Many nations want to be educational hubs, but can they all succeed?



It is fashionable to be an educational hub these days. Countries are developing educational cities, villages, and zones designed to house prestigious foreign institutions, often seeming to rely on a Field of Dreams mentality: If you build it they will come. But if everyone builds such a city, will there be enough institutions and students to make a game of it?

The international educational market is already pretty competitive. Universities want to attract foreign students, who often pay full fees, add to their institutional prestige, and boost their rankings. But the pursuit of becoming an educational hub represents a different educational market—one where governments and private investors are actively recruiting foreign colleges and universities to set up shop in a new educational city.

Many readers will have already heard of the market leaders, like Dubai International Academic City and its predecessor the Knowledge Village. Qatar has also made a splash with its Education City. But we’ve heard interest in educational hubs from nations as varied as Bahrain and Bhutan, and from Sri Lanka to Singapore.

Most of these developments are looking for partnerships with the same “prestigious” institutions. Their strategy is to focus on the top 200 or top 500 universities in the global rankings, mostly from English-speaking nations with well-established higher-education sectors. Representatives are cold-calling these institutions to invite them to investment meetings, and hosting conferences to draw international attention to their efforts. This is a seller’s market for any institution with a strong global brand and a willingness to go abroad, and education cities are buying.

Education hubs are in a regional competition as well. Whether it’s the Middle East or Southeast Asia, if one country announces a new initiative, then other countries soon follow with their own plans. And the competition is not just international. Several countries are competing internally for a place at the international-education table. South Korea and Malaysia each have two education cities. The United Arab Emirates has a few more.

Their plans have much in common. They are typically connected to broader economic-development agendas that involve economic zones free from regulation, tax incentives, government and/or private-sector investments and other amenities. Iskandar, a new development in Malaysia, for example, includes education as one of its five “flagship” zones and provides exemptions for various tax and residency requirements that apply in other parts of the country. Institutions operating in Dubai’s Academic City have been free from federal regulation and are allowed to freely repatriate their revenue to the home country. The message is that educational trade is valued at the highest level and government bureaucracy has been cleared away.

Their goals often seem remarkably similar as well. They talk about developing educational capacity and the knowledge economy. They encourage private-public partnerships and envision themselves as regional hubs for innovation. They focus on health care, tourism, business, and local industries, with little interest in social science or the humanities. Glossy marketing brochures include stock photos of a diverse potential student population, always represented with at least few blond and fair-skinned folks. They often anticipate peaks of 100,000 students in a few years, usually with little data to support the claim.

Education cities tend to be placed in locations where much new infrastructure needs to be built to support educational activities. We’ve witnessed the transformation of the desert into an educational metropolis in Dubai. But did you know about the campus emerging from the ocean in Korea? The Songdo Global University in South Korea sits on reclaimed land from the Yellow Sea, so new that not even Google Earth shows it as existing in its current form. Education cities emerge whole cloth, with roads, buildings, water features, and green space built for a population that doesn’t yet exist.

Many of these education cities are also located in relatively small population centers. So they promote their proximity to where the students actually are. Jeju Island’s Global Education City (a second education city in South Korea) has a population of only 500,000 but in promotional materials notes that it is just two hours by air from five cities with more than 10 million residents. The demand is already here, they announce, all we need are the programs to serve it.

The locations themselves are promoted as convenient to international transportation hubs, such as the proximity of Songdo and Dubai International Academic City to two of the world’s busiest airports. Or they are in scenic areas with beautiful climates, like the very pleasant Republic of Mauritius in the southwest Indian Ocean. The point of the pitch is that it is either very easy for people to get there, or that it will be well-worth the trip once you arrive. In either case, the location makes the sale.

In isolation, each project seems compelling—some more than others. But when we look at them as a group, it is much more difficult to see how their ambitions can all be fulfilled when the differences between them are so few.

So as much as it may be a seller’s market, we also must caution: Let the buyer beware!