FIU's China outposts enhance Miami's economic outlook
By Michael Lewis
A raft of Florida International University links to China is riding high on a wave of US academic forays in Asia that enhance prestige, generate new revenue and ship Asians paying full tuition back to the home campus.
All three paybacks — prestige, revenue and foreign students — will benefit FIU, a state university in a Florida that is leaning more on higher tuitions as it trends away from state funding.
A fourth, unheralded payback is that the growing flow of China's scholars onto campuses here can enrich the experience of students with whom they share classrooms while creating future business bonds for both those classmates and Miami.
FIU links with China began when its hospitality school set up a dual degree program on a campus in Tianjin in 2007.
Now FIU is about to start offering Spanish degrees near Beijing, a hospitality course in Macau, a master's in public administration in Tianjin, a business degree there as well, a healthcare MBA in Guangzhou — and who knows what's next.
Other nations initiate the outreach. Every few months, says Provost Douglas Wartzok, FIU reviews another proposal for a dual degree program.
Aggressive as that might seem, it's apparently the norm in an academia that in the past decade has linked broadly with other nations.
"It's almost like spam," the University of Washington's Susan Jeffords, vice provost for global affairs, told the New York Times in 2008 in noting that she received about a proposal a week to set up operations in other nations.
That gold rush abroad by universities seeking prestige and revenues has slowed in recent years, according to a survey by the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a British research group.
Still, the group found that 200 universities globally had set up full-fledged branches in other nations, 78 of them connected to US universities. Other researchers found 83 US branches.
In China, all FIU outreaches partner with local universities, as Chinese law requires.
Most branching efforts abroad by US universities have been in specific areas, not a broad range of programs. Business courses are by far the most numerous outside studies in China.
FIU is apparently intent on adding to its links to China, a nation where a 2009 survey found four full-fledged branches of US colleges and universities, more than anywhere on the globe other than five in Singapore. By 2011, China had 17 branch campuses.
Privately, FIU officials talk of becoming China's number-one educational hub for hospitality training, spreading widely to train the staffs of five-star hotels mushrooming across China with topflight facilities but undertrained managers that FIU aims to bring up to speed under its graduates' thumb.
At the same time, a quarter of the graduates of FIU's joint degree hospitality program in Tianjin now come to Miami for graduate school — students who pay full tuition when fewer and fewer US students can to do so without amassing student debt that lingers for years.
As with any goldmine, FIU might meet challenges. Academic freedom we take for granted is lacking — though at the Tianjin hospitality campus, all but three of the FIU faculty are Chinese who won't push opinion to its limits.
Having mostly foreign faculty could prevent academic standards from equaling the home campus, though FIU trained most of its Tianjin faculty in Miami.
As long as US relations with China are smooth, the academic environment should be too. Whether harmony would last in time of friction is unknown — particularly since China is funding much of FIU's costs there.
With all the possible pitfalls, however, the eagerness of FIU to exemplify the I in its name — International — is a major plus for Miami. While most Miami colleges and universities have dipped toes across the pond, FIU has jumped fully clothed into the pond.
We can't wait to see the fruits of FIU's labors. The Spanish language degree it's about to begin in China could, for example, educate cadres of Chinese executives who will do massive business with Latin America and could well link through Miami, drawing us into the trade loop.
In a global economy, academic ties should be a plus that Miami can leverage. FIU's outreach will lend more force to that leverage.
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