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The Other Higher Education

This was originally published on The World View on
June 10, 2013

No one doubts the phenomenon of “massification” that has resulted in more access to higher education for more students worldwide. This is certainly a good thing. But as we have discussed in past blogs, massification introduces many new challenges. When higher education was an elite undertaking, entering students often came from elite primary and secondary schools, making it more likely that they had the necessary preparation to continue tertiary studies through to graduation. As participation rates move from 6 or 16 percent to 46 or 66 percent, the cohort includes more students from public primary and secondary schools where the quality of education varies dramatically.

The growing participation in postsecondary education parallels economic growth, particularly notable in Latin America and Africa where rapidly growing economies demand higher levels of skilled labor.

More education for more people is great progress, of course. The problem is that too many people believe that social and economic mobility require a university degree. With the enrollment deluge this has resulted in two critical problems—high dropout rates and underemployed university graduates. As Joyce Lau asks in a June 5th New York Times article (Can Job Training Trump a Degree?), “Is it better to be a well-employed mechanic or chef, or a university graduate with a degree but no job?” There are too many countries with highly educated taxi drivers. Not that someone with a university degree shouldn’t drive a taxi but only if this is a choice, not employment for lack of any other.

What is the alternative? Most developed and rapidly-developing countries seem to have an insatiable need for graduates of technical and vocational schools. This sector is often better prepared to fill in the gaps in prior learning on an “as needed” basis for specific skills being taught. Limited available data hint at much higher employment rates for graduates of this sector and graduates are generally more likely to find work in their area of study and training than many university graduates.

There is a big problem though. This kind of higher education does not begin to offer the social prestige that most parents (and many students) aspire to. Additionally, too many countries, anxious to see their universities appear in international rankings, are making major investments in the university sector. Worse still, these investments are being made in relatively few universities. It seems that the whole planet is pursuing prestige at the expense of common sense.

So what should be done? First—there should be colossal investment in the development of technical and vocational education. This means a serious assessment of the programs currently on offer and whether they are aligned with the needs of the labor market. Next, there needs to be a massive investment in infrastructure as this level of education is too often under-resourced, leaving many non-university institutes without even basic services such as high-speed Internet access. This needs to be followed by research to determine how best to prepare students, followed by training for teachers to assure that the education they are providing is up to date with current practice and technology. And finally, the level of core study in vocational/technical education needs to be “notched up” so that students develop quantitative and soft skills at a level that overlaps with the experience of first and second-year university students.

But the problem of prestige will persist unless there is a policy shift to address it. So my second set of recommendations is to integrate technical and vocational education into university study. By this I mean that graduates of technical and vocational programs should have access to higher education at a later date with advanced standing for studies already completed. Part of the success of the community college in the United States is the fact that it is not a dead end, rather a possible transition for students who aspire to a university degree. In most other countries, students who enter a vocational track will find none of their work comparable to university study and certainly none applicable to another degree if they wish to pursue further study at another time. Too many countries have created parallel paths for vocational/technical and university education that never intersect and this is a big mistake.

As much as I would like to believe in education for its own sake, we live in a world where most people can survive only if they are employed. Not only do we need to link education to the job market more realistically, but we need to recognize that education is a lifelong process and create paths with multiple opportunities for further study and encourage (and support) reentry at different life stages. The “other higher education” has a critical role to play here.

Measuring Quality and Peformance: What Counts?

This blog was first posted on The World View on

“Not everything that can be counted counts,
and not everything that counts can be counted.”
Albert Einstein

There has been a rash of articles in the press about the ways we might measure the effectiveness of a university education, often judging the success of higher education by the employment results of graduates. There have been several articles about the failure of higher education in China to guarantee jobs to graduates. The Voluntary Institutional Metrics Project also emphasizes post-graduate employment among the items (below) to be evaluated that include:

  • repayment and default rates on student loans
  • student progression and completion
  • institutional cost per degree
  • employment of graduates
  • student learning

Four of five items above are primarily quantitative measures. [Re-read Einstein quote above.] I recognize the importance of looking at higher education critically to determine what impact the experience has on individuals and societies but we seem to repeatedly resort to the same fallback strategies of “counting what can be counted” for lack of an effective methodology for an alternative.

Quantitative data are relatively easy to collect and very simple to compare. This feeds into the attraction of rankings—gather data, create mechanisms for quantifying the information, and compare. Rankings, like the information that will be collected by the Voluntary Institutional Metric Project, will (supposedly) help us know which institution is better than which other institution.

But most anyone who has collected data knows that you can neatly summarize the results but that those results often hide a fair amount of messiness. Are all data from all institutions collected and reported in the same way? Are they truly comparable? Which variables were factored into the analysis and which were overlooked? Or ignored? We have read over and over again that there are serious methodological problems with the way rankings are constructed. I suggest that there are good reasons to doubt most comparative data collected from the diverse array of institutions that make up higher education in any country today. We are rarely comparing apples to apples. In fact, we are generally comparing apples to kumquats so if we resort to measuring common characteristics (number of seeds, for example) just to have something to compare, how useful is it?

Quantitative measures are appealing at so many levels but they limit what we can measure as well as how accurately we can measure something as elusive as education. I once read (I think it was Martin Trow) that to truly measure the quality and impact of higher education, we would have to monitor someone throughout their post-graduate lifetime. This makes sense to me. Several decades after receiving my liberal arts degree that prepared me for no job in particular, I am constantly reminded of the value of what I learned during those four years— it provided me with the foundation skills for all of the work I’ve done since. Now, how could I document that?

I recognize that in most modern societies, most of us need to work to survive, but I do wonder if the purpose of a college education is to guarantee employment. Perhaps it is time to separate the two. Perhaps we should be getting an education at college and job training somewhere else. What do employment statistics, or loan repayment data, or institutional costs really tell us about the education someone has experienced?

Institutions of all kinds need to be accountable but we should be careful about what conclusions we draw from the things that we can measure.

Who owns the future? Those who invest in it!

A while back, the NY Times reported that China’s government is making an investment of $250 billion/year in the development of human capital. The Times likens this to the GI Bill in the US in the 1940s that contributed to the longest period of sustained economic growth in the US during the last century. There is a wealth of additional information in the article. Definitely worth reading.

Since reading the article I have continued to observe many other countries making extremely large investments in higher education. I am just home from Saudi Arabia where massive investments in higher education are being made as well. There has been much written about Brazil’s investment in higher education. There are many countries participating in this trend. That is, except my own country.

Of course I recognize that investment alone does not produce quality higher education and that the Chinese government’s determination to control knowledge and ideas that circulate nationally is an enormous problem. And that building an effective academic culture will be an enormous and ongoing problem. Whether China is truly prepared to provide appropriate facilities and adequately remunerated faculty to support growing enrollments remains unclear. That said, the infusion of capital will certainly lead to a lot more Chinese citizens with a university degree. The Times tells us that during the last decade alone, China has quadrupled their number of university graduates. Just as the GI Bill supported a diverse population at different kinds of institutions of varying quality in the US following the Second World War, the Chinese investment will undoubtedly do the same. This it will likely lead to the improvement of the median level of education in China while building a much better educated work force. According to the Times, multinationals from Intel to General Motors have taken not and are hiring, writing: “China’s growing supply of university graduates is a talent pool that global corporations are eager to tap. ‘If they went to China for brawn, now they are going to China for brains,’ said Denis F. Simon, one of the best-known management consultants specializing in Chinese business.”

Of course I believe passionately that more education should be accessible to more people and that this kind of investment and expanded access is a good thing. But the path China is on does imply a call to action for the rest of us. We live in a competitive world and we need to consider the implications of massive infusions of capital in higher education by other governments. Compare the Chinese\ investment in higher education with a few illustrative examples in the US. State funding to the University of California in 2011/12 represented a 21.3% cut from the previous year. State funding to UC has dropped steadily over the past five years (although the trend has reversed some this year). State appropriations to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor represent less than 24% of the operating budget. In the 2012/13 budget of the University of Virginia, the state’s contribution is under 6%.

These are only a few examples, but in a political environment hostile to taxes, many public universities are desperately short of the funding needed to sustain their goals of providing equitable access to all who are qualified as well as to continue to lead the world with the best opportunities for advanced education. Like private universities, public institutions have little alternative other than raising fees, which increases the cynicism of conservative politicians towards higher education and puts a degree out of reach of ever more young Americans. In other words, we are passing China, but going in opposite directions.

So despite our presumption that the US hosts the world’s best universities, we do not (or very soon will not) have the world’s best educated population. And that has serious implications for the future.

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed

Rethinking International Student Orientation

In a recent editorial in The Guardian Diane Schmitt, a lecturer at Nottingham University, calls attention to the thorny issue of whether UK universities are enrolling under-prepared international students. She takes the debate to a new level emphasizing that there is a distinction to be made between English-language skill and cultural familiarity and suggests that the latter may be a bigger problem than the former. She stresses that we should not be too quick to blame English language tests and low scores for the difficulties many international students confront in the classroom. She points to research conducted by Lancaster University and the London School of Economics that suggests that the problem may be the differences between education systems—not so much in content of programs but in classroom culture, criteria for success, teacher expectations, exposure to research, and experience with collaboration. For those of us who have worked with international students for many years, this is a “no-brainer” but a reality rarely recognized and hardly ever addressed.

In many countries throughout the world, university education is delivered entirely by lecture where students are sufficiently intimidated by their teachers that they do not interrupt, let alone contradict them. The student’s engagement is passive; success depends on retaining vast amounts of information returned to the professor on an examination. Discussion, collaboration with other students, independent work tend to be rare experiences.

At my own institution, where I believed we provided great support to international students, I was shocked to hear graduate students recount horror stories of their early experiences with faculty and peers. Professors and students displayed impatience with a student’s accent or a student’s hesitation when articulating ideas in their second language. Professors and students made insensitive comments in the classroom reflecting the presumption that everyone shared the same world view. It is hard to imagine how these individuals found the emotional fortitude to push through the insensitivity and ignorance of others.
Most universities that welcome foreign students have an orientation for international students. Of necessity, these programs tend to address immediate and practical issues. Orientation may include a session on classroom culture but this is not necessarily sufficient or useful when students are overwhelmed and (often) jet lagged during their first weeks of academic life in a new country. There is sufficient research about culture shock to know that problems tend to occur much later.

So, my first recommendation is for an ongoing program that brings together an international student advisor, host-country students, other international students further along in their programs of study, and faculty. This needs to be a “safe” environment where new students can ask direct questions about the experiences that confuse them.

But more than orientation for international students, institutions that welcome students from abroad need to consider international orientation for their professors and national students. We tend to put the burden of bridging the cultural divides on the international students—they are in a new country and expected to adapt. After all, they made a choice. But when this accommodation moves in only one direction, much is lost.
Although I would like to assume that anyone with the amount of education required to teach at the university level will be “worldly” in the sense that they will have above-average knowledge of international geography, politics, history, etc., this is not the case. Teachers are as likely to arrive to their class with the same prejudices, insensitivities, and limitations as students from the host country.

Those of us who champion internationalization lament the extent to which international students are under-valued and under-utilized for the experiences and perspectives they bring to class. As Mark Salisbury wrote in another recent editorial, “institutions have a responsibility to help their students internationalize their thinking” whether they study abroad or not. And I’d add that institutions have that same responsibility to their faculty.

So my second recommendation is for any university that incorporates international recruitment into institutional strategy to plan professional development for faculty and orientation for all students to make sure that international students feel truly welcome and so that their presence becomes an opportunity for learning.

Originally published on The World View

Here we go again!

So this week I read that Canada’s Waterloo University was shutting down after failing to make enrollment targets in Dubai at the same time that George Mason University is going to give it another go in Korea after a failed venture in the United Arab Emirates. I can’t help wondering what makes the idea of a branch campus so compelling.

After three years, Waterloo had only 140 students of the 500 needed to make their Dubai engineering program viable. George Mason’s Ras-Al-Khaimah campus closed as a result of the same problem. Still, many other institutions are soldiering on despite the enormous cost. I remember hearing once that it cost the same to operate a university with 500 students as one with 2,000 because the basic infrastructure and personnel required to support an acceptable standard of higher education is the same. And the consequence is that institutions with smaller enrollments just aren’t viable since their revenues aren’t sufficient to sustain what is minimally necessary. It is not surprising that these small western institutions in the Gulf can continue only with massive subsidies from the home campus or host government.

What struck me this week was not another failed venture but the fact that George Mason was going at it again. So back to my original question, “What makes the desire for a foreign outpost so appealing? And is this really the best international strategy for institutions to pursue?

One possible answer to the first question is perhaps the hope of a new income stream in the long term.  Yet evidence so far makes it appear unlikely that the return on investment of these ventures will be better than simply investing in the stock market.  Another plausible answer is that institutions wish to increase their international visibility and prestige by being present in other geographic regions.  This thought leads into my second question of whether this is the best international strategy.

I can’t help thinking about the number of full scholarships that might have been funded with the money spent on constructing branch campuses.  How many students might have been funded to study on George Mason’s main campus?  Or Waterloo’s?  Or Michigan State’s?  Or Cornell’s?  You get the idea.  Bringing students to the home campus provides them with the opportunity to live in a foreign culture, not in an artificially constructed one.  Hundreds of foreign alumni who have had successful and enjoyable experiences abroad return home as ambassadors for their alma mater.  Or alternatively, consider the research collaborations that might have been funded between the foreign institution and the host country.  Don’t these activities do more for international visibility than an international campus in the long run?  And provide comparable, if not greater, long-term benefits?

Finally I struggle to understand the mission and objective of an international campus. Is the purpose to offer a foreign education closer to home to students in the host country? To accommodate third party nationals in the host country?  To be a regional educational center to integrate students from neighboring countries into a shared academic experience?  To adapt the curriculum of the home campus to make it locally relevant? To date, these programs seem to do none of these very effectively according to critics.  They teach in English, creating a cultural gap between the institution and the host country.  But do they insure that the curriculum includes the equivalent of “freshman English” in the host country language to insure that students continue to develop communication skills in their primary language?  Furthermore programs offered at branch campuses often provoke conflict by following customs (such as coeducation) that are often at odds with a significant segment of the host culture.  Some programs self-sensor their curriculum and/or texts in order not to offend which raises questions of academic integrity. Cultures do not always blend easily and it is not clear that the branch campuses have fully embraced this reality.

What benefits, if any, do these branch campuses bring back to the home campus? These ventures seem to stretch resources (faculty in particular) without clear evidence that the home campus is enriched in ways that could not be achieved by other means with less stress on finances and personnel.

As George Mason launches a new venture in Korea, I wonder what lessons they take with them from their experience in the Gulf. And what new faulty assumptions will be made.

Originally posted:


The Inevitability of English: Benefits with caveats

Originally published on The World View on

So, the University of Tokyo has announced a new program that makes it possible for students to take all of their classes in English. Degree programs taught entirely in English are not a new phenomenon but the trend is growing. In many countries, including Italy, Brazil, Spain, China, and Mexico, there have been MBA programs taught entirely in English for some time. This didn’t attract a lot of attention since no one disputes the importance of English to the business world. But there are more undergraduate programs being taught in English, particularly in Europe and increasingly in Asia. Is this a good thing?

This is a good thing in the sense that English, like US dollars and Euros, is a kind of common currency that facilitates movement across borders. English-language instruction allows universities to increase international participation in classrooms throughout the world. After all, more potentially mobile students are likely to speak English than Arabic or Chinese. So if you are a university in Qatar and you want to increase international enrollment to create a more global environment, you increase your likely applicant pool by offering degree programs taught in English rather than Arabic. If you are the University of Tokyo, teaching in English significantly expands the potential to recruit internationally as there are many more qualified candidates who are fluent in their first language plus English than their first language and Japanese.

But is this trend ultimately a good thing? Although I believe that anything that improves global communication is an important advance towards a more promising future, there are caveats.

It is too easy to forget that communicating is much more than words and that language is anchored in culture. There are many words and phrases that simply do not translate and when people attempt to convey cultural concepts in a foreign language, meaning is often lost, or at least changed. I find I communicate best with people who speak Spanish and English. That way I can pull from both languages to make my intentions much clearer than when I am limited to one language. This is why I favor bilingual programs that develop both languages in all students as opposed to language programs developed to integrate students into the language of the host country. And why I am concerned about teaching everyone in English.

Furthermore, English-only instruction generally uses books and articles published in English that unavoidably skew the syllabus and limit the perspectives included. Attention to local/national history, culture, social issues, and arguments may then be diminished.

My other concern about teaching university courses everywhere in English is the potential impact on intellectual development. Although this is not my research area, I do know that how we think and reason is tied to culture and language. We also know that the university years are a critical period of intellectual development that will shape the way individuals function as adults. Academic publications already reflect the degree to which research is conducted in English today. If more and more learning is also done in English will that limit the way ideas are explored and discussed in the future? If we depend more and more on English-language scholarship could this hinder the development of different kinds of intellectual thought and reasoning? I don’t know the answer but I think it is a question worth posing. I recognize the expediency (and inevitability) of the growing dominance of English in a globalized world, but I hope that as we move towards more teaching in English that we will insure that communication in other languages is also cultivated along the way.

Published in University World News– Another week, another scandal: Immigration dilemmas

Philip G Altbach and Liz Reisberg
16 September 2012 Issue No:239

Link to article.

Immigration regulations for international students seem to have been changing somewhat unpredictably of late in major receiving countries. In several English-speaking nations, immigration regulation has become a significant policy issue, and international students have been the frequent focus of recent crackdowns.These changes have the potential to alter the landscape of global student flows and might even slow the increases in international student numbers of the past two decades. In this context, the expansion of recent years might actually have been a temporary ‘bubble’.

Recent scandals
The latest crisis involved London Metropolitan University, an institution with one of the largest enrolments of international students in the United Kingdom.The UK Border Authority withdrew its ‘highly trusted sponsor’ status from the university, after an audit revealed that a significant number of international students did not have appropriate or adequate documentation to remain in the UK, lacked adequate English-language skills or had not registered for classes.Some of these students may need to return to their home countries. Other international students, legitimately enrolled, are panicked.

A large percentage of London Met’s international students come from India. As explained by the manager of a firm that places students at UK universities, quoted recently in the Guardian: “We divide the market into two categories: the university market for genuine students and the immigration market.” The challenge for immigration authorities is how to distinguish the two groups, when both arrive with student visas. Many observers see the London Met case as the tip of the iceberg of questionable admissions and recruiting practices in the UK.

Scandals have made national headlines in the United States as well. In August 2012, the head of Herguan University in California was arrested on charges of visa fraud. This followed the similar case of Tri-Valley University. Both serve mainly Indian students with little intention of studying. Both appear to have operated profitably as ‘visa mills’. As neither institution is duly accredited, one has to wonder why they were authorised to issue student visas at all.

But there are different levels of misdeeds, and not all merit an immediate and draconian response. The US State Department caused mayhem in May after determining that 600 instructors, attached to Chinese government-sponsored Confucius Institutes, were inappropriately documented and would have to leave the country immediately and then reapply for visas in order to return. In this case there was no subterfuge, only a seemingly innocent misunderstanding of confusing visa regulations. In the end, no instructors were deported, but the way the State Department handled the incident came close to causing a major diplomatic tangle with the Chinese government.

Political pressure and political response
It seems that there is a ‘perfect storm’ of concern over the movement of individuals across borders. In North America, Europe and Australia, the issue of immigration is increasingly present in political discourse. Perhaps reacting to job losses due to the economic recession and a general conservative trend in many countries, immigration has become a political ‘hot potato’. Many US states have made illegal immigration a political focus. The UK has a policy goal to reduce immigration. In many other European countries, immigration is politically sensitive, often used by populists on the extreme right as a central and provocative theme. Australia seems to vacillate between wanting more and wanting less immigration. In a move earlier this year, graduating international students will be allowed to remain to work for two to four years (up from a previous limit of 18 months) without any restrictions on the type of employment. Malaysia wants more foreign students, but recently introduced new restrictions to constrain the flow. The government now requires students to demonstrate that they have been accepted to a higher education institution before entering the country, to study Bahasa Malaysia (the Malysian language) during their first year, and to buy medical insurance. These new measures are indicative of an international trend toward greater regulation.

More governments are concerned that the flow of international students needs more oversight and controls.In the past, academic institutions have been given considerable leeway over the admission of international students and the subsequent granting of study visas. Immigration authorities relied on academic institutions to ensure that only qualified, legitimate students were recommended for visas. Recent events indicate that a segment of educational institutions, typically those highly dependent on income from international students, may be taking advantage of their freedom as gatekeepers and not behaving in the spirit of the law.

Protection for whom?
International students are easy targets in this rarified environment. As a transient group they are not well positioned to become a political force or to create a lobby to speak for them. But importantly, they are less of a threat than other temporary visitors. Unlike tourists who enter countries and are impossible to track afterwards, international students are registered at an educational institution and entered into immigration databases.

International students are also particularly vulnerable to exploitation. They are subject to confusing and changing laws that they can only barely comprehend, evidenced in the debacle with the instructors at the Confucius Institutes. These students and scholars are likely to accept (and often pay for!) advice from others, who may not have the student’s best interests at heart. They are also less likely to know the rights and protection available to them in another country, raising concerns in Australia that the new work privileges will encourage unscrupulous employers to exploit this new class of foreign workers. Much as governments need to protect visa programmes from abuse, so students need to be protected from abusers.

The new ethos
The landscape of international higher education has changed in recent years and this contributes to the necessity of screening students more carefully.Some academic institutions rely on international students to balance the budget. At these institutions, international students have become a ‘cash cow’. Australia is the best example, with government policy for decades encouraging revenue generation through international endeavours.

While the US has no national policy concerning international ventures, several states – notably New York and Washington – have determined that income from international students should be an important part of a public institution’s financial strategy. At some institutions, international students now represent the difference between enrolment shortfalls and survival, due to changing demographics in their traditional student market.

It is worth noting that some receiving countries welcome international students without the same degree of ‘commercialization’. Canada, for example, while it does charge international students higher fees, permits highly skilled graduates from abroad to remain in the country after completing their studies. In the Canadian case, international students promise an influx of talent as well as additional revenue. Germany, Norway, and several other European countries do not charge fees to international students.

Internationalisation has presented new opportunities for commercialisation in countries where institutions have a long history of autonomy. Institutional leaders who represent a new ethos, more attentive to revenue than to educational integrity or quality, are free to subsume various dimensions of the academic enterprise – including admissions, student supervision and degree qualifications – to the bottom line. This new ethos is evident where universities have outsourced overseas recruiting to agents and recruiters who are paid commissions for delivering applications and enrolling international students. Of course, the introduction of third-party recruiters adds another level of interaction between the university and the student, giving immigration authorities additional reason for concern about how students are screened for admission and visas.

Addressing the problem
The general reaction from the academic community has been negative to the imposition of additional governmental restrictions concerning overseas students and other aspects of international higher education. Few people acknowledge the seriousness of the problem and express concern that stricter immigration policies will reduce international enrolments and contribute to an ‘unwelcoming’ image overseas. The problem is that immigration and border enforcement agencies tend to respond by applying legal and bureaucratic rules that lack nuance.

Considering that the majority of the millions of internationally mobile students are qualified for the programmes where they are enrolled, and that they contribute intellectually as well as economically to the institutions that host them, dramatic changes in immigration should be contemplated carefully. When individuals enter a country in violation of immigration regulations, they are (and should be) subjected to sanctions. When institutions ignore rules or admit unqualified students, they should be subjected to penalties or legal action. In some cases, they are closed down. This is inevitable. In fact, governments do need to bring some additional discipline to the management of international higher education, particularly where financial interests may determine institutional policy and practice. But this needs to be done in a way that does not penalise everyone.

* Philip G Altbach is Monan professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. Liz Reisberg is a consultant on higher education.