The global e-market is here and institutions had better prepare to sell their wares. Tony Tysome dissects a warning from the CVCP
It is one of the biggest money-spinners for universities and colleges, and it is about to get bigger.
The multibillion pound business of overseas student recruitment has acquired a new dimension that has the potential to make Tony Blair's target to attract 75,000 more foreign students by 2005 look decidedly modest.
Dubbed "borderless education" by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, which considered a report on its implications at a conference on Tuesday, it is higher education's equivalent of the dot-com revolution. The "borderless" term has been adopted to describe an explosion of activity over the past five years that cuts across traditional geographical and conceptual boundaries, through online learning, distance learning, corporate education, for-profit education and new university partnerships and consortia.
The report identifies opportunities and threats in this burgeoning market, both at home and abroad. But it is through global recruitment that the biggest gains or losses could be made.
The drivers behind borderless higher education are strong, and can only strengthen, the report says. They include: technological developments; enhanced interest in lifelong learning; widening participation; huge increases in the international demand for higher education; and the introduction of market mechanisms into the public sector.
One of the greatest potential direct threats to existing universities in specific markets comes from for-profit education, which has an established record in the United States but is now growing across the world.
In common with corporate universities, which are also growing, private providers often work in partnership with universities, either singly or in consortia, the report points out. As early as 1996, it was reported that half of Australian universities had twinning arrangements with private colleges in Malaysia. The picture in Singapore was similar, with the UK also well represented in such partnerships.
A newer development is existing universities establishing private ventures to allow them to operate more flexibly and to extend their international reach. Melbourne University Private Ltd, Deakin Global and NYUOnline are examples.
The report says it may be a taste of things to come that for-profit companies are also taking over existing providers and expanding internationally. According to Robin Middlehurst, professor of continuing education at Surrey University and project leader of the CVCP's borderless study, higher education may soon reflect the business and commercial sector, where international take-overs have become commonplace.
Nord Anglia, a UK for-profit education business, took over Christchurch Design and Art College in New Zealand in 1997. Sylvan Learning Systems purchased a 54 per cent holding in a private Spanish university in 1999, and in the same year De Vry took on new educational acquisitions in the US, including Denver Technical College. Last October, the University of Phoenix opened a campus in Rotterdam, with apparent plans for expansion in Germany, Spain and Ireland.
Another direct threat to individual universities is emerging from international consortia of universities and commercial organisations - a movement that is likely to accelerate with developments in communications and information technology.
Examples include Universitas 21, shortly to be incorporated with about 23 research-led institutions, and Eurospace 2000. The latter is a network, just joined by 45 European universities, that involves companies, research institutes and regional and national agencies. It aims to deliver learning through a virtual campus and distance education network.
The recent involvement of media companies in providing online learning, including News International's WorldwideLearning Ltd, the Pearson group's FT Knowledge, and Addison Wesley Longman (also part of Pearson) in Australia, could mean new global public/private global partnerships being forged. Allan Barnes, director of the Education Counselling Service - the education marketing arm of the British Council - thinks there is real potential for British universities to expand their overseas business by joining forces with such organisations.
He said: "There is no doubt that we are moving into an exciting era in which scale is really going to matter. While there will always be a market for some small players in niche subject areas, the reality is that the investment required in using the internet and other distance-learning methods is much bigger and riskier than single institutions can take on.
"The distribution of learning is moving away from being the sole province of the institution and its campus, to developing the winning content and delivery system, which will need some partnership with the commercial sector."
Mr Barnes believes media companies might establish "shop windows", either virtually and/or through real facilities or branch campuses, where they could sell a range of brand-name higher education products in partnership with universities. The same kind of thinking is behind the UK's new e-university venture, managed by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
"In the future we might see the News International or FT university with an in-country presence where they are delivering content from a few brand name players. They could be selling Harvard, Oxbridge, Birmingham or Middlesex, depending on who has the best programme for that particular market or subject area. They could also be delivering a wide range of continuing professional development programmes using the same infrastructure. It seems inevitable that the products will be differentially priced," Mr Barnes said.
The dizzying levels of expenditure required to enter this brave new world (studies from the US and through the "borderless" project indicate it can cost up to Pounds 2 million just to develop one degree programme on the web) and the scale of change envisaged have made institutions reluctant to jump in with both feet before having the water tested first. A survey of the current state of thinking in UK universities, conducted by the "borderless" project team, brought a cautious response.
The report says: "Typically, respondents indicated that they would not be rushed into investing in substantial borderless activities without clearer evidence of demand, and a frequent view was the need to keep a watching brief on activities before determining future action. Whether this is prudent caution in the face of extensive investment requirements, or an example of the alleged risk-averse behaviour which is said to typify UK universities, is a key question."
One key issue emerging from the survey was quality assurance. The report notes:
"It is clear that borderless developments will add significant complexity - with associated costs - to the task of quality management."
And it adds that: "The purposes and assumptions that underpin external arrangements for assuring the quality of higher education will need to change if borderless developments are to be encouraged."
The problems of attempting to apply an externally determined quality test to non-traditional higher education, particularly overseas, have already become clear. Institutions recently criticised by the Quality Assurance Agency for the quality of courses run in partnership with private colleges in Malaysia suggested it was inappropriate to try to apply the same quality measure to such courses as that applied to programmes offered at home.
Mr Barnes said the most appropriate quality measures were those applied by institutions themselves and the verdict of the market in which they were operating. The QAA might have to amend its approach under these circumstances.
He said: "The quality regime has to evolve quickly, because if it is inappropriate and becomes a handicap then the pressure will soon be on for it to change."
Working with overseas partners on web-based products could add to complications that are already emerging over operating in different cultural and commercial environments. But the bottom line will be whether an institution and its courses maintain a good enough reputation to attract students.
Mr Barnes said: "Education is becoming a consumer good, and people will exercise the same kind of parameters in making their decisions as they do for anything else. The students are not mugs, and the authorities in foreign countries are not mugs. If they see institutions doing things that do not make sense, it will damage those institutions' future prospects."
The report suggests the government and the QAA should sponsor a major international project to address quality and other issues raised by borderless education. British higher education quality standards might also be actively promoted as an international norm, in an effort to aid regulation and monitoring. But such action would have to be consistent with European Union policy on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications across Europe.
Institutions are advised to begin to build all considerations raised by the "borderless" project into their strategic plans as a first step towards taking action. Scenario planning and risk analysis will be necessary to take account of the many unknown factors. But "doing nothing" is not an option, the report says. "Courage and creativity will be essential if the UK is to rise to the challenges of borderless education."