US falls for soft diplomacy

December 8, 2006

Portugal and China strike deals with US institutions in bids to build research and extend cultural ties, writes Jon Marcus

The US is entering into lucrative contracts with governments to help develop technology in their countries or to promote cross-cultural understanding in America.

In return, the universities gain access to rich markets of students abroad.

The Government of Portugal agreed to pay $80 million (£40.7 million) over five years to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and $42 million to Carnegie Mellon University to expand research and education in engineering, communications and management at Portuguese universities. A similar deal is being negotiated between Portugal and the University of Texas at Austin.

Under the initiative, MIT will help universities in Portugal to expand research and education in engineering and management. It will also team up with automotive companies including VW AutoEuropa to improve manufacturing.

Carnegie Mellon will focus on information and communication technologies.

"The duty of a responsible government with an eye towards the future is undoubtedly to foster scientific and technological skills and to recognise the essential role of research and development activities," Jose S"crates, Portugal's Prime Minister, said at a ceremony to announce the MIT deal.

The Chinese Government has given $1 million each to the universities of Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts and Michigan State to promote the teaching of Chinese language and culture through the first of what will be 100 Chinese-funded institutes at universities worldwide.

Dirk Messelaar, dean of corporate, continuing and distance education at the University of Massachusetts, called the initiative a form a soft diplomacy.

"I think it's a case of foreign governments attempting to leverage academic institutions to help the American and foreign cultural and business communities learn about each other. Higher education is a good forum for that."

The money from the Chinese Language Council International is underwriting Confucius institutes at US universities to help train Chinese-language teachers and promote Chinese culture. Some 100 centres - along the lines of the Goethe Institute and the Institut Francais - are planned by 2010. Some have opened in Australia and Scotland.

In exchange, the US universities get special access to Chinese institutions, which are potential sources of students and potential markets for academic software and other services.

"The advantage [for US universities] is that we have a close relationship with the Ministry of Education in China, which gives us access to government officials and business leaders in China that we otherwise wouldn't have," said Dr Messelaar, whose university offers 1,500 online courses that could be taught in China.

A Confucius Institute for Business was launched last month at the London School of Economics. Scotland's first Confucius Institute was opened at Edinburgh University in March.

Others are at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and Manchester University.

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