Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Globalization of Higher Education

In his 2005 paperJohn Aubrey Douglass is skeptical of the idea that opening up of services (of which higher education is a form) combined with e-learning will cause a "revolution" in international higher education. Working against this revolution, Douglass (p. 11, 2005) lists seven countervailing forces:

1. Wealth and Stability of Developed Nations 

Douglass (p. 11, 2005) points out that "... Advanced economies all have advanced systems of higher education ..." and developing nations "... have lower rates of access to higher education and have higher rates of students traveling to foreign soil to attend a university. ...". The author also points to the correlation between between countries with political and economic stability and the quality higher education. However, these I suggest, are correlations and not necessarily apply in all cases.

Developing nations have been able to build hi-tech industries with help from developed nations and then go on to rival them. In some cases the developed nations lack of democracy might be seen as an advantage by investors, removing the political uncertainty of election cycles. Many developed nations have invited universities from developed nations to set up satellite and joint campuses with local institutions.

2. Balance of Demand and Supply

Douglass (p. 11, 2005), points out that demand is outstripping supply of HE in China, with the government encouraging outside providers. In contrast the USA has a balance of supply and demand. But I did not understand how this would hinder globalisation. If China follows the same path with education as it has with industrial manufacturing (such as for electronics), it will first try to compete on price, offering education of a lower quality but also a much lower price than US institutions. This will stimulate demand at the low end of the market. Chinese institutions can then steadily improve the quality of the product until it is equal to mainstream US institutions.

China does not need to rival the most elite US institutions, in order to make this a profitable venture. Also China need not provide the service in the same way as US institutions and can use US institutions to retail the service. This might be termed "Walmart Education": while Walmart is considered a quintessentially American company, its products come primarily from China, through a China based distribution system. This model is now being applied to education in Australia by Torrens University Australia.

Torrens was admitted to the Australian National Register of higher education providers in July 2012, as an "Australian University", but as described in their Study Assist entry, is part of Laureate International Universities. A search of Torrens Staff on LinkedIn lists less than one hundred people. In comparison, LinkedIn lists more than 4,000 current staff for the University of Adelaide. While Adelaide has 25,000 students and Torrens only a few hundred, there is no requirement for Torrens to employ any more staff in Australia, as it could instead provide the tutoring via its international affiliates.

3. Nation/State Regulation and Initiatives

Douglass (p. 12, 2005) claims that the "vast majority of HE reform is coming not from entrepreneurial efforts of institutions, but from government regulatory initiatives". However, this does not take into account that many of these initiatives are designed to impose market forces on existing institutions. Also the national regulations may be outpaced by any international trade agreement. An agreement on free trade in services which includes education will require nations to allow offshore institutions to compete on an equal basis.
4. Local Culture and Needs

Douglass (p. 12, 2005) points out that China requires foreign universities to partner with local ones, clearly with the intention of building up local capabilities, at least to provide the local market indigenously, if not to also compete internationally.  The author claims, vaguely, that the UK shows "...  strong cultural biases ...".  That argument may well have been made about the UK car industry in the late 20th Century. However, in 1994 the Rover Group was sold to BMW, ending British-owned volume car production. Iconic British cars, including Bentley and Rolls-Royce are now foreign owned, but this has not harmed sales.

Douglass (p. 13, 2005) cites the examples of the University of Phoenix, which failed in the UK market and UK Open University, which failed in the US. However, this may simply reflect poor marketing on the part of these institutions, for failing to add a veneer of localization over their imported product.

In mid 2015 Torrens University Australia acquired the Chifley Business School, which was set up by the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia (APESMA) in 1989 to provide postgraduate vocational qualifications. This is similar to the way VW and BMW  acquired UK luxury car brands to broaden the appeal of their products.

Another approach car companies use could be applied here: first design the product for international requirements, then tailor it for local markets. As Douglass (p. 12, 2005) points out, some courses need considerable localization (such as accounting and tax law), but students are likely to respond favorably to courses which offer a global perspective.

5. Local Academic Culture

Douglass (p. 14, 2005) argues that university academics fearful of the loss of academic integrity tend to create semi-independent entities for tasks such as "extension" programs and this can be used for new international and on-line programs. In this way the author argues, the cultural changes implied by new forms of education will be kept isolated from the core university. This may be the case, but I can't see how it is particularly relevant to international education. Universities could retain their main campus and conduct research and education there. This would be a useful form of marking, giving prestige to their mostly on-line and satellite campus delivered products. This would be similar to the way Rolls-Royce emphasize the hand crafted finish provided on their vehicles in a UK, rather than the mass production of the mechanical components in BMW's German factories.

6. Internet Promoting Local Products Globally 

Douglass (p. 15, 2005) argues the "... investment required in order to develop a high quality academic course online, or even a hybrid course (mostly online, with some actual physical meeting of student and instructor) is relatively high". The author does not say relative to what, but presumably face-to-face courses. They go on to say this is because "... software for online courses (including commercial producers like Blackboard) is relatively difficult and primitive". This has not been my experience.

Use of learning management system software can be frustrating, but designing a course does not require a "significant amount of programming" as Douglass (p. 15, 2005) suggests, nor a "team of professionals" to maintain content. I can manage to design, maintain and deliver courses, with occasional help from support personnel. The difference I suggest is that I have been trained in how to design courses and, in particular, how to design on-line courses. Also I have undertaking the training in how to use the software.

The problem, I suggest, is that university academics usually receive little training in how to design courses. This deficiency is much more apparent with on-line courses than face-to-face ones. It is not that it is harder to design an on-line course, just harder to cover up a badly designed one.

US Higher Education is Not Typical Internationally

After the countervailing forces, Douglass (p. 16, 2005) looks at the case of the USA. But as Douglass (p. 16, 2005) notes "The US lacks anything like a central ministry setting policy and funding for HE as in most other countries". Given that the USA is atypical, it is not clear why the author chooses only this country to study.

Douglass (p. 19, 2005) notes, not surprisingly, that "... specialized schools have the largest percentage of students taking at least one online course", followed by community colleges, vocational/adult learning. The author asks rhetorically if this will be the future pattern in higher education? It would be surprising if it was not, as vocational institutions offering lower level shorter qualifications has been the traditional market for extension eduction and its natural evolution into on-line eduction. Offering on-line courses obviously attracts students who could not attend on-campus courses and the programs therefore need to be designed with such students in mind.

Some years ago I tried "night school" at an Australian university. This was promoted as being design for working people. What I quickly discovered was the only allowance made for for working people were classes at night. There were no special support services provided and none of the administration facilities were open at night. After a couple of weeks I withdrew from the program. Some on-line programs appear to be the equivalent of this and it is not surprising that they are not popular.


Douglass, J. A. (2005). All globalization is local: Countervailing forces and the influence on higher education markets. Center for Studies in Higher Education. Retrieved from

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