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Singapore: America's next college town

For some American universities, the new frontier lies over the ocean, as other nations looks to gain U.S. expertise.

College education--it's one of America's growing exports.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the National Research Foundation of Singapore on Friday announced plans to establish a major, new research center in Singapore in 2007. The Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) Center will be MIT's first such research center of its kind outside of Cambridge, Mass., according to the university.

The center will let MIT faculty and graduate students conduct research with their counterparts in Singaporean universities and companies. Scientists at the center will primarily concentrate on biomedical science, water and environmental technology, and digital media. Cooperation between MIT and Singapore first began in 1998.

MIT won't be the lone export in the island nation. Duke University is helping Singapore set up a medical school, while several companies and academics are participating in Biopolis, a multimillion-dollar program to establish the nation as a biotech hub.

Although politicians, parents and employers have roundly complained about the quality of elementary and high school education in the U.S., the university system generally still gets high marks.

The quality of education offered at U.S. universities hasn't gone unnoticed overseas either, and in recent years, international companies and other nations have sought to bring some of that expertise to their shores.

International academic exchanges aren't new. But in recent years, the level of interaction between U.S. universities and other nations and overseas companies has increased. Taiwanese chipmaker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., for instance, hired UC Berkeley electrical engineering professor Chenming Hu to serve as its chief technology officer for about two years.

In the oil-rich nation of Qatar, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University, Texas A&M University and a few other U.S. schools have set up full-fledged four-year degree programs. The degrees granted at the Qatar campuses are equivalent to those granted at the home campuses, and the classes are taught by visiting or relocated faculty.

Cornell University has erected a medical school in Qatar that will be complemented by a research hospital with an $8 billion endowment. In May, Carnegie Mellon opened up a satellite campus offering master's degrees in public policy or information technology in Adelaide, Australia.

Educators themselves often say that the move to expand overseas is a natural outgrowth of globalism. Every nation has intelligent youth; instead of depending on potential students to find the schools and navigate the visa morass on their own, the universities are coming to them. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, getting visas also has become more difficult.

"The U.S. is becoming less attractive for graduate students" because of visa issues, Mark Horowitz, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford University and the founder of Rambus, said at a conference in February.

Singapore has been one of the most keen to gain U.S. expertise. The medical school built in cooperation with Duke is slated to open in 2007. Faculty from the university will teach at Singapore's Graduate Medical University.

Much of the activity is centered on life sciences. Since it was started in 2001, Biopolis has managed to recruit Edison Liu, former director of clinical sciences at the U.S. National Cancer Institute, and Jackie Ying, an MIT professor of chemical engineering who also serves as the executive director of the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore.

Abbott Laboratories and Novartis, among others, have announced plans to invest millions in facilities in Singapore.