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  • The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education

Philip G. Altbach: Down the Slippery Slope—The New Commercialism and the Decline of Standards
April 5, 2012 - 10:12pm

Two recent news items illustrate a sea-change in American perspectives on international education. A front-page article in the New York Times in February  noted the dramatic increase in international student numbers, mainly from China, at the University of Washington, and that institution’s view that international students are primarily income producers. The other is an item on the “Not-So-Foreign” website noting that the University of Colorado, among others, is dropping the requirement for the SAT or ACT for international students because it may be too difficult for them to pass. The United States is truly moving into the era of the commercialization of international higher education. International students, particularly, are being seen as “cash cows” that can bring in needed revenues at a time of austerity.

Commercialism has never been absent from internationalization, but until recently it was not a major motivator for most institutions. That seems to be changing. The State University of New York system was of the first to announce that it sees international students as a way of subsidizing domestic students. Others are now moving in this direction.

The University of Colorado is the latest institution to drop the SAT or ACT as a prerequisite for admission, presumably at the undergraduate level, joining Michigan State University, the University of Oregon, and several others. Colorado’s admissions director pointed out that it was often difficult for students to access a test site in China and other regions. He said it discouraged students from applying.  We seem to be in a race to the bottom, where admissions standards are lowered as a way of boosting overseas enrollments. US universities will soon be competing for applicants by ever loosening admissions requirements. Part and parcel of the new commercialism is the use of agents and recruiters to lure students to specific academic institutions. Those who argue that agents and recruiters are inevitable in the current environment are right—they are necessary parts of the new commercialism.

One might look at Australia as an example of a country that embraced commercialism in international education several decades ago. The higher education sector was told by the government that budgets would be cut and the institutions would be expected to make up for the shortfalls by income-producing international initiatives. The universities did this, and quickly increased the numbers of international students studying in Australia, dramatically increasing tuition fees for these students, starting branch campuses, franchising arrangements, and other overseas ventures, and other profit-making international ventures.

Although in general financially successful, there turned out to be significant downsides to the initiatives. Several branch campuses failed, including a large initiative in Singapore, resulting in a significant lost of money and prestige. The brand image of Australia suffered to some extent. “Corners were cut” in the admission of students to Australian postsecondary institutions. New for-profit providers came into the market, and “imported” “students” to Australia who promptly entered the local labor market. As a result, some racially-charged incidents occurred that harmed Australia’s image in India, where the “students” had come from. International enrollments plummeted, and the government considered changing immigration regulations. Conflict arose between immigration authorities who wanted tighter borders and others in the higher education and commercial sectors who wanted easy entry. Politics, money, and education became intertwined.

Three of the major English-speaking academic centers, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are increasingly looking at international activity as a profit center. The traditional values of global engagement, mutual understanding, and north/south collaboration seem increasingly irrelevant, at least to those engaged in the new commercialism. Fortunately, there are some who still hold to the traditional values.


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