How to teach university degree programs offered overseas is a complicated question . Does a university rely on faculty from the home campus to travel abroad for a year, semester or month at a time to teach, hire a new cadre of faculty at the overseas location, deliver coursework through distance education, or some combination thereof?
In offering B.S. in economics degrees at three partner universities in China and Hong Kong, Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business uses a different kind of teaching model, similar in some ways to the three approaches but with a significant, and potentially risky, twist. The programs are based on a lead professor/local facilitator model, in which the professors of record at Utah State rely on local instructors, who are not Utah State employees (but are approved by Utah State departments) to deliver much of the course content on the ground.
The degrees in question are Utah State degrees, as opposed to joint or dual degrees with the partner universities, and the arrangement is described in the business school's 2008-9 annual report  thus: “Departments assign 'lead professors' to write the course syllabus, pick the text book and other instructional materials, and to write exams and other assignments for the course. The teaching materials are provided to 'local facilitators' (faculty at our partner institutions) who have been approved by the USU department to deliver the lectures and other course material on-site in China and Hong Kong. Lead professors and local facilitators are in contact each week to make sure that the courses are on-track and to deal with teaching and evaluation issues. Final grades are assigned by the lead professor.” In other words, the instructor who interacts with the students face-to-face on a regular basis doesn't have the ultimate grading authority, but the professor back in Utah does.
In the financial model, as outlined in that same report, “tuition for our students in Asia is shared equally between the Asia program and our partner institutions. The partners are responsible for providing the facilities, textbooks, and for paying the local facilitators. The Asia program in the Department of Economics and Finance and the Huntsman School of Business is responsible for providing lead professors, for counseling students, and for admitting, matriculating, and graduating students who meet the requirements, as well as for arranging visits to the Asian sites by lead professors and administrators."
Utah State’s B.S. in economics, with an emphasis on international economics and trade, is currently offered in English at three sites: the Beijing Institute of Technology, Northeast Dianli University, in Jilin City, and the Institute of Advanced Learning, in Hong Kong. In spring 2009, 560 students were enrolled; according to the annual report, the school expects to grow its Asian program enrollment to 800 students and, once a fourth program location is approved by the Chinese Ministry of Education, more than 1,000.
"One of the preconditions for us to get approval from the central Ministry of Education in China was that they required our program to have face-to-face instruction. One of the challenges U.S. universities have had extending their educational products to China is the high expense of maintaining their own faculty on site. So our model tries to leverage the design and review role of a senior faculty member with a local facilitator who is also a professor, and those professors who are local facilitators are approved by our departments," said Chris Fawson, senior associate dean and a professor of economics in the Huntsman School of Business.
“We think it’s a model that will help foster broader collaboration. While faculty are collaborating on preparing high-quality instructional materials, we hope that they’re collaborating on research interests,” Fawson said.
“Does everybody do that? Well, again, I couldn’t say that everybody does that, in [terms of] faculty that are mentoring graduate students who are teaching courses on our campus. But I can tell you our commitment… We talk about a high level of collaborative interaction, and we talk about our commitment to integrity and our commitment to quality. If I thought that we couldn’t do that, we would drop the program tomorrow, to be honest with you.”
Inside Higher Ed recently learned of the Huntsman School's degree programs in Asia via an anonymous e-mail, purportedly from a group of Utah State students and alumni with concerns; the extent of such concerns could not be verified.
In fact, some at Utah State see the Asia Degree Program as part of an exciting expansion of international opportunities. Adam Croshaw, a senior and the business school’s student senator last year, said fellow students did not bring any concerns to him during his tenure as their representative. “I haven’t heard much other than I know it exists and there’s excitement ... just because it’s a new thing. The Huntsman School of Business is trying to give their students a better opportunity to do things internationally because that’s the way business is going these days," he said.
Outside Utah, Philip G. Altbach, professor and director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education, said he was very skeptical of this particular model for promoting internationalization, however. “My view, and I am in a small minority on these matters I think, is that foreign degrees should be taught by faculty from the sponsoring university faculty, and not be random local scholars, even if they are ‘approved’ by the home campus faculty. What USU is really doing is ‘franchising’ their degree -- in a McDonald's way -- which is common especially among low prestige British universities in countries like Malaysia these days. Those British institutions have in some cases gotten themselves into hot water with the British quality assurance agencies and the press for low standards, inadequate supervision and the like. USU may well get into that bind,” he said in an e-mail.
Carving up Responsibilities, and Collaborating
Utah State has offered degree programs in China since 2000, but until 2008 operated the programs, then in interdisciplinary studies, through the university's continuing education unit. By narrowing the academic focus to economics, and moving the Asia Degree Program to the business school (which includes the economics department), administrators were both responding to student demand and moving to better safeguard the quality of the program, said Fawson. ”We've felt that degree programs that don't have a core academic home tend to lose their way a little bit. So it was a way to push a program back to college and a department, where the integrity of the academic foundation is grounded and anchored, so there is a reference point of what we are doing from a core academic perspective."
Fawson said the business school absorbed the Asia degree programs in part to serve the broader interests of the university, and also to expand its own footprint in China. "We're looking for opportunities to have high-quality positive engagement in China. We think there's a great ability to build up some brand equity in China and to build a strong alumni base," he said.
In describing the nuts and bolts of the program, Fawson described a lively virtual exchange between lead professor and local facilitator, and also a physical flow of faculty: “Their professors come and spend a whole semester on our campus… And then our professors historically have gone on two-or three-week trips where they actually sit in on classes and observe the classes." Not all local facilitators come to Utah State, but Fawson estimates that about 30 local facilitators, two to five in any given year, have traveled to Utah State in total.
The local facilitators, he said, mostly are faculty with appointments in the partner institutions, although not universally. Not everyone has a Ph.D. – “there’s a strong business orientation to what we’re doing … but they would go through the same kind of screening process that a faculty member would go through here to be approved as a local facilitator.”
In terms of how the Utah State professor assigns a final grade in a course facilitated by a non-Utah State employee, Fawson said, “There’s hopefully [been] lively interaction between the lead professors and local facilitators. I’m sure that there is some variation between how lead professors are interacting with local facilitators, but our expectation is that lead professors take this very seriously.
“There’s a sense of professional responsibility and accountability that comes with that assignment.”
Terry Glover, a professor of economics at Utah State, has served as a lead professor for about seven years, he said, and has experienced the upside and the challenges of this kind of collaboration. “You try to hang onto the local facilitators for some years, because you develop a working relationship and such,” he said, adding that some local facilitators have collaborated with him on data collection and research. “Not only is it a teaching partnership but a research partnership as well.” On the other hand, he’s twice recommended that local facilitators try a different career and those instructors, he said, did not return.
Glover also periodically travels to the partner institutions' campuses, and takes advantage of the ability to do some face-to-face teaching while he's there. He maintains a heavy teaching load, typically teaching two courses each semester at Utah State, and taking on another 3-2 load as lead professor in Asia degree program courses. “Essentially now in the last couple of years, we’ve developed more of a partnership. It used to be Utah State and then the step-cousin, but now it’s a joint kind of partnership,” said Glover.
The model represents an improvement on distance education, Glover said, which is "not our mold"
Instead, “You’ve got someone there, with them, who knows the program, has communicated with me and such, and they know that the two instructors are attuned to each other.... I get lots of e-mails from students and I e-mail them back."
The Huntsman School of Business is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, but the economics department, while housed in the business school, is outside the accreditor's purview. "This program is not an AACSB-accredited program; therefore, none of our standards come into play," said Jerry Trapnell, AACSB International's vice president and chief accreditation officer. That said, Trapnell added, "We see programs delivered in a lot of models.... We've seen similar models to this, sure, where the delivery mode at the remote site is facilitated, assisted or delivered through arrangements with the local faculty. Again, the key is to having very good expectations and understanding of the quality of that faculty, their background, and then the strong communication at work between the Utah State faculty and the faculty there.
"I'll be clear. There are risks there, that essentially they are delegating to someone else to deliver their program," Trapnell said."They're trying to manage that carefully, I'm sure.
“It’s an innovative model, and I expect that as schools seek ways to work internationally, these models will continue to be fairly diverse."
“It looks as if the proposed breakdown of responsibilities is an effort at quality control,” said Andrew Ross, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University who has written about branch campuses  and the academic workplace. “However, it also shows how globalization hastens on the way in which professorial work can be broken down and reassigned to cheaper and more remote locations. In the twentieth century, professions were able to distinguish themselves from industrial labor process by resisting efforts to separate the conception and execution of tasks. This is an example precisely of that division of labor. It points in the direction of the routinization, at offshore locations, of instruction, while retaining the higher-level tasks onshore.”