Erkner Encounter #8: Prof Natalie Koch, Syracuse University

On 7 December 2021 we welcomed Prof Natalie Koch to another digital Erkner Encounter. Natalie is a political geographer and Associate Professor for Geography and the Environment at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. What ties her work to our own is her research that critically reflects on the export of Western higher education into the Arab Gulf region and the entanglement of different actors and ideologies in the process.

Picture by Natalie Koch

During our meeting we discussed how the global geographies produced by transnational higher education projects are often shaped by more complex and multi-directional power relations than is sometimes acknowledged by critics who situate these phenomena solely against the background of authoritarian political projects or neo-colonial aspirations. Although Natalie’s latest research has moved away from transnational higher education projects abroad, we still identified many shared empirical and conceptual interests. For example, her forthcoming book “Arid Empire: The entangled fates of Arizona and Arabia” to be published by Verso in 2022 focuses on the geopolitical entanglements between different political spaces. It shows how the University of Arizona utilizes its contextual knowledge of arid land use in securing funding for projects in the Arab Gulf region. Such a creation of value of a university’s brand, that goes beyond rankings and prestige and is based on geographical imaginations instead, shows many similarities to lesser-known German universities selling the brand of ‘German engineering’ abroad.

Our discussion enabled us to identify multiple potential avenues for further research. This not only includes the need to investigate the (im-)mobilities of faculty at offshore campuses as well as the diffusion of policies and ideas in regard to governmental projects aimed at attracting foreign providers of higher education, but also bringing together the different regional foci of the TRANSEDU project by tracing the relationalities and connections between the transnational higher education sectors in the Arab Gulf region and Southeast Asia.

For more engagement with Natalie’s work, here are some of her publications that intersect with the TRANSEDU research: