Balancing act: strike a pose between market and values

Conference hears that both competition and collaboration will grow as global trade in higher education booms. Sarah Cunnane reports from Vancouver

June 9, 2011

Universities have been urged to strike a careful balance between embracing market forces and preserving intellectual value as the globalisation of higher education continues apace.

Speaking in Vancouver at the annual conference of Nafsa: Association of International Educators, John Hudzik, the organisation's past president and chair of its board of directors, said the number of students worldwide who study for at least part of their degree overseas was projected to more than double from 3.2 million to 7 million over the next 10 years.

"Higher education globally, for at least the next decade or more, is going to be characterised by very strong demand and short supply," he said. "The result of that will be increased competition and increased collaboration between universities."

Professor Hudzik, who is a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, quoted Stephen Toope, president of the University of British Columbia, who said that the cost of cutting-edge research is now too great for most universities to afford in isolation.

"Competition is good; it asks each of us to consider who is doing a better job," Professor Hudzik told delegates at a seminar on international trends at the conference last week.

Speaking at the same session, Francisco Marmolejo, executive director of the Consortium for North American Higher Education Collaboration, said that those involved in international education were sometimes too concerned with the financial rewards, both for their institutions and their students.

"We are preparing students not for a job, but for life," he said.

Dr Marmolejo added that after the financial crisis, "the future is not what it used to be", and argued that it was vital for universities to develop coherent strategies.

"When we think about the future, we should be concerned about the present," he said. "We are so busy in our work that we don't pay too much attention to what we are doing today in order to define, rather than just guess, the future."

Meanwhile, Susan Robertson, professor of sociology of education at the University of Bristol, gave an overview of the situation in the UK.

Acknowledging that the sector was going through "turbulent times", she predicted that the decision to raise the tuition-fee cap to £9,000 from 2012 would cause "very significant ripples throughout the European sector", with fees also rising elsewhere.

However, Professor Robertson said there were fundamental flaws in the system adopted by the UK government that would force it to reassess its position before the next general election. "It was a system that was worked out in a moment of political turmoil," she said.

One of the problems she highlighted was the assumption that the same percentage of male and female students would undertake undergraduate studies.

If this is incorrect, it could have a significant bearing on the proportion of taxpayer-subsidised student loans that are repaid, once salary differences are taken into account. "As most of us know, there is a higher proportion of females (in higher education)," Professor Robertson said. "A further assumption (the government) made is that both female and male graduates would receive equal salaries upon leaving university. Wrong again.

"Add in the third complication of up to a quarter of graduates not being able to find jobs, and the likelihood diminishes that the government will consider (that it has made) a good decision."

She predicted that the fee hike was likely to result in a gradual drift of students away from the UK to other countries, mainly in continental Europe, where degree study is less expensive.

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