Exporting 2-Year Degrees

From a surprising source: Under new agreement, Montana State U. might design and offer two-year degree programs in Abu Dhabi.
June 4, 2008

A U.S.-based doctoral-granting university aims to design and export two-year degree programs to Abu Dhabi.

Montana State University formally agreed Tuesday to pursue plans to offer two-year Montana State degrees -- intended to prepare students to enter the work force or transfer to four-year institutions -- at the Abu Dhabi-based United Arab Emirates Academy. “It was their stance that an attractive two-year educational program that was designed and delivered by a high-quality American university would be appealing and would fulfill a particular niche within the country,” said David M. Dooley, Montana State’s provost. (He added that the academy's officials “made it very clear they were interested in particular in having a research university as a partner.”)

“It’s an opportunity to do something new and innovative and we’re always looking for ways to expand our horizons and expand horizons for students. This looked like an opportunity to do that.”

One of Montana State’s campuses -- the Great Falls College of Technology -- already is devoted to two-year degrees, and such programs are embedded at other university locations, Dooley said. He and Norman J. Peterson, the vice provost for international education, described a goal to build on that local expertise in order to export innovative two-year degrees, including strong core liberal arts curriculums, in fields like business, communications and health management.

Students would probably take one course at a time, taught in part by Montana-based professors who come to the UAE Academy's campus for a month at a time or teach via the Web. Students would also be able to take up to one year in intensive English, Dooley continued, through a partnership with the A.C.E. Language Institute.

The programs would be designed for Emirati students as part of a larger government effort to increase the number of Emirati nationals (as opposed to foreign-born individuals) in the country's work force. When asked more specifically about the demographic groups they’re targeting, in terms of class and educational background, Dooley said that’s not a question he can answer yet. “We do know that the capacity of higher education in the United Arab Emirates and Abu Dhabi is not sufficient at this point to accommodate all the students graduating from secondary school.”

“We have a big number of people who are working now in the government but the certificate they have is their highest qualification. They haven’t gone to the university. These people, we expect that the government will sponsor them to study,” said Magdi Hafez, president of the UAE Academy, which currently focuses on certificate programs offered through another partnership (expanded earlier this week) with the University of Washington. Hafez spoke by telephone from Seattle, the A.C.E. Language Institute's hometown, where he was to sign the agreement.

“The [Montana State] program will meet the needs of the job market in Abu Dhabi. We need [people in] IT and business and management and travel and tourism and such areas.”

The governments of Abu Dhabi and the other emirates have been generous in funding foreign-based higher education enterprises in the past. In the most ambitious example, New York University announced last year that Abu Dhabi’s government had “committed to provide land, funding, and financing for the development, construction, equipping, maintenance and operation” of a full-fledged, 2,000-plus-student branch campus.

Montana officials said that, in their case, funding details are still undetermined -- Tuesday’s agreement was an intermediate, not a final agreement on the matter -- but Hafez expressed confidence that Abu Dhabi’s government would ultimately fund the proposed Montana State partnership. "I think we have a strong case, that we will be able to get funding, I'm sure," he said.

“We’re committed to the proposition on our campus,” Dooley continued, “that no resources that we currently have for education in Montana will be diverted to this purpose.”

“The whole thing is a little questionable,” said Philip G. Altbach, a professor and director of Boston College’s Center for International Education. “One doesn’t know why Montana State is doing it, and one doesn’t know how it would quite work in a higher education system that isn’t like the United States' " (the model of having two-year degrees be transferable to four-year universities, for instance, is not the norm throughout the world).

For Montana State, two-year degree programs are “not their bread and butter…. I don’t know why Montana State would want to get into this business.”

“It’s a branding issue, and also a substantive issue. If U.S. institutions are going to run two-year degree programs in other countries, which is fine, I think the community college sector should be doing that," Altbach said.

Peterson, however, described a desire on Montana State's part to “elevate the level of work in the two-year degree program.” Although short on specifics as the initiative is still in its early stages, Peterson continued, “We’re really interested in the idea in a certain way of reinventing two-year education at a somewhat higher level.”

“In a certain way it’s kind of a hybrid we’re inventing between a two-year degree and a four-year degree.”

A final agreement -- and funding -- are still pending. Montana State has set a target date to first offer a half dozen programs or so in fall 2009.


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