If it were not so serious, it would be laughable. An American ‘sham university’ enrolled more than 1,500 students from India and enabled them to obtain American visas. The fact that they were not studying at the university, nor even residing anywhere near the place, was eventually discovered by US authorities, who started cracking down on the students. The story is reported in the February 2, 2011 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Tri-Valley University in northern California is an unaccredited school with a capacity for around 30 students, according to the Chronicle story. Yet, it enrolled 1,500 Indians. When the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities found out about the situation, they began rounding up the “students” and putting radio tracking devices on many of them. At this point, the story hit the Indian press, which in turn criticized the American authorities for inhumane treatment, implying that the students were innocent victims.
In the Indian parliament, now debating a bill that would open India’s higher education market, some asked how India could protect itself against fly-by-night institutions. The Tri-Valley story comes after incidents of racism against Indians in Australia and reconsideration of the country’s open-door policies for overseas students had also provoked a furor in India. In the Australian case, it was discovered that many cosmetology and other so-called postsecondary institutions were accepting Indians, who came to Australia not to study, but to work in violation of existing regulations.
These and other incidents raise a variety of serious issues relating to the internationalization of higher education. As Uwe Brandenburg and Hans de Wit pointed out in the winter issue of International Higher Education, We have reached a kind of crisis of internationalization—in some respects the idealistic phase has given away to the commercial phase, with all of the problems that unregulated commercialism brings. The world economy has suffered the results of unfettered and unregulated financial transactions in the current global recession. The “free market” in higher eduation is somewhat analogous—the “public” (students, their families, and even academic institutions) cannot be expected to make well-informed choices since there is no transparency and no control over rogue operators who blend easily with legitimate ones.
The following are some relevant points for reflection arising from the Tri-Valley case.
- For India, the incident shows that all of the foreign institutions seeking to enter the Indian higher education market and recruit students are not trustworthy institutions. Careful attention is needed.
- Who was recruiting students to Tri-Valley? Agents and recruiters? News reports indicate that some of the Indian “students” were themselves doing recruiting in return for payments.
- The reaction of the American authorities was neither surprising nor shocking. The “students” were in clear violation of US immigration rules, and keeping them under watch is not an unreasonable thing to do—as some Indian commentators seem to think. At least they were not summarily deported or put in jail.
- The reputation of American higher education in India has, at least to some extent, been damaged. American regulatory authorities and accreditators need to be more vigilant for diploma mills.
The Tri-Valley story shows yet again that, in higher education at least, the unregulated market cannot ensure quality or even good practice and leaves many poorly-informed individuals ever more vulnerable.