Degrees - Foreign or Local?

I get asked a lot - what is the value of a foreign degree?

The correct answer is - it depends. It depends on where you study, what you study and where you are from.

We know the first part already - where you study matters. This is both in terms of the country where you went to school, and the school you went to. The school matters more than the country, but if the school is obscure, the country counts.

The effects of other two parameters - what you study and where you come from - are seldom talked about.

The discipline matters a lot. Parthenon, a consultancy (now part of EY), studied the effect of foreign qualification on job prospects of a candidate and pay. They concluded that while employers prefer a candidate with foreign qualification over others, it has no discernible impact on pay, except in some disciplines. They pointed out Hospitality and Digital Media as two of the areas where foreign education impacts pay, and perhaps it is easy to guess why that would be so.  In other areas, such as Business, the candidate with a foreign qualification may have a preference over those who did not have one, but have to live with the same salary levels.

Studies such as these, which deal with an aggregate picture (which is useful in itself), miss some details that are needed to answer a specific question. One has to remember that more often than not, the Foreign Degree holding candidate is more educated (often having additional qualification) and has more social capital, so the preference can not really be understood without controlling for all these other factors. The question to ask is whether the employers would prefer those with a foreign undergraduate degree, which, in most cases, would not be recognised in the country, over those who have a local degree? Would it happen if one has got the foreign degree from a relatively less known university? What if they have got it from a country other than the metropolitan centres of Higher Education (like US, UK, Australia and lately, Canada)? How much does the degree itself matter, and how valuable is the experience of being abroad?

The pay question also has some implication, in fact, a big one now that the practice of allowing students to stay on after their degree studies have become rarer in major countries. This means that the students often have no international degree-level work experience when they would be applying for a home country job, and they have no other mechanism of recuperating the premium they have paid for a foreign qualification. This makes most foreign degrees poor value, though this factor is often overlooked while pricing courses and recruiting students.

 Finally, as I have learnt by making my share of mistakes, the value of a foreign qualification depends on where the student is from. As an example, it may make more sense for a Chinese student to study for a global qualification than an Indian student. This may be a broad generalisation, but one must note that the Chinese economy is built around creating cost-effective production capability to service the needs of the world. The Indian prosperity, however, is based on stimulating demand from its millions of citizens living in small towns and villages, and satisfying them. In an economic sense, China is looking outward whereas India is looking inward. The most important thing for an Indian graduate is not a fancy foreign degree, but mastery of the landscape of her own country.

This is not to say that Indian students do not need global expertise and ideas. Surely they do. But their requirements may be different from that of the Chinese, a point that gets missed very often. And this plays out in a similar way for other countries too. Commodity based economies like Russia and Brazil may have a completely different dynamic. Indeed, no one in International Higher Education wants to understand the local labour market dynamics, but this matters hugely for the students and their funders, either their families or the banks that lend them money.

International Higher Education is seen as an industry now, with the talk of export earning, venture investments and technical innovation. But the conversations within it are still fairly immature, and have hardly moved forward from those days of Western economic dominance and relatively free student movements. The international student, in the mental models one uses, still goes to an English speaking country for a study and perhaps continues all the way to a Research degree, and thereafter, lives and works there. This has no connection with reality, as many students now study off-campus, for a variety of qualifications, and not all students of this vastly expanded numbers are keen on research. The labour market factors as those mentioned above remain on the margins. But its significance can not be overstated - an understanding of various labour markets is the key to building successful propositions in International Higher Education - and this, and only this, can help an institution construct a meaningful strategy.



Anonymous said…
Good post! I try not to comment, however, this topic is worth commenting!
You're right - it depends on which university and country you study in. For me, country wasn't as important as my university's reputation because I wanted to spend my money on something worthwhile and not just any other university for the sake of having a degree (mind you, I've seen many students with that intention). I've seen many people say to me, oh so what's so great about this foreign degree? India has got great schools, we're equally good in higher education. All I want to say to these people is that they've missed out on something, and since they haven't studied from one of the top schools in the world, they may not know the difference. I spent one exciting year to learn something new each day - that's because my professors were such knowledgeable and considerate teachers. Not only were they concerned about everyone in the class, but they were always very motivating and kept me on my toes with all sorts of assignments (which were interesting and difficult at the same time). The case studies and research papers I got to read were from some of the top ones in my field, and yes, I got the freedom to write exams not by mugging answers; our exam papers allowed us to write our own answers. All of this, and much more which I don't think Indian education system has (I'm sorry, but it's actually true). The university I studied in did not churn out an engineer or an IT professional in me... it made me a better and more open person.

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