Gold standard of UK degrees is lost in translation

Inflated marks, overworked staff and politically compromised courses are the price of exploiting offshore UK-registered students, says Michael Day

April 5, 2024
A man carries inflatable trophies on the streets of Manchester
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As a UK academic who has worked all over the world, I wasn’t shocked when The Observer reported in November that UK universities are paying millions to source international students. For vice-chancellors, it’s basic maths.

I’ve met a “consultant” in London who charges commission of £10,000 per student, per year, yet even that exorbitant figure is considerably lower than the tuition fees charged to most international students – which universities can raise well beyond inflation.

In my considerable experience, many of the relationships that UK universities enter into with overseas agents are questionable. I’ve sat on student recruitment panels, for instance, where we had to instruct the agency-provided students not to record our questions or read from scripts because we were concerned that they would sell the interview recording back to the agency, which would use them to devise scripts for future applicants to read from.

We say we are involved in international higher education to further equality and globalised mobility. Yet we all understand the economic imperatives, and a student who can afford an agent is one who can afford a high tuition fee. In reality, international students are treated – and feel – like cash cows, while concerns about standards and student success are swept under the rug.

When I worked in China and Thailand, it was to study this. I found that international students weren’t truly interested in assimilating culture and they struggle to succeed because of differing systems of prior education.

In the West we talk about decolonising the curriculum, but invariably regard our educative model as superior when we export it to new overseas ventures. But senior UK university staff rarely visit these ventures and typically don’t want to hear that the education delivered can be a long way from the UK Professional Standards Framework.

Do outstanding global partnerships exist? Yes, I’ve seen them. In others, though, what you get is departments full of colleagues from the host country who think locally and are not particularly familiar with UK standards, practices and language. Nevertheless, as colonisers, we force them, and the students, to teach and learn in English, inviting miscommunication. At the same time, we do not require international staff to learn local languages.

Meanwhile, it risks our quality assurance when local peers regularly mark a piece of coursework 89 out of 100. Joint-venture degree outcomes get UK moderated, but at a distance, and with overworked UK moderators checking perhaps a 10 per cent sample. Each piece of degree-awarding coursework marked overseas should be fully moderated to ensure fairness and consistency.

Nor can we ignore the fact that some countries we partner in have different ideas about human rights. Authoritarian settings rely on rote pedagogy, and abhorrent academic abuse, violence and imprisonment are reported locally as commonplace. Even a simple email from the UK to guide staff at a partnership in an authoritarian setting will probably look different when it reaches them. We encourage graduate students to find their voices – yet, if they do so, they might vanish, accused of subverting state power.

There are other huge cultural differences, particularly in Asia, where UK partnerships operate. Ideological indoctrination might be considered an appropriate aim of curricula. A supervisor’s authority is typically absolute and their political orientation means everything. Politically motivated, deranged academic appointments, usually professorships, are popular concessions. Face-culture, filial piety and excessive deference to power dominate.

I attended one event where students crawled on their knees to prostrate themselves before tutors. And I’ve seen students rehearse graduating for many hours, from 3am in the morning, in tropical heat; those “allowed” to identify as women had to wear short skirts and make-up.

Professional expectations of staff are also very different. First-year, inexperienced postdocs can supervise UK PhD students as lead supervisors, having never studied UK PhDs themselves. Departments can launch new degrees yearly, despite being in their academic infancy. Predatorial academics abound; overseas, I was once asked by a peer if it was “OK” to publish students’ dissertation work as their own.

The working day in Asia is long – up to 12 hours – and the working week is typically six days. During it, you embrace a culture of absolute service to your line manager. I know of one doctoral supervisor taking meetings while in labour. Another colleague nearly broke when a female jobseeker was discounted because she was unmarried. Faculty turnover rates are high for a reason.

UK university leaders’ knowledge shortfall of this landscape is glaring. The realities often don’t come across in long-distance partnership video calls. Assurances about standards often belie the realities. And abuse of power by ultra-conservative, state-aligned actors is waved away as cross-cultural misunderstanding.

We should not abandon our partnerships, but we should rethink them. Better training for those charged with monitoring them is imperative. Our business agreements must contractually protect curricula, libraries and lectures from political interference. Local staff need pensions, protections and professional training. And we need to make it a matter of business practice that overseas leadership teams are diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and nationality to avoid ritualistic conformity.

Overseas practice also requires regular scrutiny by impartial UK regulatory bodies. We cannot rely on institutional ethics for accountability in the face of such strong market forces.

Western academic practice might not be objectively better than any other and has flaws. Yet if we are asking students to pay for a Western degree at a distance the least we can do is deliver it to Western standards, built on post-war intellectual values we are supposed to champion.

For UK universities to take their money without sufficient concern about whether they receive what they are paying for is the worst form of academic colonialism.

Michael Day is an associate professor in HE teaching and learning at the University of Greenwich.

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Reader's comments (3)

I think we should abandon such partnerships since soft power is not enough to overcome tyranny and it is hard to influence students unless you get them to the UK.
Phew - a refreshingly honest and incisive commentary on the scam that is mass fees-driven HE; a rare and brave cogent assessment of a business model on the verge of imploding.
Host countries also require serious reflection to avoid fueling horrible practices and desperate cults insofar as distorting ethical values.