The Crisis In Multinational Higher Education – the convergence of multinational and distance education, its promise and challenge
Philip G. Altbach
We are in the midst of a revolution in the delivery of academic programs of all kinds internationally. So far, commentators have focused largely on the positive aspects of this revolution. Greater access, lower costs, and the advent of a truly global market for higher education are all written up as favorable trends, especially when governments cut back on higher education funding while demand for access increases worldwide. Enrollments have expanded dramatically–from 40 to 80 million worldwide in the past two decades, with likely increases of another 20 million in the coming decade, mostly in developing countries. The means to serve these additional students must be found. Just in time, it seems, there is now all but universal agreement that it is possible to deliver needed, effective educational programs through new technologies and international collaboration. The focus here is on the problems and challenges this raises. My intent is to provide a needed balance to the overblown rhetoric of promise. We ne ed to understand all of the implications of these innovations if they are to serve the interests of students and teachers–and not simply become a vehicle for profit-making corporations. I am not arguing that either multinational or distance education is necessarily bad, or that the problems outweigh their promise. Yet it is necessary to stand back and analyze the new realities.
Two recent news reports gave me, at least, pause. In the first, Glenn R. Jones recently became the Chairman and CEO of GATE, the Global Alliance for Transnational Education, an accrediting organization set up to foster and certify quality in cross-border higher education enterprises. What is notable here is that Jones is also responsible for Jones International University, a for-profit provider of online educational programs. GATE moved from its offices in the Dupont Circle complex of higher education associations in Washington, D.C., to Englewood, Colorado, headquarters of Jones’s enterprises. GATE, which was largely funded by Jones, is now directly linked with a profit-making corporation in the international education business. What credence can we give it as an objective arbiter of program quality?
In a second development at about the same time, the British minister for higher education, Baroness Blackstone, rapped the University of Derby for poor performance in its joint degree program with an Israeli institution. A report from a British quality assurance agency noted that the Derby-Israel collaboration “did not secure the quality and standards of programs offered.” There have been repeated criticisms in the British press about multinational higher education initiatives in Malaysia and elsewhere.
All is not well, then, in the worlds of multinational and distance higher education. It is time for a more careful look at those worlds and the issues involved. By multinational higher education, we refer to academic programs offered by institutions of one country in another. These may be “stand alone” branches, or collaborative arrangements with local academic institutions or business enterprises. They range from such high-end institutions as the University of Chicago Business School or France’s INSEAD management institute–each of which has established overseas branches–to tiny schools wanting to ensure their survival through overseas initiatives. There are also examples of free-standing institutions, such as the American University of Bulgaria, which exist in one country but follow the curriculum of another and are accredited abroad.
Distance higher education includes educational programs offered entirely through the Internet and other means that do not involve the student in face-to-face classroom or laboratory experience. Again, the range of programs is immense–and so far largely unevaluated with regard to quality–from Britain’s Open University, generally seen as the Cadillac of distance programs (OU programs tend to mix face-to-face and distance elements) to Turkey’s Anadolu University, serving 578,000 students. Growing numbers of students worldwide are using the Internet to enroll in distance programs offered by institutions from outside their countries, often with little knowledge of the nature of the program or of the “university” offering it.
To understand the new phenomena of multinational and distance education, a few facts must be kept in mind.
* Multinational higher education always has elements of inequality. Institutions from the developed world are selling their products abroad, usually in developing countries. The usual product is “off the shelf” programs for use overseas. Decisions about the curriculum, standards, faculty, and requirements are made by the seller, seldom locally.
* The motive for establishing these multinational enterprises is almost always to make money. Of course this is the explicit aim of the growing number of for-profit institutions, but it is also the case for most traditional non-profit universities. Many of the latter, such as Australia’s aggressive Monash University, are quite open about it. British and Australian institutions have been especially active internationally as a way of making up for budget cuts at home.
* Institutions like Jones International and the University of Phoenix are not really universities, whatever the term in their titles. Rather, they are degree-delivery machines, providing tailored programs with appeal to specific markets. They do not maintain the regular faculties, participatory governance, research emphasis or free inquiry typical of established universities worldwide. They are devoted to delivering a clearly defined product, and they hire employees or contractors to produce and deliver it. They should not be called universities. A more accurate name would be the “Phoenix Training and Credentialing Service, a division of the Apollo Corporation.”
* The multinational and distance-education movements do not really contribute to the internationalization of higher education worldwide. Knowledge products are being sold across borders, but there is little mutual exchange of ideas, or knowledge, of students or faculty. They are not collaborative in the sense that internationalization would require.
* Multinational and distance institutions operate in a largely unregulated environment. Accrediting and oversight bodies everywhere are trying to catch up with new developments; government agencies in sponsoring and receiving countries alike are concerned and sometimes critical. The GATE example shows that leaving regulation in the hands of those who own, operate, and profit from the new multinational and distance institutions may not be an effective way to ensure quality. On top of this, higher education itself is notoriously difficult to evaluate; the new ventures, using new technologies across international boundaries, compound the difficulties.
* Multinational and distance higher education are seen as “demand absorbing,” as the economists put it. They provide access at an affordable price to those who seek it. However, it becomes all-too-easy for governments to permit these new institutions to enroll students–every person in a multinational or distance institution will not be attending a traditional university, where government would otherwise foot much of the bill.
While the trends discussed here are real enough, they aren’t the whole story. There are many truly collaborative academic arrangements aimed at fostering international research, teaching, and student learning. As examples, we can cite the collaborative degree program in management between the 28 American Jesuit universities and Peking University and the longstanding collaboration between the Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University. Such examples reinforce the point that these new trends are not evil.
The new enterprises indeed have a role in contemporary higher education. They will not take the place of traditional universities, but there are things that they can do well. But everyone who cares about the future of higher education and the broader public interest, worldwide, needs to step back and see the problems here, not just the promises.
Philip G. Aitbach is Monan Professor of Higher Education and director of the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.
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