In theory, if you walk into a McDonald's anywhere in the world a Big Mac is the same. But does that theory hold true for degrees from institutions of higher education and, more importantly, should it?
American institutions with branch campuses overseas are saying yes.
"Many host (and source) countries seem to be increasingly concerned with the quality of transnational education."
-Line Verbik, Observatory on Borderless Higher Education
"They want us to do what we do best," says Andy Nazarechuk, dean of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas-Singapore campus. Charles Bowman of Texas A&M University at Qatar echoes the sentiment. TAMU's agreement with the Qatar Foundation specifies that the overseas program will be "substantially equal" to the program on the main campus, notes Bowman, the interim dean.
A Growing Trend
These leaders aren't talking about student and faculty exchange programs or a semester abroad. Their operations are full-blown, brick-and-mortar establishments, often with their own support staff, that offer full degrees. "It looks just like mine," Bowman says of the diploma certificate.
Overseas education, these institutions recognize, is a billion-dollar business. According to the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, a U.K.-based initiative that tracks activities and developments crossing the traditional borders of higher education, there are an estimated 80 "branch" campuses operating in the world, with 50 percent being run by U.S. institutions. Institutions in Australia, the U.K., and Ireland are also pursuing these efforts.
As programs expand to overseas locations, concerns about maintaining quality standards grow. "Following few, but high-profile, cases of substandard provision, many host (and source) countries seem to be increasingly concerned with the quality of transnational education," says Line Verbik, deputy director of the observatory.
According to the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, 29 of 53 accrediting organizations that responded to a 2001 survey indicated they were operating internationally. Nearly one-third of responding organizations said they were accrediting U.S. institutions or programs operating outside of the United States. In other words, there is an interest in international quality review.
How are these reviews done? "We treat each type [of campus] the same way as we do U.S. campuses," explains Jean Avnet Morse, executive director of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, one accrediting organization. "We expect all to be included in the institution's self-study report." Whether the commission is reviewing a U.S. institution (in the states or abroad) or a non-U.S. institution seeking American accreditation, Morse says, all of them "are held to the same standards. However, we review every institution, including U.S. institutions, in the context of its own mission and we apply our standards appropriately."
Obtaining accreditation is one more item on the checklist for IHEs opening branch campuses. It both protects the institution's reputation and makes the degree worthwhile for the students. Often the host country requires it.
TAMU, for instance, committed to seeking accreditation when it was invited to join Education City in Qatar, Bowman says. Established by The Qatar Foundation, Education City is a 2,500-acre campus on the outskirts of Doha that hosts branch campuses for five of the world's leading universities, as well as many other educational and research institutions. TAMU officials are finalizing their first report to the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an accrediting body, and are waiting for their first class to graduate in 2008, so they can apply to the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
Local Support Matters
UNLV leaders submitted the school's Singapore program to the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities in February 2006 and received approval in March 2006. The Singapore program is included under the accreditation of the main campus and will be included in the comprehensive evaluation scheduled for 2010. Singapore does not have an accreditation program, Nazarechuk notes, but the school is one of six that has been accepted as an "institute of higher education" there, which gives it the right to grant degrees. Educational institutions that have not received that ranking are limited to granting diplomas and certificates.
Having the host government's support often plays an important role in ensuring a program is successful. With Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.) operations in Qatar, Australia, Korea, Japan, and Greece, Senior Vice President and Provost Mark Kamlet knows firsthand about government regulations. His Qatar campus is subject to the same requirements as Texas A&M. In Australia, a law that used to restrict the right to grant degrees to Australian institutions was changed, allowing Carnegie Mellon to set up shop. According to Kamlet, Australian officials have adopted becoming an education magnet for the Pacific Rim as part of the country's strategic goals. But in Greece, which still has a homegrown degree law, Carnegie Mellon gets a little rebellious. Although there is no chance for Carnegie Mellon to get local accreditation, the program is accredited by the Middle States Commission, which is fine with Kamlet, who adds that the name Carnegie Mellon is all students need.
Troy University (Ala.) officials are not quite so cavalier. "We would be reluctant to go in unless the degree is recognized by the host country," says Curtis Porter, associate vice chancellor for international affairs. As a cautionary tale, he offered that a British university once opened a program in Turkey that wasn't recognized by the government and the graduates couldn't get jobs. "You have to be sensitive to the local climate," Porter says. It's important to be recognized by the local government and any ministry of education in case the host country decides to start reviewing programs.
Quality through Curriculum
Jack Hawkins Jr., chancellor of Troy, explains that he and his colleagues assess the market in a potential country to make sure the degrees they offer will be used, but they are careful not to go beyond the standards of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools' accrediting program. "The degree has to be quality," he says.
To achieve that goal, Troy has established one curriculum that's used worldwide. Troy has had an international presence since 1974, when it established programs on military bases in 10 countries. Although it still maintains some of those programs, it has expanded its civilian operations to various countries, including Vietnam, Malaysia, and the United Arab Emirates. In addition to using a single curriculum, they involve their U.S. faculty in the overseas programs as much as possible. "We've been doing things at a distance for 40 years," Hawkins says. "It's part of the culture."
Using the same curriculum and faculty from the main campus are the two primary ways schools seem to maintain their standards overseas. Any changes to the programs offered are very minor tweaks. Quality control starts when a program is first suggested.
When Carnegie Mellon officials initially discussed a program in Australia, Don Marinelli, director of the Entertainment Technology Center (covering CMU's Pittsburgh and Australia campuses), says he "was adamant in stating that ETC-Adelaide had to be a genuine extension of ETC-Pittsburgh and not a lesser 'foreign campus,' per se."
"We don't cut them any breaks," Kamlet says of Carnegie Mellon's Qatar students. As a quality control check, the Qatar campus uses the same exams as the Pittsburgh campus. The curriculum is "exactly the same," but the students have fewer electives from which to chose because of the smaller staff. Although classes aren't modified, the Qatar students receive more attention from faculty than their main campus counterparts, partly because of the difference in learning styles between the two countries and partly because "they aren't used to how much work it is," Kamlet adds.
The admissions process is more involved in Qatar because the staff is less knowledgeable about the students' background and what aspects of their academic and extracurricular lives will make them successful in college. However, Kamlet says the Qatar Foundation has been insistent that no students are admitted because of family connections; Carnegie Mellon officials are happy to comply, as that practice could be bad for the school's reputation.
Bowman calls TAMUQ a "boutique operation." His faculty members give students more one-on-one time, which they can do because of a lighter teaching load compared to faculty at the main Texas campus. The admissions process is also different, requiring a personal interview and an English proficiency exam for every applicant. Although students sometimes need help with the language, he says their math and science preparation is "very good."
Texas law establishes a core curriculum every student must satisfy to graduate. They have had to modify parts of the health program to accommodate cultural mores, Bowman says. "We're trying to teach people good health habits, but there are some things you don't talk about in Islamic culture"-sexually transmitted diseases, for one.
The faculty is split between people from the main campus and direct hires. "We hire the same quality as the main campus," Bowman stresses. TAMU, like all the Education City schools, has academic freedom, as well as full control over faculty, admissions, and granting degrees. The Qatar Foundation reviews deans before they are appointed, and then reviews student performance, as well.
The Singapore Ministry of Education does review the qualifications of professors in its Global Schoolhouse-Singapore's initiative to draw world-class educational institutions and 150,000 international students to the country by 2015 in order to educate workers, boost the economy, and create jobs-as a way of ensuring quality. "It's a formality for them because the full-time faculty is qualified," says Nazarechuk. But the practice "protects UNLV's reputation too." They will be using a mix of U.S. and locally hired faculty.
Although the curriculum in Singapore is the same as that offered on the main campus, students can take a wider variety of general classes (i.e., humanities, fine arts, and natural sciences) not normally taken by local students. Nazarechuk explains that the Singapore education system is based on the British model, so student's studies are "more field specific." Admissions standards are the same for GPA, English proficiency, and years of education, putting local students at a disadvantage. "We increased the number of courses to provide them with access to these required classes; this way students can transfer in the courses that meet our requirements and take the classes that they need to obtain the bachelors of science degree here in Singapore," he says.
"Schools here are starting to adjust," Nazarechuk notes, with local students having the opportunity to take general courses at their local school, as well as realizing they should take them if they want to attend a U.S. institution.
So far, Carnegie Mellon has not had a problem with the differences in early education between America and Australia. "Since all ETC students in Adelaide are currently either from America or Canada, we are not confronting that issue at the moment," explains Marinelli.
Kean University (N.J.), which won't open its new campus in China until 2007, has already laid the quality ground rules. President Dawood Farahi says a signed agreement "contains a clear understanding that the university's curriculum is totally in the domain of Kean." All courses will be identical to those taught in the states, and newly hired faculty members will be properly credentialed and provided with cultural training. China will not be reviewing the professors' credentials. Although Kean officials worked with the government to establish performance measures for students, they are not adjusting the programs. But some course offerings may be different, such as the addition of Chinese history in place of a Western Civilization class. "It took a long time to explain why general education classes are important to a Western education," Farahi says.
"We're going to do it in an American way," Farahi says. From admissions and curriculum to guidance counselor access, Chinese students will have the same experience as their American counterparts.
Since 9/11, there has been a slowdown in students coming to study in America. Reasons range from travel safety concerns, to visa restrictions, to a desire to stay close to home where the economy is booming and there are job opportunities.
Although students may not want to travel to America, they can still get an American degree. UNLV's Nazarechuk points out that degrees from American institutions are well respected around the world. "Times are changing," he says. "We have to go to them."
Carnegie Mellon's Kamlet agrees. "A lot of other countries are growing good universities," he says. "For Carnegie Mellon to be involved in the future, we have to be a player now." And to remain players, IHEs have to continue to deliver the quality American programs students expect.
What to Look for in a Host Country
"I believe that we have received inquiries from all continents except the poles," says Jean Avnet Morse, executive director of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, regarding U.S. institutions getting involved in overseas activities.
According to Line Verbik, deputy director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, "the United Arab Emirates accounts for close to 20 percent of international branch campuses, almost completely due to the number of foreign institutions (currently 15) established in the educational free-zone Knowledge Village." Qatar comes in second, with approximately 9 percent, followed by Singapore, Canada, Malaysia, and China.
So, what are desirable qualities for a host country to have? Here's how a handful of U.S. institutions have approached their search for a place to set up shop:
Troy University (Ala.) looks for good local infrastructure, government support with clear regulations, locations that place a high value on American degrees, and qualified students who are able to afford the program. "We're a people university. We won't price ourselves out of the market-here or abroad," says Chancellor Jack Hawkins.
Kean University (N.J.) officials had affordability in mind as well when they decided to open a campus in China. Education is a commodity in China, President Dawood Fahari explains. "The value of higher education in China is different. The families start to save for higher education almost at birth." Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, where Kean's campus will be located, graduates 350,000 high school students, so there will be plenty of candidates. China requires foreign institutions to partner with a local university. "A lot of things in China are based on personal relationships and how people interact," Fahari says.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas leaders recognized that "any program overseas includes a certain degree of measured risk," says Andy Nazarechuk, dean of its Singapore campus. A number of hotel chains have corporate headquarters in Singapore, so the university knew there would be demand for its hospitality degrees. He says Singapore views education as an industry, so there is a large support structure. The support of the university's leaders in Nevada is as important as the support of the host government. "Parents want to send their students to a safe place for a good education," Nazarechuk says. Trust in the government, clear regulations, good infrastructure, cultural diversity, and a high percentage of English speakers won UNLV over. "And the food is great," he adds.
Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.) recognized the great degree of economic growth in the Pacific Rim, says Provost Mark Kamlet. "It's part strategy, part opportunity." Demand for the degree, enthusiasm of the university departments that will be running the programs, and having a local champion, government support, and clear regulations make launching an overseas campus go more smoothly. "The most complicated [regulations] have been from New York state," he notes.
Everybody's Going Global ... Or So It Seems
Although everybody knows American institutions are offering degrees abroad, no one has collected hard data on who is doing what where. "It's a complex topic," says Peter Eckel of the American Council on Education. ACE is working on a survey to help shed light on the phenomenon.
Eckel says there are three models IHEs use when offering courses overseas:
"going it alone" with a branch campus or program
partnerships with local institutions
"The definition of a branch campus is still less than straightforward and lacks global consensus," says Line Verbik of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. Her organization defines it as an offshore operation of a higher education institution that fulfills the following criteria:
The unit should be an independent establishment operated by the institution or by a joint venture in which the institution is a partner (some countries require foreign providers to partner with a local organization) in the name of the foreign institution.
Upon successful completion of the study program, students are awarded a degree from the foreign institution.
Or, as Carnegie Mellon Provost Mark Kamlet puts it, they can get a degree from "little free-standing mini-Carnegie Mellons."
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