From where I sit: Their profits, our loss

March 11, 2010

The internationalisation of higher education is a double-edged sword: it has the potential to enrich and deprive the values of higher education simultaneously.

Thus, while the global exchange of scholars, collaborative research ventures and increased student mobility offer the best of the trend, the franchising of higher education represents the dark side of the process.

Largely because of budget deficits and the imposition of a corporate mentality on higher education management, many UK institutions have been seeking for years to take advantage of the opening-up of foreign education markets by embarking on the franchising and validation of their academic programmes.

Quite frequently, this has not been done with academically recognised institutions, but with for-profit entities in the form of small family businesses; and in some instances, the local nation state (including Greece) refuses to recognise franchised degrees from mainstream universities in spite of European Union directives.

To add insult to injury, and in an apparent effort to accommodate the needs and demands of local markets, some UK institutions allow their programmes to be delivered in the native tongue of the enrolled student body, or offer a mixed format: the first two levels of the curriculum are taught by local teaching staff in the local language, with the final level delivered in English.

Not surprisingly, local students graduating with franchised or validated degrees from UK institutions often fail to develop academic proficiency in the English language, while taking recourse to dishonest academic practices, such as plagiarism.

Such dishonesty, as most academics associated with these programmes will verify, tends to be routine, frequently taking place with the sometimes overt, sometimes covert encouragement of the commercial enterprises that deliver the programmes.

The global financial crisis has revealed how destructive the logic of neoliberalism and unfettered markets can be for the economy and society. Education is too precious to be left to the world of trade and commerce, to the ruthless pursuit of profit. A campaign must be waged against the commercialisation of higher education and its reduction into training for future business employees or turning it into a mere franchise project to generate profit.

The academic community must protect the mission of the university as a public sphere (perhaps the only one left) where knowledge, values and hope can be nourished in a critical environment. To paraphrase the late Edward Said, only then can the social conditions for the collective formation of realistic Utopias be created.

Higher education, in the true Aristotelian sense, is the only meaningful vehicle available to us for the pursuit of the good and the just life. Let's not waste it.

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