Price students travel abroad and glean global lessons in health care, transit, governance

October 14, 2018

By Cristy Lytal

For some students at the USC Price School of Public Policy, the most memorable part of their academic experience happens during the summer, when they embark on international labs and programs.

“The international labs are a flagship offering of the Price School,” said Professor Eric Heikkila, who directs the USC Price Office of Global Engagement. “While each lab is unique in terms of the setting, the topic and the instructor, they all provide participants an opportunity to gain international consulting-type experience with real-world clients and policy challenges. We prepare actively during the prior semester and then cap it off with two weeks of intensive field work abroad. It is a truly memorable experience for all who participate.”

During this summer’s international labs, 26 students explored mass transit in Hong Kong, and 19 students examined public-private partnerships in health care in Italy. In addition, 15 students dissected governance in Germany and the European Union (EU) as participants in the USC Price on the Rhine program. The students hailed from USC Price’s undergraduate programs, as well as the master’s programs in public administration (MPA), public policy (MPP), planning (MPL), health administration (MHA), and international public policy and management (IPPAM).

Health care partnerships in Italy

Nineteen master’s students from the MPA, MPP, MHA and IPPAM programs explored the issues surrounding public-private partnerships in health care in Italy.

USC Price Professor Mike Nichol led the lab in partnership with Veronica Vecchi, a professor from the SDA Bocconi School of Management in Milan.

“One of the critical elements is for the students to understand that we’ve got entirely different cultures, especially cultures related to public processes,” Nichol said. “They also see that there are different ways that countries deliver services. And, they get a sense of the attitudes regarding the relationships between both the public and private sectors. That experience gives the students a context for the way that these different societies deal with governance issues. All of these elements give the students a different picture of what it means to be involved in public projects within another country.”

Under the guidance of the two professors, the students learned about public-private partnerships, with a focus on the concept of value for money. The students also discussed recent public-private partnership projects with representatives from the general contracting firms Pessina Contruzioni and Lendlease, as well as the medical technology company Medtronic.

Based on what they learned, they wrote a report and made a presentation at an Italian Investment Bank called Cassa Depositi e Prestiti in Rome. Several representatives attended from Italy’s federal government, including the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

During the students’ presentation, they discussed best practices in public-private partnerships, gave examples of successful partnerships, and made several recommendations such as standardizing contracts, requiring open competitive bidding, establishing national monitoring and transparency, sharing data, and performing value-for-money analysis and fiscal risk assessment.

“We weren’t students,” said Isabel Oropeza, a lab participant from the MPA program. “We were consultants. I thought that was the biggest key. We were thinking it was a three-unit class in two weeks. But no, it was a lab. We were consultants, and at the end of the day, we were working for a client. This could not be a more real-world experience.”

Mass transit in Hong Kong

2018 Hong Kong Lab
Students participate in the 2018 International Lab in Hong Kong, led by Professor Marlon Boarnet. (Photos by Alex Freedman)
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Twenty-six MPL, MPP and MPA students ventured to Hong Kong to delve into the topic of mass transit.

The Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway (MTR) Corporation operates one of the world’s most successful subway systems, which is financed by an approach called land value capture. The Hong Kong government deeds MTR the development rights to the land near new rail lines. The land increases in value as soon as MTR builds the rail line, and this finances the construction and operation of the mass transit system.

The students heard presentations from professionals from LA Metro and the Hong Kong MTR, the Hong Kong government, the engineering and construction firm AECOM, and Hong Kong University, among numerous other organizations. The students also toured Shenzhen and met the city’s municipal officials to get a broader sense of the region.

“I don’t think I’ve ever spent time in a place deeply listening or getting to interact with so many people at so many levels of society as we were with all of our stakeholder visits,” said Alex Freedman, who is pursuing dual MPP and MPL degrees. “I learned a lot about China and Hong Kong-China relationships, of course, but also just the way China relates to the world. And, it was this great exercise in empathy building in a way that I wasn’t expecting to realize.”

In their report and presentation, the students addressed questions of regional integration, housing affordability and environmental justice. One of their key recommendations was to build affordable housing, in addition to market-priced housing, near the new rail lines.

“They were presenting to the board and to the CEO… and the CEO ever so diplomatically did come at them with this very tough question of: How can you be recommending that we reduce our revenue stream?” said Professor Marlon Boarnet, who led the lab. “They said, ‘Well, there’s what some people call a social license to operate. They’re not strictly a private company. Their largest shareholder is the government of Hong Kong. And so the students argued that MTR had to be seen as part of the solution to the housing problem, not part of the problem.”

Days after the presentation, the South China Morning Post announced that MTR was considering incorporating affordable housing into their future developments.

“MTR had not told any of us, so the students had really immersed themselves to the point that they were able to see the things that the top leadership of this agency had already been thinking about,” Boarnet said. “I was very impressed.”

Perspectives from both sides of the Atlantic

Fifteen undergraduate and master’s students from USC, along with students from other U.S. universities, spent five weeks in dorms at Speyer University during the USC Price on the Rhine program. They lived alongside German students and studied public administration and policy in the U.S. compared to the European Union.

“Getting to talk to the German students and understanding how they approach public policy was very interesting,” said IPPAM student Mitzi Salgado. “At the same time, I also found it very valuable to work and collaborate with students from other parts of the country who had a different take on public policy.”

Professor William Resh and his colleagues from Speyer University gave seminars about public administration, public policy, constitutional law, economic integration and other key topics in the U.S. and EU. The students then wrote seminar papers on topics of their choice. The master’s students wrote two papers each, and the undergraduates wrote one paper each.

“I would say the students were most interested in two things that they really have in common in terms of issues here in the United States as well as in the EU,” said Resh, who directs the program. “One was immigration policy in the EU and the U.S. And the second thing was the rise of right wing nationalism across European states, and comparing it to the relative rise of right wing nationalism here in the United States as well.”

The program also included excursions to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France; the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium; the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, Germany; and other EU institutions.

“I really liked going to Strasbourg,” Salgado said. “We got to learn about the human rights laws in the European Union and how they are actually enforced with the other countries.”

The students also took advantage of their central location in Europe to enjoy free weekends in nearby cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and Prague.

“Probably over half of them had never traveled overseas before,” Resh said. “I had several students tell me that it was the best experience so far at USC — the opportunity to be able to travel and learn in that type of environment.”