Globalization: The Exportation of Higher Education

Distance education has long allowed institutions to offer programs across state lines. Here, Bill Riffee considers the issues of offering programs internationally.

Globalization, global business, and global solutions are familiar concepts, covered almost daily in the popular media. Yet, while education as we know it in the U.S. has ventured into other countries in recent years, it has never been presented in the same terms as other services associated with international commerce. This will soon change. With the evolution of the Internet and other computer-based media, education and its delivery have become services that are gaining the attention of the Federal Trade Commission. It appears that education is rapidly rising as a major export for the United States and promises to significantly help our balance of trade.

New trade-related treaties are being developed between nations concerning a variety of services, including education. There have been meetings held in which the U.S. government has tried to develop awareness of such treaty negotiations and ask for input from those involved in education as these treaties are being created. It is important for those of us whose primary activity is education to be at the table as these treaties are developed. Once they are signed, changes to those things agreed upon become very difficult to obtain.

Education as International Commerce

There are a number of other issues that we must consider when looking at all of the aspects of education that may involve foreign trade. Most of us are unaware that when an international student registers for one of our courses in this country, the commerce associated with that student is considered an export. Exports are extremely important to our country because of their effect on the balance of trade. It has been estimated that in the year 2000, almost $10 billion in educational export commerce occurred. Most of this is primarily in international students taking courses in our U.S. institutions of higher education. There are those in our government who feel that the amount of commerce that will occur in the years to come, in which education is provided to students overseas by U.S. institutions, may add significantly to our export dollars.

The primary education players on the international scene in terms of commerce are private educational institutions that are seeking a market to expand their programs and increase their revenues. Traditional state-related universities are just now realizing a potential “market” for their programs overseas. There are also those overseas institutions who are making significant inroads into U.S. educational markets by offering online programs.

Those of us who may be interested in pursuing students located outside the U.S. must first consider the myriad of things that impact the ability of our institutions to effectively meet the educational needs of the international community. U.S. institutions interested in providing educational “products” overseas need to do an in depth market analysis to determine whether there is a significant student demand for the degree programs. Most educators will agree that professional degree programs in areas such as engineering and business have a market edge due to the desire of prospective students to have a degree that will give them a significant boost in job markets around the world. No matter what the degree program considered, additional issues must be seriously contemplated and prepared for when planning international ventures.

Considering Culture

The culture of the country in which U.S.-based degree programs might be offered must be considered. For example, in some cultures, students are very submissive to authority, and to challenge faculty or offer counter arguments will not be within the culture of those students and may complicate the teaching/learning process. Language is especially crucial. In many countries, English is taught to those who eventually reach the level of university study, but this is not always the case. To gain significant numbers of students, attempts will have to be made to translate English-based courses into native languages. This leads naturally into the need to have significant personal relationships with contacts in the countries in which a university attempts to offer degree programs. These relationships help to create a positive atmosphere for negotiation with government agencies and help lay a groundwork that will ultimately be positive for the students graduating from U.S.-based degree programs. In many countries, there is a national pride associated with local educational institutions, and working with contacts within the country, as well as attempts to cooperate with institutions within the country, will aid in a positive outcome.

Cost of U.S.-based educational programs to the international student must also be considered when entering a foreign market. In many countries, federal governments provide a free education for those students who make it to the university level. Entering that market and requiring tuition is a new idea for students in many countries. One may have the opportunity to work with international students and walk them through the return on investment that will occur with a U.S.-based degree as well as the professional competencies that come with that degree. Sometimes showing the prospective student that an investment in education will provide them with skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will improve their chances of success as a professional is a better approach than the lure of a U.S.-based degree alone. U.S. institutions of higher education must also understand the relationship between the return on investment and the normal income within each of the countries associated with various professions. A professional in the U.S. may have a significantly higher income than the same professional in another country. The prospective student, therefore, may not have the same appreciation for the investment as the same student in the U.S.

There must also be attention paid to professional licensure. In some countries, professionals may be required to be licensed before they can exercise the rights and privileges of their degree. Any U.S. institution offering a professional degree overseas must be aware of the licensure requirement in those countries, the competencies required to successfully gain licensure, and the program’s ability to provide those competencies. An additional consideration is that students overseas who receive a degree from an accredited institution in the U.S. may also be eligible for professional licensure in the U.S. There could be significant positive or negative ramifications of such licensure in the U.S., and these should be taken into consideration during the planning process. For example, providing professionals in a workforce shortage situation would be considered positive, whereas providing professionals in a workforce over-supply situation would obviously be viewed as negative.

A U.S.-based institution of higher education should also be sure that it will be able to gain “approval” by the country in which it is offering a degree program. Some nations may have specific requirements of an institution that must be met in order for the institution to legitimately provide instruction. However, offering degree programs internationally is often less restrictive than offering programs in different states within the borders of the United States. It is a matter of time before an individual challenges a state’s restriction concerning out-of-state institutions offering degree programs in the state where the person resides. In some states, there is no restriction; in others it is a mere formality to notify the proper agency within the state in which the degree programs are being offered; and in a few the process is so onerous as to be a barrier to such activities. It is unbelievable that a state within the U.S. could restrict a citizen of that state from obtaining education and eventually a degree from an entity outside of that state. It should be understood that the origin of such restrictions was an effort by governments to “protect” citizens from “fly-by-night” diploma mills. The over-reaction by some states has actually significantly restricted the access of its citizens to legitimate educational opportunities.

The Institution’s Motives

An institution must also examine the motives for moving into an international market. The primary motivation should be that of offering a high-quality degree program. If monetary rewards follow, that should be considered good business. Another significant motivation should be providing a template for professional activities that an institution feels is a good model for all countries to follow. If, for example, in the U.S. there is a particular profession that brings a better quality of life to individuals, it may be natural for the educational institutions providing degree programs for that profession to expand internationally. Professions attempting to have a positive impact internationally through the export of professional degree programs are becoming organized in the U.S. It must be stated, however, that such an influence will be significantly attenuated by the culture, professional and otherwise, of the countries involved.

One last consideration is that of developing an extended faculty in the country in which an institution wishes to implement a degree program. In many cases, U.S. institutions may be educating students on their campuses who may be interested in returning to their country of origin to serve as faculty facilitators in the degree programs being considered for implementation in those countries. These faculty need not be content experts, but individuals who can work with students within the country, to help them navigate the content being provided. These faculty facilitators add a significant human element to our electronic-based educational efforts and bring a needed interface between electronic media and the student learner. An institution may also consider offering scholarships to underwrite most if not all of their degree program to a limited number of students in the country selected. These scholarship students can then be tapped as in-country facilitators to work with new students, again adding the necessary human element.

Should U.S. institutions of higher education consider providing their degree programs internationally? I believe the answer is yes, but with attention to the following questions:

  • Is the degree program of high quality?
  • Is there a student market for the degree program in the country being considered?
  • Are there sufficient numbers of students to provide the tuition dollars necessary to make the program economically viable?
  • Have personal relationships with critical people in-country been developed and local laws reviewed for international institutions offering degree programs?
  • Have all the cultural, language, and professional licensure issues been addressed?

With these questions answered satisfactorily, an institution must then make sure that international expansion meets its own mission and that adequate resources are available to be able to mount and sustain a program of excellence. Establishing an international program is a challenge, yet it presents a great number of opportunities for higher education institutions. The time is right for U.S.-based institutions associated with excellence in education to establish themselves within the international marketplace.

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