Entangling Alliance

To a cash-strapped public university, the promise of hundreds of new international applicants each year, paying full out-of-state tuition and spreading the institution’s name around the world, might be too good to pass up.

May 10, 2010

To a cash-strapped public university, the promise of hundreds of new international applicants each year, paying full out-of-state tuition and spreading the institution’s name around the world, might be too good to pass up.

It was for the University of South Florida, which in January entered into a 30-year agreement with INTO University Partnerships, a British company that recruits foreign students for a "pathway" program of subject area offerings and English language instruction to prepare them for admission into the university. Under the partnership, INTO USF, the university would provide all academic programs and INTO would provide marketing, communications and student support services. The university's foundation and INTO would share costs -- and profits -- equally.

It is a joint venture that “promises to transform our university’s position on the world stage,” wrote Ralph C. Wilcox, USF’s provost and executive vice president, in a January letter to faculty. Eventually, it aims to bring close to 1,000 international students to the university each year. “We are confident that, together, we will bring about a breakthrough strategy that will rapidly transform USF into a preferred destination for high ability students from around the world.”

But all that enthusiasm has been stifled by the rules of accreditation for the university’s English Language Institute, which was brought under INTO USF’s governance, rather than the university's. After learning of the public-private partnership a few weeks ago, the Commission on English Language Program Accreditation (CEA) decided to end its accreditation of ELI, just one year into its nine-year term.

"We did not accredit the partnership, we accredited the University of South Florida’s English Language Institute,” said Theresa O’Donnell, the commission’s executive director. “In a big kickoff like the one they had there, a lot of changes take place. It’s then not evident that the program continues to meet our standards.”

Glen Besterfield, who had been university’s associate dean for undergraduate studies and academic success, was appointed interim director of INTO USF effective Feb. 1. He directed inquiries to the university “as the accreditation is for USF,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “I am not in a position to respond on their behalf.”

Institutions are expected to inform the CEA of changes in ownership at least 30 days in advance. O’Donnell said she learned of the changes to the ELI only after visiting its Web site this spring.

Wilcox did send a letter to the CEA in March. But, said a source familiar with its contents, it did not effectively convey the fact that all academic programs offered by INTO USF would be under the university’s academic governance.

The partnership contract makes clear that “all academic programs, including those within the scope of CEA accreditation, remain entirely within the province of the university,” Wilcox said in a statement. “Among other matters, USF specifically continues to fully control the appointment, assignment and supervision of faculty; adoption of curriculum; establishment of admissions standards and the admission of qualified students to USF who meet such standards… .” USF sets standards for admitting students to the pathway program and the university's admissions office still decides whether to admit them following completion of the program.

In a statement, INTO said it has “gone to great pains in working with USF to ensure that we are not intruding on the university’s academic prerogatives.” The company has 10 programs operating in the United Kingdom, which, it said, have a "stellar reputation."

The university, Wilcox said, would continue to work with the CEA to “explain our forward-looking vision.” Once the agreement can be better explained to the CEA, INTO said, “we believe … it will be satisfied that there have not been any material changes in the structure of its CEA-accredited English language programs and that the long-standing accreditation of that program should be continued.”

O’Donnell said she has an accepted an invitation to meet with leaders from USF and INTO this month.

Nonetheless, O’Donnell is skeptical of INTO and the partnerships it seeks to create with universities that are hungry for international students, and the new revenues and diversity they bring to institutions. She noted that INTO has approached two other universities about creating partnerships, but that, at least so far, both institutions rebuffed the company’s offers.

University-based English language programs "have been aware for a couple of years that the INTO organization is looking for university programs, universities where it can partner to manage the English language programs and provide the universities with extensive recruiting and marketing opportunities,” O’Donnell said. “The students that they say that they can recruit for this, and the potential for financial gain, at least the way that INTO presents it, is hard to say no to.” She worries that those students won't actually materialize, or that they won't be of the same quality as the university's other students.

INTO said “it is our intention to take all reasonable measures to ensure that institutions like USF with quality programs for foreign students have an opportunity to avail themselves of the outstanding services we provide.”

But this isn’t the first time that a U.S. institution’s partnership with INTO has threatened its CEA accreditation.

Last year, after Oregon State University entered into a similar partnership with INTO, the CEA revoked the accreditation of the university’s English Language Institute.

When INTO OSU applied for accreditation on its own, O’Donnell said, the CEA’s lawyers determined that the program was ineligible for accreditation because it didn’t neatly fit into either category over which it has authority as defined by the U.S. Department of Education. “We have the authority to accredit language programs within regionally accredited universities, and to accredit independent English language institutions, but the Oregon program is neither.”

Even without CEA accreditation, INTO OSU has continued to operate. Since last summer, it has taken in a few hundred students. INTO USF will continue to operate, too, with or without the CEA.

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