Uncharted Territory

A public/private partnership aimed at strengthening international enrollments and programming at Oregon State has promise, but has come at the cost of the English Language Institute's accreditation.
May 27, 2009

LOS ANGELES – Here at the NAFSA: Association of International Educators conference, Oregon State University administrators presented Tuesday on what was described as a “transformative” partnership with a private company to dramatically expand international student enrollment and programming. Not all transformation is wholly good or bad, and Oregon State’s English Language Institute lost its Commission on English Language Program (CEA) accreditation as a result of a change in ownership entailed with the creation of INTO OSU, a new entity jointly held by Oregon State’s foundation and the British company, INTO University Partnerships. Oregon State and INTO officials, while acknowledging that a staff member mistakenly reported a change in ownership to the accreditor, now dispute that ownership changed at all, as the intensive English and other academic programs under the new INTO OSU umbrella remain Oregon State’s own, and Oregon State’s alone. (This article has been clarified from an earlier version).

Under the terms of the arrangement presented Tuesday, Oregon State faculty retain control of academics, while INTO OSU manages the university's international education-specific programming – and also recruits international students, many, many more international students, in fact, a doubling (to about 2,000), within five years, Oregon State hopes.

“This was a way to build our brand around the world, far quicker, far more effectively than we would with our own resources,” said Rebecca Johnson, who served as vice provost for academic affairs and international programs at Oregon State in summer 2008, when the partnership was announced (she’s since moved to OSU’s Cascades campus). Johnson explained that international enrollment had been declining at Oregon State in recent years, particularly at the undergraduate level, and said administrators thought they could leverage INTO's assets to reverse that trend and support university-wide internationalization goals. “Just to give you an idea of what it’s all about, INTO has a worldwide network of educational consultants, agents, people at other universities, and what they’re doing is expanding the reach of all of their partners around the world.”

INTO has a number of partnerships with universities in Britain, but Oregon State is its first (and, so far, only) partner in the United States. “What INTO OSU Inc brings to the program, the OSU program, is the development, implementation and administration of these high-quality international education programs,” said Chris Bell, the academic director of INTO OSU. With INTO OSU providing overall administration, marketing and sales, plus recruiting through INTO's network of agents (paid on commission, still a controversial practice in the U.S.), “These are services that we couldn’t possibly provide on our own,” Bell explained.

Under the arrangement, the university collects tuition and the two shareholders in INTO OSU (the OSU foundation and INTO, the company) share the expenses associated with the INTO OSU international programming, as well as the profits. "We expect to have a loss in the first year and to break even after the second year and to make progress thereafter. It's all based on the student numbers," Bell said.

In addition to hopefully expanding international student numbers, Oregon State is expanding its international programming, most notably through the addition of the “Pathway” program, billed as a transitional “first-year experience” in which international students would take a mixture of academic English courses, first-year OSU courses, and supportive “bridge” courses. Students who complete the Pathway program successfully would gain sophomore status at Oregon State; so far, 120 students have applied for the first class of Pathway students this fall.

But the expansion enabled by the creation of INTO OSU has also come at the cost of the CEA accreditation of the English Language Institute, which was folded into the INTO OSU domain (although English Language Institute instructors remain OSU employees).

OSU’s intensive English language program had only recently been accredited by CEA, in July 2008. “Accreditation was withdrawn in February following a letter from INTO/OSU that the legal status of the English Language Institute had changed and was under the control of the new entity, INTO/OSU. Such a change is considered a 'substantive change' in terms of CEA’s policies and procedures; such changes, which can affect a program's ability to continue to meet the CEA standards, must be submitted to CEA prior to the change to ensure that the standards of accreditation (and eligibility requirements) continue to be met. In this case, because the substantive change was not reported in advance, and because an application for continuation of accreditation under new ownership or control was not submitted, the accreditation was withdrawn,” Teresa D. O'Donnell, CEA’s executive director, explained in an e-mail.

“Following that, a new application for accreditation for was submitted for INTO/OSU. A review by CEA legal counsel determined that INTO/OSU is not eligible for CEA accreditation according to our eligibility criteria, and eligibility was denied. The basis for the decision was that CEA accredits English language programs within regionally accredited universities and colleges and also independent English language institutions (schools) whose primary mission is teaching English language. Such independent schools may also teach foreign languages and offer teacher training certificates. INTO/OSU does not fit into either of these categories," O'Donnell continued.

“It was very disheartening to the people at the ELI [English Language Institute] because it had been three years of work to achieve what many in the profession consider to be the gold standard in terms of accreditation,” Deborah Healey, a former director and instructor at Oregon State’s ELI who moved to the University of Oregon this past winter, said in a phone interview. “Then to lose it a few months later because of the change in ownership was disheartening.”

“It’s been an interesting process, just to see how excited the upper administrators were at what INTO was offering them. They were very, very excited about it. You know, the language institute did raise some initial issues and some of them have indeed reared their heads as issues,” said Healey, who said she still has questions about whether the university will meet its enrollment targets, and what the academic qualifications of students entering the Pathway program will be. “It is pretty important for people coming in this to be at a fairly high level if they’re going to succeed; they’re starting out taking university classes with English classes,” she said. (One audience member Tuesday said she thought it was an issue that the minimum Test of English as a Foreign Language score for Pathway students is 475, while it’s 527 for general university admission. OSU administrators responded that the 475 cut-off had already been used for conditional admission purposes in the past, and that the Pathways program will offer additional support beyond what has previously been available.)

“I had some serious reservations about it. I think there are questions that will be answered over time,” Healey said. “Will they meet their targets in terms of enrollments, how will the quality be, because it’s new, at this point. The recruiting system and all of that is new. I think we’ll see what happens with it. In terms of the English language side, my colleagues are some of the best in the business. I have no doubt that the language side of it will be very well done because the ELI is very, very good and the people there are very, very good. That side of it, if it can be done, they will do it.”

“I don’t think anybody has mentioned what we have is a start-up. This is the first time that INTO has partnered with a U.S. university. It’s certainly the first time that Oregon State has done something like this and so the unexpected happens and we deal with it," said Bell, who added that OSU is still working with CEA to see if it can regain accreditation under its current governance structure.

“In the end, we really believe this is going to have positive outcomes not only for the INTO corporation but also for Oregon State University as a whole," said Johnson.

Meanwhile, the model may be replicated elsewhere. INTO hopes to expand its network to have 10 U.S. university partners within 5 years, said Jeffrey Bialy, recruitment director for North America.


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