MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And Robert Siegel.

Around the world, American exports are under attack from cheaper competitors. But one industry is doing very well overseas: higher education. American universities are creating satellite campuses in the Middle East and Asia at a record pace. Schools see a chance to boost their reputations as international players. But they're also finding that branch campuses come with a number of risks.

In the first of two reports on American schools abroad, NPR's Larry Abramson reports from the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The Carnegie Mellon University campus outside the capital, Doha, looks like it should house works of art rather than students. The main building features a dramatic amphitheater with traditional Qatari seating on the floor, a cool fountain and lots of soft reflected light. Carnegie Mellon has a total of 11 overseas campuses, targeted mainly at graduates. According to Dean Chuck Thorpe, this place is different.

Professor CHUCK THORPE (Dean, Carnegie Mellon University, Qatar): This is unique. This is the only place where we have an overseas branch campus teaching a four-year undergraduate degree.

ABRAMSON: Carnegie Mellon, Qatar is part of Education City, a gathering of six top institutions rising in architectural splendor out of the sand. Georgetown University, Texas A&M, Northwestern and others offer something that students around the world crave, a real American degree.

Prof. THORPE: We're not like Carnegie Mellon or inspired by Carnegie Mellon; we are Carnegie Mellon.

ABRAMSON: That's what the diploma says that students get here. There's no asterisk saying you attended the campus in Qatar. That gives this place a reputation so exalted it's referred to locally as...

Mr. SALEH AL KHULAIFI: Land of the Giants.

ABRAMSON: Saleh Al Khulaifi, a junior, is from Qatar as are nearly half the students here. The arrangement with the local administration gives some preference to Qataris. Sitting in the grand stone entryway of the building, he says, the reputation of this American school leads to some razzing.

Mr. AL KHULAIFI: So everyone sees us here as, oh, the enlightened, the highly educated that will come back and change Doha or tell us, don't be so arrogant about your education, okay? We know that you've been to a good school, but...

ABRAMSON: And that's exactly what Qatar's ruling family wants; to change this country from a tiny emirate dependent on gas reserves to an information economy.

The Qatar Foundation, an endowment built on royal petrol dollars, considered building its own top-flight institution, but foundation president, Mohammad Fathy Saoud, told me they decided that Education City was the quickest way to stem a brain drain.

Dr. MOHAMMAD FATHY SAOUD (President, Qatar Foundation): We are serving a tier of students who used to leave this country, leave this country and study somewhere else in Western Europe or in United States of America.

ABRAMSON: Each of the schools here focuses on a special niche. While Cornell does medicine, Texas A&M offers engineering degrees, Carnegie Mellon's specialty is business.

Professor PATRICK McGINNIS (Business Communications, Carnegie Mellon University, Qatar): I'm not quite sure what the message is here. Remember, this is valuable real estate at the top of each one of these slides; valuable real estate.

ABRAMSON: Professor Patrick McGinnis is helping a group of students hone their presentation skills for his business communications class.

Prof. McGINNIS: Yara(ph), let's go.

ABRAMSON: The assignment is to present a vision for a locally based business. One group wants to compete with foreign manufacturers of chocolate.

Unidentified Woman: Cornelia(ph) will be original, unique and extraordinary because we will produce our own chocolate in our company.

ABRAMSON: They handout samples of their product, which is delicious but is judged to be distracting.

All students speak good English here, though many still struggle with business English. Other than that, the only clue that you're not in Pittsburgh anymore is the clothing. Some of the women are covered head-to-toe in a black abiya. Local guys wear a long white tunic called a thobe. Some are in a co-ed class for their very first time.

Senior Buthayna Al Madhadi says her parents were skeptical about letting their daughters come here.

Ms. BUTHAYNA AL MADHADI: This was one of the things that my father and I argued slightly about before I went to college. I think that his concern was more about the environment.

ABRAMSON: About the morals.

Ms. AL MADHADI: Yeah. But then when I came here, he encouraged my little sister to also come here. So perceptions change.

ABRAMSON: Schools here hope their presence will nibble away at prejudices about the West. They have been promised that the local administration will not interfere with the curriculum. That might not be much of a problem for engineers or doctors.

Richard Roth heads the Northwestern program here. I asked him if his journalism students run into interference.

Mr. RICHARD ROTH (Senior Associate Dean, Medill School of Journalism): Oh, all the time. There's no Freedom of Information Act here. The reporters here don't ask questions of government. And these are things we're trying to teach. Change is slow. The press law here is outdated.

ABRAMSON: That's just one of many things that might discourage top faculty from wanting to teach here. Why give up a cushy job with tenure in a leafy suburb to teach in the desert?

Majd Sakr came from the Pittsburgh campus because he wanted a new challenge.

Professor MAJD SAKR (Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University): Here, there was nothing a few years ago when it comes to this type of education and research. The impact that you have on the society, the impact that you have on education is quite significant.

ABRAMSON: Sakr is originally from Lebanon. Members of the Arab diaspora see U.S. campuses here as a chance to come home again and help re-establish the region's education credentials.

People who have studied branch campuses say there are few things as important as having the perfect partner. If your host starts to interfere or goes broke, your endeavor and the home university's reputation could take a big hit.

Carnegie Mellon Dean Chuck Thorpe admits this kind of experiment would be difficult to pull off in an impoverished country.

Prof. THORPE: When we set out to do international education, we said we have to do it right. Doing it right means finding a place that has the vision. It also means doing it in a place that has the resources.

ABRAMSON: The local foundation builds the buildings and covers all expenses and pays schools a management fee. That's a pretty sweet deal, and it appears to satisfy any concerns that these campuses might be a drain on resources.

These and other offshore universities are at pains to emphasize their connection to the deep history of the home university. They offer video connections, library access, even semester visits back in the States.

Nevertheless, Professor Alan Ruby, who studies this phenomenon at the University of Pennsylvania, says it's hard to compare these efforts to a full-fledged university campus.

Professor ALAN RUBY (Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania): They're essentially boutiques, without meaning anything disparaging by that term. They're very tightly focused. They keep a control on the quality of admission and therefore on the quality of faculty.

ABRAMSON: Boutiques or not, foreign schools are catching on here. Tomorrow, competition and one-upmanship in the branch campus business.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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