Globalizing higher education: buyers beware

This is the era of academic globalization. Developing countries, along with Eastern Europe and parts of Asia, are experiencing the trend: Foreign academic institutions, working with local institutions or setting up shop on their own, are offering academic programs and degrees. Distance education, using the Internet, is being used to deliver degrees.

Sylvan Learning Systems, a for-profit US company that sells test preparation, announced in January it will be setting up campuses overseas, starting with the purchase of a private Spanish university. It's a signal that the Americans, thus far slow to expand overseas, will enter the market.

Some of these developments are positive, but not all. It's time to stand back and evaluate the trend.

Internationalism in higher education is hardly new. Most of the world's universities stem from medieval European institutions. For centuries, Latin was the common language of higher education. Now English has become the Latin of the 21st century. Today there are 1.5 million students studying outside their home countries. The large majority are from developing countries and are studying in the industrialized nations.

The current wave of internationalism has a late-20th century flavor: It is largely in the private sector. Motivated by profits instead of government policy or goodwill, it is largely unregulated.

The goals are to meet market demand and to create a market niche for an "educational product." Those providing the product - mainly academic institutions and other education providers in English-speaking countries - are often driven by a need make up budget shortfalls.

There are a variety of educational products being sold. Foreign study remains a big business, mainly from Asia to the West. Marketing is increasingly sophisticated as Western schools seek students worldwide. And despite the economic crisis in Asia, numbers continue to grow. Between 1996 and 1998, for example, the number of students going from Korea to the United States increased by 15.5 percent. The US hosts 481,000 overseas students, most of whom pay all their own expenses.

Universities from industrialized nations increasingly offer "offshore" degrees. Some renowned institutions offer them, as do some low-prestige schools or even "degree mills" that sell worthless certificates.

"Twinning" arrangements are common, in which a university in Asia or elsewhere links up with a Western institution. Local facilities and local staff are used, along with some input from the Western sponsor. Often, a degree from the Western institution is awarded upon completion. The curricular model, reading materials, pedagogical style, and language of the Western university dominate the program.

In some cases, the Western institution is integrally involved with all aspects of the educational program. In others, programs are "franchised," and there is little direct supervision or involvement by faculty from the "home" university.

In a way, such operations are similar to McDonald's: A foreign vendor pays to use a "brand name" and must deliver a product, designed in the institution's home country, to local customers. Unlike McDonald's, quality control is often spotty.

Western education providers are also setting up shop in Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe without working with a local institution. Often, a business firm or entrepreneur invests in a start-up educational institution, and contracts with a Western university or other institution to provide the service and award the degree.

Overall, the globalizing of education has many positive aspects. It helps serve the growing demand for access to higher education. It stimulates cross-national innovation in education. It prepares students for work in a global economy. Yet the trend creates many challenges. Among them are:

*Quality control. How can offshore providers be accredited?

*Information. Which are worthwhile programs offered by reputable institutions and which are sold just for a quick profit?

*Fit. Do the programs meet a local need? Do they contribute to the higher education system? How do they relate to local institutions?

*Costs and benefits. Are the programs worth the cost?

These questions are difficult to answer. Measuring educational outputs is difficult in the best of circumstances. Fostering international cooperation is good, and imposing too many controls may stifle new ideas.

Yet the current wave of globalized higher education brings with it the dangers of a total lack of regulation and control. It is a bad idea, in education at least, to permit caveat emptor to dominate.

* Philip G. Altbach is Monan professor of higher education and director of the Center for International Higher Education, at Boston College.

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