McDonaldization of British Higher Education

Dr Rahul Choudaha writes about the franchising trends of the British, Australian and American Higher Education on his blog. This presents two interesting pieces of statistics: First, the British HE classroom is far more global than the American (15% international students in the system compared to USA's 3%,), and the second, a fact which is becoming apparent now, that more international students study for a British Higher Education degree outside Britain than inside it. In fact, this is a recent trend: In 2010, for the first time, the number of offshore students exceeded the number of students studying for British Higher Education degrees in Britain. However, the number is large: Out of a total 814, 495 international students studying for a British qualification, 408,685 was offshore, which is about half the number (slightly higher). Australia, despite a higher proportion of international students in country (21% as opposed to Britain's 15% mentioned earlier), has less students studying offshore (31% of total international students compared to Britain's 50%+).

The success in British degrees delivered offshore has come with the opening of international campuses, first in Malaysia and Hong Kong, then China, and now spreading into other countries like Sri Lanka and India. Much of this expansion has come through franchising, where a local partner puts up the money and infrastructure, and the British university allows them to deliver their degree through validation or franchising (a distinction I shall return to soon), though some of the Malaysian campuses have been funded by the universities themselves. However, this successful commercial model raised many concerns, primarily from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), which seems to have grown a dislike of the validated programmes, first admonishing University of Wales (UoW) and then Leeds Metropolitan University over the last summer, for their activities in Thailand and India respectively. Dr Choudaha also points to an article by Phiip Altbach, where he talked about 'McDonaldization' of Higher Education, primarily referring to the franchise model so favoured by British universities.

Dr Altbach has been an astute observer of the global growth of Higher Education, and indeed, of its fastest growing phenomenon, the For Profit sector. His observations are right on the money: The franchise model, which will only grow further as getting a student visa to Britain becomes more difficult (the Home Office reported a 13% drop in 2011, and a more dramatic drop is surely on its way as the visa regime further tightens in April 2012). His observation that while taking out a McDonald's franchise (and for that matter, any good brand name franchise) cost a significant amount of money, in terms of infrastructure and franchise fees (hovering around $1 Million), the university franchising is very cheap, requiring only some rented space and some fees and expenses paid to the university.

Here, an important distinction must be made to the two formats of franchising the British universities have done so far. One model is franchising, where a degree, offered by the university, is also delivered by the franchise partner in an offshore location. The university sets the curriculum and the term dates (though there may be some flexibility subject to discussion), oversees the delivery of the programme through 'link tutors' (members of the faculty who do the academic coordination) and sets or approves the assessments. The university also sets the admission criteria, though these are usually accompanied with a catch-all 'widening participation' clause, which allows the partner to take in people who may otherwise be left out. In most cases, the university sets a minimum number per course, but more often than not, they forget to put any maximum. 

There are indeed some inherent limitations of this franchising model. This is what Dr Altbach primarily refers to in his McDonaldization essay: This model is about literally delivering courses what the university delivers in their home country. One could argue that this is the essence of the offering, that offshore students want to do a British degree. However, questions can be raised how much value a degree set in local context of Britain (with its attendant readings and assessments) offer to the students studying at an offshore location, often in a surrounding much unlike the university and taught by people steeped in a different cultural environment.

Some of these issues are addressed by the other model of validation, which has found favours with some universities. With this model, university assumes the role of quality assurance and oversight of the programme, but the curriculum is written by the partner, often contextualised to their local environment and built with inputs from local tutoring team. The partner sets the term dates and admission criteria in discussion with the university, and can propose various Accreditation of Prior Learning (APL) arrangements. The university has oversight of the delivery, but are more closely involved in assessments, whereby any assessment carrying more than a certain weight is approved by university appointed external examiners and overseen by a moderator. All award boards are also attended by external examiners and moderator, and decisions and reviews are made through Joint Study Boards (JBS).

In many a sense, this is what Dr Altbach alludes to in his essay, as a model akin to Intercontinental Hotels. This has worked very well for many partners and universities, and the University of Wales (UoW) made millions out of this model (despite pricing themselves wrongly) before it all came tumbling down as they lost control over the channel. The problem is, while validation is possibly a better model for international expansion, with various scandals, QAA has taken a deep dislike of this: With UoW suddenly admitting guilt and overturning the validation model in favour of franchising (which will come in play in September 2013), and Leeds Met getting lambasted for their validation activities by QAA, the universities are expected to move away from this model altogether. So, despite this being a more potent form of arrangement, we are likely to see a greater growth of franchising, and faster McDonaldization, than there should have been.

This is problematic, because the universities tend to be quite bad at franchising in the first place. Apart from their inability to set the qualifying criteria for the partners right and failure to protect their brands when a partner fails to do their part (For example, the TASMAC failure, which I wrote about before), they are quite bad at setting the prices and adapting to a risk-based, shared revenue model. Usually run by respective faculties and their staff members, the franchising operations of the universities are unable to navigate the business realities of the franchised operations, have very little ideas or concerns about the partner's commercial model and financial exposure, and very little resources are dedicated in monitoring the partner's activity or to support the partner with training or information. Finally, most British universities, despite their student mix, are surprisingly outdated in their world view, and view most of the other countries with a sort of colonialist's perception, which leads them to overlook important trends and opportunities.

So, what we get in the end is an inefficient model, but with all the problems that a successful 'McDonaldization' will mean. George Ritzer's four aspects of McDonaldization of society mar the McDonaldization of education, too: Efficiency, defined in a very specific sense at the expense of everything else, gets defined as student completion, resulting in the creation of a degree sausage machine; Calculability comes in the form of the invoice that the university sends out, the more the merrier even if there is no space to sit in the classrooms; Predictability takes away the joys of learning and exploration, so much a core proposition to undergraduate student experience, and is delivered in terms of standard, but out of context, readings and assessments; and finally, control is exercised by the University and its representatives, often a faculty member not fit to teach on the University's home programmes and who loves his/her curry and yearly shopping trips to exotic locations, to ensure that 'heathens' are following the rules. Quality and the experience are bandied about, but are conveniently kept vague. 

It is a strange success. We need more transnational partnerships in education, not less. We need opening of the minds and building of the bridges. But this needs to be a two way process, not one. We need a radically different approach than McDonaldization: Not a standard model implanted elsewhere where people will pay for it, but an eclectic adaptation of the best things of British education for the culture and context of the host country. It makes interesting reading to see how the Founding fathers of the first American colleges, Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, Princeton, followed the Oxbridge model in their architecture, but rejected the faculty-run model and built a strong central administrative control and a powerful Presidency. They contextualized model and created the foundations of a Higher Education system which will become the best in the world. Indeed, this needs to start with the recipients, with a debate in host countries what kind of education they need. The British HE has much to offer to the rest of the world; the McDonaldization is only undermining its value.


Quan said…
Thank you so much for your post and I really think this post is very useful to those active in the field. With what is happening in the field in Viet Nam, the country I am from, I can not agree with you more. Transnational education is not only a choice of both exporting countries and recipient country but also a must due to marketization trend and GATS in Higher Education. In contrast with the success stated in your post,transnational education in VN has not yet seen any flourish. High tuition fee, low skill staff, ill management can be named as some of the factors. Therefore, your call for a new model of cooperation with which both parties (the recipient and the exporter) can enjoy mutual benefits (upgrade of human resource for recipient and expansion and money for the later.). This in turns will benefit the cooperation thus develop a viable cooperation.
I want to take this issue for my Ph.D and I hope to hear your comments and more advise on this. Thank you again.

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