Keeping tabs on market traders

August 20, 2004

As the learning market looks set to go global, Times Higher writers check out how rogues are weeded out worldwide

The US university system has demonstrated the characteristics of a free market more completely than most. Now the Bush administration is signalling the next step - the publication of all the facts potential students need to make informed choices.

As reported in The Times Higher (August 13), legislation is expected to require university accreditation reports, compiled by accrediting agencies, to be made available to students and their parents.

Accreditation is the lifeblood of US universities. Lose it, as a small number do, and the ability to recruit students - and the attendant revenue stream represented by fees - is swept away. Setting up a university is surprisingly straightforward, but without accreditation no amount of investment in infrastructure will attract students.

In Europe, and most of the rest of the world, the state is the central player, establishing universities in response to perceived national needs or regulating private universities that see an opportunity to carve out a niche. As student numbers have increased, state-sponsored agencies have often been set up to ensure standards. With the exception of the former Soviet Union and south and central America, private undergraduate universities remain scarce. The agencies tasked with monitoring quality consequently function well and largely achieve their objectives in healthy systems, but have yet to be set up or function effectively where the national system is struggling.

The pressure is likely to build on these systems as more nations enter the global market, either as competitive suppliers of courses or as senders of students in search of a quality degree course.

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