When you work with newly graduated lawyers, it’s inevitable that lunchtime conversations will lapse into a heated argument comparing different law schools. Last week, a coworker told me that South Asian and Middle Eastern universities are slowly dying as programs and affiliated campuses of foreign universities become increasingly popular. His prediction may have been hasty — or even extreme — but it’s concerning that local education systems and degree programs in these regions are becoming less attractive alternatives to foreign programs against which they compete.

At a cursory glance, this development may seem great, promising more opportunities for students locally and increasing competition for unappealing local universities. The lure of foreign universities is often too strong for ambitious international students — who often believe an American or British degree ensures success — to resist. So the possibility of earning a foreign degree while studying at home is an attractive option for students who are unable to pay for an education abroad.

But this lust for foreign degrees creates a lucrative business opportunity for foreign universities in countries like India and Qatar. If local universities fail to compete with affiliated campuses or external degree programs, foreign universities stand to profit greatly, and not just monetarily. There’s an element of prestige attached to overseas expansion, and institutions gain increased global appeal and political clout based on active involvement in foreign states.

So it’s not surprising that a number of universities have turned their attention to foreign shores. The more prestigious ones are Cornell University, New York University and Michigan State University. Even lesser-known colleges are getting in on the act — the University of Wollongong, an Australian college, has sought to capture both the South Asian and Middle Eastern markets simultaneously by luring Indian and Pakistani students to Wollongong’s campus in Dubai.

It seems insensitive to discourage students, particularly those unable to pay the extortionate tuition fees that studying abroad demands, from pursuing the degrees they deserve. But the worth of a foreign education should be measured by the cross-cultural experience it facilitates, not by the degree awarded at commencement.

The fact is that affiliated campuses and external programs will always be a more attractive option for highly qualified students in countries where local universities are unable to match the prestige of American or British qualifications. But this will inevitably undermine the local education system. The popular perception is that a degree carrying the seal of a foreign university will always have an edge against its local equivalent. As long as this belief exists, the development of local universities will remain a pipe dream. Deprived of the best minds in the country, these universities will see lower educational standards and local prestige.

Most distressingly, the worth of a degree program modeled to fit local circumstances will fall in the long run. Courses offered in external programs do not offer educational modules tailored to local socioeconomic or legal environments. In comparison, local public universities usually provide programs that allow students to experience and analyze local problems and customs. An understanding of local circumstances raises the capability of graduates to contribute to the economy knowledgably. In addition, local universities often safeguard areas of study that would become defunct if abandoned or left to the market, like regional languages.

Expanding universities also claim to have contributed to the education system in host countries, raising educational standards of local institutions and bringing them up to par with Western institutions. In principle, joint external programs would raise the standard of teaching through regular faculty exchanges. But in practice, the desired exchange of professors rarely happens, and local private institutions offering external degrees consequently become little more than glorified examination centers. Students often study at home, disenchanted by the poor quality of instruction, enrolling in universities only to sit for the external examinations.

There are, of course, cooperative efforts featuring foreign institutions that do contribute to the development of local education systems. The National University of Singapore’s collaborative law program with NYU is one example. The program allows for the regular exchange of faculty and for students to spend a portion of their degree program in New York if they can afford it.

But that’s only a single example of a foreign program that works. Overall, by subscribing to the belief that a foreign degree will automatically guarantee success, students are stumbling blindly into programs that might not realistically be the best option — and doom local universities to permanent mediocrity. If students continue to enroll in these universities, my coworker’s ominous prediction could come true.

Emad Ansari can be reached at heansari@umich.edu.

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