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U.S. Agency Waffles on International Higher Ed Partnerships

CAIRO – The credibility of the United States is tenuous in the Arab world at best. That credibility was shaken even more recently by back-and-forth fluctuations about whether a major U.S. aid agency would continue to support higher-education international partnerships that include about a dozen in North Africa and the Middle East.

In August, the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, informed the Higher Education for Development (HED) of plans to precipitously slash funding that it uses to manage and develop 41 partnerships between American colleges and universities and institutions overseas.

Last week, the U.S. agency indicated it had reversed its decision.

“USAID intends to honor our commitments to the 41 current partnerships under the HED program,” wrote assistant administrator Eric G. Postel in a Sept. 19 letter. “I give you my assurance that USAID will do everything possible to continue the partnerships to their scheduled end dates with minimal disruption to program activities.”

The reversal eased concerns over the possibility of a drastic budget cut that would force partnerships to cease, halting many programs mid-stream.

“From the perspective of the partnerships, the news is pretty unambiguously good,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president at the American Council on Education, which oversees Higher Education for Development.

“Our arrangement with USAID requires us to perform lots of monitoring and oversight functions – administrative, qualitative, quantitative, financial,” Hartle said. “If funding was dramatically decreased, he said, “We just simply wouldn’t be able to have staff to do what the agreement required us to do.”

“We indicated it would be total chaos,” Hartle said.

Even with the reversal, however, continued funding is not a guarantee. But partners in the region are holding tight to signs that aid will be sustained.

“If they cut down on budgets at this moment it would have been hurtful given that we are in a moment of transition,” said Raif Shwayri, CEO of the Al-Kafaat Foundation in Lebanon, which has schools that partner with three community colleges in the State University of New York (SUNY) system.

The collaboration between the institutions began in early 2012 and is set to continue through the end of next year. The focus is on teaching entrepreneurship, and SUNY provides support to students at Al-Kafaat’s university and technical school, as well as helping to strengthen the curriculum.

As a result of the partnership, Al-Kafaat now has an English-language program and a student-learning center that provides support for coursework and services to students who have learning differences. Now, the partnership is tackling a curriculum for business administration.

“We have used the seed money to connect – engage campus to campus, faculty to campus,” Shwayri said, “and a network of relationships has been built that goes beyond the funding issues.”

Sameer Barhoumeh, international academic projects manager in the Academic Developments and Quality Control Unit at Jordan’s Al Quds College, heads a partnership between the institution and Eastern Iowa Community Colleges. Some of the most important outcomes have been relationships built through collaboration, he said.

“It’s not about money, it’s about knowledge, about what we gain from them,” Barhoumeh said. “So we gain knowledge, we gain expertise from their side.”

Al Quds College and Eastern Iowa Community Colleges have been working together for over a year and the project is not set to end until 2015. This year, 3,000 students will have access to entrepreneurship courses because of the partnership.

But if funding is cut, Barhoumeh said, Al Quds College would not be able to finish the program.

“We are in the middle of the road,” he said. “So we would be affected in a great way.”

Partners outside the United States wouldn’t exclusively suffer from funding cuts. The collaborations have also benefited American faculty members and students.

Rosemary Ortlieb-Padgett, who works at Nassau Community College and directs the partnership between the Al-Kafaat Foundation schools and SUNY colleges, said the project “has completely changed the way we look at education.”

“Having faculty members from Nassau Community College travel to Lebanon to work with other faculty members and develop relationships directly impacts how things go down in the classroom,” she said. “They transfer the knowledge to students and that is something that is so valuable.”

Partnerships also spark offshoot developments. Because of the collaboration between Al Quds College in Jordan and Eastern Iowa Community Colleges, the latter now leads a study abroad program to the Middle East that is not supported by USAID.

“Those things are life-changing for the students who participate in those programs,” said Jeremy Pickard, international education director at Eastern Iowa Community Colleges. “So we get state-side change and also international change, and it does definitely benefit both institutions equally.”

Cutting support for the partnership now would be harmful, Pickard said.

“You would basically be severing a partnership that took a significant amount of time to develop,” he said, “and not having the resources to continue that right when we’re getting to the point where it’s looking like it may be able to self-sustain in a year and a half or so would be quite damaging.”

A withdrawal of funds could also put the United States’ reputation further at risk in a region where anger at Washington in recent months has billowed.

“It will not look good for the United States to suddenly and unilaterally withdraw from projects that we have entered into to help people in countries where there might be great suffering,” Hartle said.

USAID’s credibility could also be harmed, he said. “USAID is a very visible foreign presence throughout the world,” Hartle said. “Their reputation as a reliable partner, as someone you can count on to uphold their part of a commitment, is likely to suffer if they walk away from this.”

Shwayri, in Lebanon, is hopeful that funding won’t decrease.

“The thing is, we never had to deal with issues like this before,” he said. “Whenever you sign on a project you know exactly how the funding is going to be and you know the magnitude and you know the ins and outs.”

But he and others are determined to keep projects going either way.

“We are not going to stop,” Shwayri said. “We would have to find solutions.”

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