Rajani Naidoo is Professor and Director of the University of Bath's International Centre for Higher Education Management, and recently organised a conference in South Africa to explore higher education's contribution to inclusive development. In this piece, she reflects on the commodification of higher education and the implications for the sector in emerging economies.
In the past, powerful organisations such as the World Bank promoted the view that investment in higher education in emerging economies offered low returns. There is now widespread agreement that quality higher education is essential for emerging economies to escape their peripheral status in the global economy. However, burgeoning demand, a lack of financial and academic resources and brain drain prevent poorer countries from developing strong higher education systems. In this context the provision of degrees by foreign universities could have much to offer. But what are the benefits and the pitfalls when universities from rich countries offer degrees in poorer countries?
Universities in high income countries have previously operated under a model that was distinct from business. However, this is changing. Government funding has been reduced and the belief that universities should be independent from corporate and political interests has been challenged. The social and cultural mission of higher education has been eclipsed by the demand for it to contribute in a more direct way to each country’s competitive edge in the global economy. Universities have thus become more like businesses, and they seek to increase revenue by transforming degrees into global commodities.
A growing number of public and private non-profit universities have joined for-profit conglomerates in exploiting new market opportunities in low income countries. At the same time, rapidly growing economies such as China have developed new higher education relationships with the developing world. There have been a number of benefits. Foreign universities have helped meet demand for higher education where there is little domestic capacity. They have opened up the possibility of degree level study to sectors of the population such as particular ethnic groups, or women, who might otherwise be excluded by their governments. They have also been more responsive in linking courses to changing labour market needs.
Numerous examples exist of reputable foreign institutions working in partnership with universities in emerging economies to meet national goals for transformation. An example of this is the University of Bath School of Management partnership with Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa. Leaders from South Africa’s universities come together to study for a professional doctorate with the aim of contributing to the positive transformation of the country’s higher education system.
But there are also dangers. Universities that are financially squeezed may protect provision in their home countries whilst viewing developing countries as mass markets for lower cost learning. The reduction of costs may be achieved by focusing on scale rather than quality. There may be a large reliance on learning resources which simply provide information in an attempt to ‘teacher proof’ delivery. This becomes important when less qualified, less experienced, and thus cheaper faculty are used. Rather than using a variety of feedback mechanisms to help students learn in a developmental way, there may be too much reliance on easy-to-assess computerised multiple choice tests. There is little investment in academic resources such as libraries.
When motivated by profit, foreign universities are more likely to offer programmes in disciplines which generate revenue at the expense of disciplines that are expensive or difficult to teach. This draws students away from studying these subjects at indigenous universities, who as a result lose the income from popular courses that they need to cross-subsidise expensive subjects such as Medicine and Engineering. This may in turn lead to a shortage of graduates in key strategic areas that are essential for a country’s economic and social development.
In a marketised higher education environment, there is little interest in research degrees. Masters and Diploma programmes based on coursework hold the promise of economies of scale. These courses are often similar to undergraduate courses and do not contribute to training new generations of indigenous researchers.
Such dangers impact on all countries but these are particularly risky in countries which have undergone social transformation and where democratic dispensations may be fragile. So how can developing countries capitalise on the benefits of foreign universities while protecting themselves from the most corrosive forms of commodification?
Robust regulation is required to protect students from unscrupulous providers and assure quality. It is ironic that developing countries are urged to create unregulated markets in higher education while rich countries maintain strong protectionist mechanisms in their own countries. At the same time, regulation should not stifle innovation but should be flexible and fleet of foot to assess different types of institutions. Foreign universities could be steered through incentives so that rather than merely competing on price and prestige, universities compete to meet developmental goals. In addition, decisions can be made regarding which aspects of higher education should be publicly funded and protected and which can be opened to the market.
Above all, policy makers should desist from implementing competition as a solution to all the problems facing higher education. We need joined-up policy to foster a combination of collaboration, competition and differentiation between domestic, foreign and private providers in order to create a system from which everyone benefits.