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Recently, it seems the value of higher education needs to be defended. Some critics perceive higher education as out of touch; others as overly expensive; and others as too liberal. The common conclusion is that higher education offers a poor return on investment. What they are missing is that our universities have always been critical players in the forces that drive our ingenuity at home, and make us competitive abroad.  

Our higher education system sits at a critical nexus between serving the public good by creating a learned society, and producing the technologies, patents, and research that impact government, industry, and our economy. The innovations that emanate from universities are valued by industry, as are the highly trained graduates who advance today’s global knowledge economy. Through their innovations, in 2009 alone the U.S. university sector contributed as much as $148 to $591 billion to gross domestic product; academic licensors contributed between $320 billion to $1.33 trillion to industry gross output.

In considering higher education’s broader value, it is instructive to look at Marina Ranga and Henry Etzkowitz’ triple helix system model, which shows how higher education plays a critical role in a relationship with government and industry. The model describes the complex relationships and interdependencies supporting innovative policies and practices that result in knowledge societies. Triple helix systems are exemplified by global education hubs. Education hubs are collaborations between local and international higher education providers working in partnership to make their region more attractive and economically powerful for investment, student recruitment, and training.

Globally, education hubs have emerged in Hong Kong, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Malaysia, and South Korea and been established through the policies implemented by their governments. Often, funding is used to attract foreign universities to establish international branch campuses. National governments invest in foreign universities to provide greater choice to their citizens and to enhance their country’s research capabilities. These hubs have helped to transform countries that served as hosts for branch campuses into global destinations and armed with new resources to compete in the global knowledge economy. 

Ranga and Etzkowitz describe three types of configurations for triple helix systems: statist, laissez-faire, and balanced. In a statist configuration, the government leads industry and academia to achieve its goals; if laissez-faire, state intervention is limited; and if balanced, universities lead the transition to a knowledge economy. Global education hubs exemplify these three configurations in different ways. 

For example, Education City in Qatar is a statist configuration, hosting eight foreign universities’ international branch campuses and seeking to develop the country’s human potential. This education hub is funded by the Qatar Foundation. One of its campuses, Northwestern University’s top ranked Medill School of Journalism, graduates students well situated to work at Qatar’s global news provider, Al Jazeera. In this case, government policies have funded foreign academic operations that directly lead to graduates fulfilling the employment needs of a major local employer.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, is an example of a laissez-faire configuration. Hong Kong’s former Chief Executive, Tung Chee-Hwa, focused his agendaon revitalizing its economy after the Asian financial crisis by investing in higher education to expand options and access. In this case, foreign higher education providers are free to enter the Hong Kong education market as long as they are registered with the Education Bureau, whose role is to assess the quality of academic programs and help consumers make informed judgments. Thus, market conditions in Hong Kong have played a role in the success or failure of their programs, based on quality and consumer demand for them. The government hence becomes an arbiter of quality standards, but minimizes its role in determining whether the programs are successful or not.   

Finally, the Incheon Global Campus, a hub in Songdo, South Korea, represents a balanced configuration designed to help reverse the effects of brain drain but also to establish closer collaborations between industry, government, and the academy as a way to increase South Korea’s global competitiveness. The Korean government and Incheon Metropolitan City invested $1B USD to form partnerships among its three triple helix players. Several global corporations—including LG, Boeing, BMW and Samsung—are located there, as are the branch campuses for SUNY Stony Brook, George Mason University, and Ghent University, among others. Songdo has become a research hub for bioengineering, and Ghent University has gained access to laboratory equipment that not only advances its research benefitting Belgium, but also feeds into industry in South Korea.  

Higher education institutions create significant value in terms of the patents, intellectual property, and innovations they generate as both creators of knowledge, and through the critical partnerships they form with governments and industry. These tripartite relations serve as powerful engines advancing our global knowledge economy. With this more complex calculus in mind, we need to look beyond higher education’s value to just the individual and what impact it may have on their lifetime earnings. Rather, we cannot afford to lose sight of the much broader benefits the university sector brings to the economy and society through the innovations it generates. While individuals indeed benefit from their college and university experiences and the degrees that propel them into careers, society benefits even more through collaborations that bind the academy, governments, and industries into powerful synergies that yield undeniably significant results for the benefit of everyone. 


Bradley Beecher, EdD, is a Lead Solution Engineer at  He has visited numerous education hubs and international branch campuses over the past 15 years. 

Bernhard Streitwieser, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of International Education at the George Washington University.