Globalizing Higher Education: Buyers Beware

By Altbach, Philip G. | The Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 1999 | Go to article overview

Globalizing Higher Education: Buyers Beware


Altbach, Philip G., The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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