The changing face of higher education

Peter Gordon says the globalisation of higher education - with more students studying abroad and more universities expanding overseas and offering online courses - is rewriting the rules

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 October, 2012, 2:12am

The recent report of a Hong Kong couple transferring US$2 million to a so-called educational consultant in an attempt to get their children into Harvard might inspire bemusement or schadenfreude but also perhaps some rueful understanding from Asian parents for whom an elite foreign university education is considered a highly desirable addition to their children's pedigree.

Hong Kong has long sent students overseas, but the cachet now associated with a foreign - and increasingly, American - university degree is a relatively recent and not entirely obvious development. It was not all that long ago that a degree from an elite domestic university - an école normale supérieure, perhaps, or University of Tokyo - was required for a top job in government or industry. Education was local and a foreign degree could be taken as a sign that the possessor couldn't hack it at most competitive schools at home.

Yet American university campuses reveal a striking change. The number of Chinese undergraduates in the US rose 43 per cent last year and tripled in three years to 40,000. And that doesn't include Indians, Koreans and an increasing number of Europeans and Latin Americans.

While foreign graduate students have long been common on US campuses, significant numbers of foreign under-graduates is new, due only in part to rising affluence. Elite national universities seem to have lost their lock on the domestic job market and a foreign degree is considered by many a status symbol and, in a perhaps self-fulfilling feedback loop, a ticket to a better life. We are seeing the globalisation of higher education.

Universities are often keen to have foreign students. One reason is financial; another is that the student body might improve, both academically as well as in diversity. But this globalisation is also not without its potential downside.

Who, in the end, are universities for? For themselves, to some extent: to become the best possible. For their students, obviously: to provide the best education and opportunities for those enrolled. But universities also form part, usually a subsidised part, of the societies that nurture them. Large numbers of foreign students are not necessarily entirely compatible with this relationship.

Global aspirations and institutional objectives are not identical to national ones. When foreign students were rare - as they were even relatively recently - the various potential contradictions in everything from curriculums and academic standards to financial support were largely hypothetical; they may not remain so for much longer.

Hong Kong, too, wishes to become an education hub; increasing the number of foreign or international students is a policy goal. "International" is somewhat subject to definition: most foreign undergraduates here are from mainland China. This alone - expanding the applicant pool - is advantageous: Columbia would not be Columbia, after all, if its intake were restricted to New York City.

However, Hong Kong is also under-supplied with university places for its own students. That seat allocated to an international student is one that is no longer available for a local applicant. As long as the local demand for Hong Kong university places exceeds the supply, this will remain an arithmetical reality. The argument that more international students improves the education for local students is valid only up to some tipping point.

Hong Kong institutions may face, therefore, a similar question: once a Hong Kong university becomes a regional or global institution, what is its relationship and responsibility to Hong Kong?

But before this comes to pass, this physical globalisation may be overtaken by another development. In the past year or two, such leading American schools as Harvard, MIT and Stanford have begun offering courses online to all comers. The finances are still uncertain, as is the exact relationship between the institution offering the course and the student, but the writing is on the wall. (E-books, online news and smartphones indicate that once a technology gets traction, it progresses very quickly.)

Asian students may have the opportunity of an international education without the need and expense of travelling to the United States. These courses also potentially allow Asian universities to outsource, for lack of a better word, a great deal of basic teaching in basic subjects and concentrate on what might be called "higher-value-added" activities. Cosmopolitan Hong Kong students, with their considerable exposure to English, may well be among those who benefit the most.

One thing we have learned is that globalised information industries often look very different than the collection of national industries they supplanted. If online education works too well, it might also undercut the entire rationale for having as many universities structured in the way we now do.

The globalisation of higher education might make access to an elite university, here or abroad, even tighter than it already is or, conversely, online technology might mean that access need hardly be rationed at all.

Either way, higher education this century may soon look quite different than it did at the end of the last one.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books. He is moderating a panel on this subject at the Asia Society in late October