It’s the kind of story that could have come straight out of Peter Stearns’ new book. Discussing the potential pitfalls of setting up branch campuses in foreign lands, the George Mason University provost strikes a sober tone:
“This is difficult terrain, with a shaky past; caution is abundantly justified,” Stearns writes in Educating Global Citizens in Colleges and Universities: Challenges and Opportunities.
The challenges presented by international branch campuses are now all too familiar for Stearns and his colleagues at George Mason. After three years developing a full degree-granting campus  in the United Arab Emirates, the university is pulling out without producing a single graduate. Plagued by slow enrollment growth, funding problems and disagreements with the Emirates government organization that bankrolled the project, the model is no longer viable, Stearns said Thursday.
The university’s government-funded partners in the project have pledged  to start a “successor university” to replace George Mason, but the university as it now exists will cease to be come May.
The short history of George Mason’s expansion into the Persian Gulf region may prove a cautionary tale, highlighting many of the difficulties universities stand to encounter in arrangements that are increasingly common across higher education. Enrollment didn’t grow at nearly the pace university officials had expected, and George Mason had little choice but to end the experiment when investors decided to dramatically curtail subsidies.
“Did we not know some stuff we should have known? Basically that’s correct,” Stearns said. “Would we do it again under different circumstances? Absolutely.”
The university, which was based in the Ras-Al-Khaimah province, was funded by a government-supported foundation known as the RAK Education Company (Edrak). As with several similar arrangements in the Gulf, the university offered its name, expertise and support but footed none of the operational costs. The goal, however, was that the university would be self-sustaining through tuition revenues within five years of its founding.
Edrak recently declared that it would reduce its subsidy to the university by about 50 percent, and in so doing refused to pay the cost of hiring a new vice president, according to Stearns. Furthermore, Edrak was pushing George Mason to allow the university’s academic dean to report directly to the foundation, breaking with the prior arrangement where the dean reported to Stearns. The absence of a vice president and a change in the reporting structure would likely have been unacceptable to George Mason’s accreditor, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools [SACS].
“In terms of academic oversight, we felt that was perilous,” Stearns said.
“We just knew this was not consistent with SACS stipulations,” he added.
The United Arab Emirates Embassy in the U.S. did not respond to a request for comment, referring all questions to George Mason.
Students 'Stuck' with Limited Options
When the idea of a branch campus was conceived, George Mason officials anticipated enrollments of 2,000 students within the space of 10 years. Now three years into the project, just 120 students have matriculated through the university, and another 40 or 50 students are receiving English language training to prepare them for entry. Under its anticipated timeline, George Mason was aiming to have about twice as many students in the pipeline by now.
“There’s no question that enrollment growth, while not negligible, did not proceed as rapidly as we had expected or [Edrak] had expected,” Stearns said. “That’s undeniable.”
Edrak did not provide a full explanation for curtaining its financial support of the university, but it’s fair to say the global economic crisis was a factor, Stearns said. Since the operational costs were carried by the foundation, George Mason does not anticipate significant financial losses from the endeavor. There were certainly opportunity costs, however, and Stearns acknowledged the project “involved more work than expected.”
“We did not lose money,” he said. “We also didn’t make any, and that was not our goal.”
The goal, Stearns said, was to translate the George Mason educational model into the Gulf region, recruiting students from within the Emirates, India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran. While that happened to some degree, the students George Mason sought to educate are now in a bind.
George Mason’s branch campus is accredited by SACS, but the university was still in the process of attaining accreditation with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the Emirates. The campus is licensed by the ministry, but without accreditation students’ accumulated credits may not transfer to other Emirates institutions.
The National,  an English-language newspaper owned by the Abu Dhabi Media Company, interviewed several students who voiced frustration and confusion.
“We are all stuck,” Ahmed Aleesa, a Syrian student in his third year at the branch campus told the newspaper. “For the senior students we have very limited choices. Either we try to go to the main campus in the U.S., and all of the visa issues are subject to the ministry, or we start from the beginning.”
The students are welcome to attend George Mason’s Virginia campus, and the university will attempt to make the transition “financially neutral” or “nearly neutral,” Stearns said. In addition to talk of a replacement university, U.S. institutions like Michigan State University, which has a campus in Dubai, may also be an option, Stearns said.
“This is disruptive for them,” he said. “We deeply regret it.”
Model Draws Skeptics
A number of American universities have set up shop in the Gulf in recent years, and there's ongoing skepticism about whether such expansions will be viable in the long run. Philip Altbach, director of Boston College's Center for International Higher Education, said the region is unlikely to be able to sustain all of the colleges that are expanding into it. Most of the institutions that have moved into the region have fairly rigorous admissions standards, require students to speak English, and obviously cost money; that begins to winnow down the pool of potential students pretty quickly, Altbach said.
“Unless the branches are going to be willing to lower their standards significantly and damage their program’s image as a result, they’re going to have a problem,” he said.
To George Mason’s credit, the university pulled out when officials saw the potential for quality to erode, Altbach said. Even so, there were issues inherent in the original deal that may have made it problematic from the start. One of the potential problems was the very thing that probably tempted George Mason in the first place: Someone else was footing the bill.
“He who pays the piper calls the tune,” Altbach said. “If you don’t have a financial stake, the folks who do are going to think that they can dictate to you.”