Sailing Around the Flat World

Cruise line enters the seaborne higher education ocean -- with focus on international students.
February 3, 2006

The Scholar Ship was unveiled Thursday -- a collaboration between Royal Caribbean Cruises and six foreign universities, the ship will take up to 700 students from different continents on a 16-week trip where they will work through intercultural courses of study.

The program is a corporate subsidiary of Royal Caribbean, and the academic programs will be led by Macquarie University in Australia. The maiden voyage of the ship -- which will have libraries and lecture halls where the casinos and ballrooms were -- will be in January 2007, and there are still many details to be worked out, including filling out a faculty.

Joseph Olander, president of the ship and former president of Evergreen State College, in Washington State, said he expects to have undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs on board. Academic programs will be organized into five “learning circles” : international business and communications, sustainable development, conflict studies, global cultures and social change, and worlds of art and culture. Olander said that, rather than imitating Semester at Sea, which is “quintessentially for American students,” he said, he wants “a transnational community” and classes that urge students to take a global perspective.

Students, who will be taught primarily in English, will pay $19,500 for the classes and cruise, and will have eight port stops as they circumnavigate the globe, beginning and ending in Athens.

Olander said there will be one professor for every 20 students, and that he hopes to raise some money for scholarships. “The price tag is reasonable for what they’re getting ... but we’re talking about middle class families being able to afford this,” he said.

What students are getting in the classroom will be determined by a group of six “academic stewards”: Macquarie; Al Akhawayn University, in Morocco; Beijing Foreign Studies University; Peking University; Tecnológico de Monterrey, in Mexico; and the University of Ghana. Olander said an American partner should be on board within months.

Macquarie will be issuing the transcripts, so, for American students, their home institutions will have to take Macquarie credit if they want credits to transfer.

Exact courses are not yet available, and there are few wakes for the Scholar Ship to follow in. “The world of global higher education, transnational initiatives like this is like the Wild West, or the Wild East, you really don’ t know what’s going on,” said Philip Altbach, director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education. “The institutions they’ve lined up are an impressive list, but what’s their commitment to it?”

A quote on Scholar Ship’s Web site from Marjorie Peace Lenn, executive director of the
Center for Quality Assurance in International Education in Washington, and a frequent consultant for both for-profit and non-profit institutions, calls the program “truly innovative.”

Said Altbach, “it might be fine and innovative, and it might be another money-making scheme.”

To ensure American students of quality, Semester at Sea has had the University of Pittsburgh as its academic sponsor for the last 20 years, through which academic credits have been issued. Starting next summer, credits will be issued through the University of Virginia.  

Lenn said that “it’s ridiculous to compare [Semester at Sea and Scholar Ship] because they are on boats. This is a future way in which higher education will be globalizing.”

Nonetheless, Les McCabe, president of Semester at Sea said that “their model of scholarship was based on our model. They came to us four or five years ago to find out what we were doing.”

McCabe pointed out, though, that one “major distinction” is that “Scholar Ship is something being developed by a cruise line.” Semester at Sea, which primarily serves American students, is a private non-profit group. McCabe added that Semester at Sea has begun to market to European students, but that part of the reason Semester at Sea hasn’t had large international student populations is because it’s difficult to ensure that credits will transfer to foreign institutions. 


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