Are We Ourselves Enough?

Clearly, pursuing international stature comes at an economic cost—inevitably the transfer of national resources to international beneficiaries—and perhaps some compromise to national identity.

September 12, 2017

David Matthews’s article, “Is KAUST Saudi Enough?” published a while ago raises that pesky quandary about the ambiguous boundaries between internationalism, homogenization, academic imperialism, and national identity. There are many forces that influence the activities, priorities, possibilities and goals of universities today — some internal and some external. It is difficult to imagine that any university would actually see benefit in isolating itself within its national boundaries, but there are risks and disadvantages to international collaboration and integration.      

Matthews notes that Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud is critical of KAUST, a unique university established in 2009 as an international center for graduate study and research in science and technology. The Princess disapproved of the generous scholarships being awarded to attract foreign students and extravagant research grants to attract international faculty rather than investing these funds in Saudi talent. Mathews states:

Princess Basmah also argued that the region was going “backwards” by attempting to attract more scholars from abroad. Instead, the Gulf should use “the people that we have” and that there were “beautiful minds in our countries that we [do] not recognize.”

Donald Trump’s rhetoric of American exceptionalism and his insistence on “America First” would seem to align with this kind of thinking, although universities throughout the US have responded with alarm at the likelihood that this attitude will make it increasingly difficult to recruit international talent, to the detriment of our institutions.

KAUST is certainly an example of academic excellence at a globally-competitive level, but could it achieved this stature without investing in international talent? Few world-class universities (if any) are built exclusively on national talent.  This is even recognized in North Korea! Yet despite the investment in international faculty and graduate students, KAUST’s academic programs and research focus on issues with direct relevance to Saudi Arabia’s unique natural environment and the country’s need to develop and diversify sectors of the national economy. Saudi students benefit from the opportunity to interact with top-level faculty and talented students from many countries without the necessity of studying abroad. Isn’t this the best of all worlds?

In our forthcoming book to be published by Sense Publishers later this year, Accelerated Universities: Ideas and Money Combine to Build Academic Excellence, we have studied 8 young universities that are similar to KAUST. Nearly all of these universities have spent national capital to attract international talent.

MIT has had a decisive role in creating several of the case study universities included in our book, designing curriculum, developing research infrastructure, hiring senior administrators and faculty. Does MIT’s participation and influence make an institution less “national” or is MIT’s prestige and experience an invaluable input?

Yet, collaboration with an institution of MIT’s international stature unavoidably shapes decisions about academic culture, research and curriculum as well as the language of instruction. Does this distance an institution from its national heritage and tradition?

It isn’t only international collaboration that might skew choices related to the academic activity that an institution develops; rankings have had a powerful effect on strategic decisions. Pursuing a slot at the top of the rankings means competing globally and that means attracting international faculty and students and investing in research that will lead to international recognition through publications and awards. Furthermore, these pursuits almost always require activity conducted in English, publishing in English in international journals and (often) engaging in research with more international than national relevance. For institutions that aspire to international status, the criteria by which they will be judged are pretty clear and may distress those with strong nationalist tendencies.

Returning to Princess Basmah bint Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s criticisms of the national capital invested in international talent to build KAUST, the response is probably a question of goals. Clearly, pursuing international stature comes at an economic cost—inevitably the transfer of national resources to international beneficiaries—and perhaps some compromise to national identity. It is hard to imagine that an institution could hope to have a significant role in research or scholarship in any field today without leveraging international talent. And, yes, there are social and economic implications.

We live in a globalized world. The boundaries of national identity and culture are increasingly difficult to define. Much as popular culture seeps across nearly all national borders so international scholarship permeates nearly all universities either in academic content or as a result of the mobility of students and professors. The ease of mobility has allowed universities to extend the range of searches to pursue talent wherever it can be found. Whether this is extravagance, enrichment or contamination is probably in the eye of the beholder. The issue is not whether KAUST is Saudi enough but whether Saudi Arabia or any other nation, wants to host and sustain research-intensive universities integrated into the international community of scholars and scholarship. This inevitably implies some combination of national and international talent. 


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