British institutions, especially Oxford or Cambridge – simply known as Oxbridge.

“I don't have to tell you about the history,” says Tala Jarjour who is studying her PhD in ethno musicology at Trinity College in Cambridge, “The University is celebrating its 800th year and excellence is the word that comes up very often. You definitely see that and you get it in the experience as a scholar in the institution. So that's always a big plus really.”

Jarjour pauses and adds another key factor, the lack of capacity today in her home country of Syria or in neighboring states in the region. A doctorate in music does not exist she says in the Middle East, at least not yet.

Government leaders admit that university quality and capacity remain difficult hurdles despite the substantial amounts of money dedicated to the cause – a great deal of that devoted to higher education. One cannot expect the switch to be flipped and the lights shine brightly overnight.

I was taken on a tour of Jesus College in Cambridge by a Lebanese scholar of Islamic studies Samir Mahmoud. Due to his area of study and the four years spent on the legendary campus, he gets enquiries from aspiring Oxbridge students in the region.

“If I ask why they want to get in the answer is always because of the prestige,” says Mahmoud, “They want to guarantee a job when they get back. Just carrying that name with them brings a lot of social status in the Middle East and there's a lot of emphasis on social status and prestige.”

That could explain why students from the region (their parents) and those from other non-European countries are willing to pay a premium which is three times higher than local tuition fees. While there was a shortage of spaces available to British undergrads this upcoming year, the international student body is welcomed by these universities.

“It is a growth market,” says Dr. Shaun Curtis of Universities U.K., “British universities are expanding all around the world in terms of their recruitment drives. What we require is a diversification of markets and so we can't rely on China and India to provide the bulk of the student market. We want other countries as well. So we want more Middle East students to come.”

British universities accelerated that recruitment drive in a post 9/11 environment, when U.S. authorities tightened visa requirements and America’s reputation in the region faltered. The tendency of late, due to the competition for undergrad spaces, is to emphasize graduate programs.

I counted at least eight U.K. institutions that have set up campuses, classes or representative offices in the region. The drive is two-fold: they want to encourage more students to come and study in Britain and also set up programs on the ground. This will naturally create a beneficial technology transfer to the region as well.

U.S. universities are not sitting idle and the new occupant at the White House sees education and entrepreneur programs as essential tools to re-build the country’s reputation throughout the region. President Obama made reference to their importance in his Cairo speech.

Students say it is important for these universities to be independent in terms of their management and make the curriculum match the standards found on British or American soil. This drive to set up these satellite campuses, many believe, will falter unless given that independence.

Eventually, with the development of British and U.S. campuses in the Middle East, China and India, these universities will morph into global institutions with not just offices but real campuses closer to where the growth is.

To do so, they need strong brands to be global, but act local and they need that “H-Factor”, a degree of history behind them.

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John Defterios’ blog accompanies the weekly business program, Marketplace Middle East (MME) that is dedicated to the latest financial news from the Middle East. As MME anchor, John Defterios talks to the people in the know, finding out their opinions on the big business moves in the region, he provides his views via this weekly blog. We hope you will join the discussion around the issues raised.
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