Administrators head to China to chart global degree program

The leader of GW’s largest school will travel to China this week to examine potential academic space for the University’s first global undergraduate degree.

Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Dean Peg Barratt will lead a group of GW officials to the industrial city Suzhou to ensure the classrooms and campus will meet the needs of the four-year program that would have about 50 economics majors studying in China, France and D.C. starting in fall 2014.

The administrators will also meet with two top officials from Renmin University, GW’s partner in China, to learn more about academics and student life there. Barratt called it a “fact-finding trip,” but one that’s critical to the potential success of the global program.

“If our experience is a positive one, and we have every reason to believe it will be, it is my hope that this trip will mark the beginning of a long undergraduate partnership with Renmin University at Suzhou,” Barratt said.

The program would be the first of its kind at GW, and among a handful across higher education. It’s also a major globalization push – a key piece of GW’s 10-year strategic plan.

Barratt, in her last year as dean of GW’s largest college, will be joined by Associate Provost for International Programs Donna Scarboro, GW School of Business’ Chief Strategy Officer Sanjay Rupani and associate professor of economics and international affairs Steve Suranovic.

Rupani will represent the business school because of its interest in launching a similar program after Columbian College. The business school dean, Doug Guthrie, is a China scholar with an eye sharply focused on building up in the country.

The University acquired class space in China last spring to expand its partnerships with the Chinese university Renmin. The business school has already teamed up with the Chinese university to offer a master’s of finance degree.

“As for the need for space, we are not yet knowledgeable about the existing space and any competing demands. This is something we will be learning more about during our visit,” Barratt said.

The group will also take a high-speed rail 75 miles from Suzhou to Shanghai “to get a better idea of what the commute would be like for our students,” she said.

GW’s global degree program would not mean that GW would become a degree-granting institution in China – a complex, diplomatic process that few universities complete.

Instead, the University would look to continue building strong ties with schools like Renmin University in China and Sciences Po, a French university that GW already works with for a study abroad exchange. Four administrators traveled to Paris last month to establish further ties with schools there.

Barratt said in September that the University would likely start recruiting students for the program in the spring, a process it will start to nail down after the China trip.

“These will not be your regular, ‘I want to be here when there’s an election’ GW students,” Barratt said. “But I’d imagine some of these students will have attended international schools, already done a study abroad [program] in high school, so they’re ready to do something like this.”

Marketing the program will be one hurdle the University will have to pass, said Philip Altbach, director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education.

“When two countries are involved, what kind of students are going to want to have their half their undergraduate experience overseas is a big question,” he said.” It’s novel. I don’t know of any other places doing the two country bit.”

He said upper-tier universities, including New York University, have turned globalization into an arms race in higher education by setting up branch campuses and forging ties with international schools.

And the race has intensified because it opens schools up to foreign markets where undergraduates mostly pay full tuition instead of relying on financial aid, Altbach said.

“Schools need to be careful about all this. There are failures out there and shoddy arrangements,” he said. “There’s the chance for misunderstanding and the chance for losing a lot of money, as well as all the good things they want to talk about.”

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