Globalization is a hot topic in the media and in business these days. The Levin Institute at the State University of New York defines globalization as "a process of interaction and integration among the people, companies, and governments of different nations, a process driven by international trade and investment and aided by information technology" . The Internet has been one of those information technology innovations that has ushered in a new era of global communications and commerce. It has enabled call centers in India, for instance, to service calls for clients originating anywhere in the world at hyper-competitive rates. Globalization has redefined entire industries and the web has lead the revolution in many cases.
Now consider what the Internet has done for higher education. Today, it's possible for someone to complete an entire degree program from practically anywhere on the planet as long as there's access to a computer and a network connection. Whether you're a busy professional or a stay-at-home mother, there's no reason why you can't have access to a decent college education. This should come as no surprise unless you have been living isolated from technology. Why does this warrant another look? The cost of education is growing at an unsustainable pace. This inflationary pressure has given many reason for pause and reflection causing some to fore-go college altogether. This is especially troublesome for the knowledge economy that depends on a highly educated work force.
According to the College Board, in the United States 2011-12 school year, the average cost of in-state tuition at a four-year public university is $8,244 USD, or a 7.0% increase from the previous year. Based on this estimate, assuming one graduates within 4 years, the total cost of a college education will be $32,976 USD (or $41,220 USD for 5 years). Tuition has increased at an average rate of 5.6% per year above the general rate of inflation in the United States during the last decade and shows no sign of abatement . The global recession has forced governments everywhere to implement austerity measures to compensate for lost tax revenue; higher education has been a victim of those cuts. It's happening all over, even in Europe where entry has been purely merit-based requiring the student to pay little, if any, of the cost. The United Kingdom has recently seen the introduction of fees. The cost of maintaining these institutions of higher learning is being passed on to students in the form of higher tuition and student loan debt, which will cripple future economic growth. Traditionally, brick and mortar institutions have been limited by physical classroom space and in order to ensure access to the best and brightest, admission standards were put into effect. But tougher admission requirements translates into reduced access. In contrast, cyberspace has changed this dynamic enabling nearly unlimited access and the potential for leveraging economies of scale.
Let's look at a few online degree programs developed by institutions around the world and their estimated costs in United States dollars (USD) (at today's exchange rate, some programs are at a fixed exchange). It shouldn't be implied to be an exhaustive or even comparative list of degree programs. Its purpose is to get one thinking about possibilities of online programs in a global rather than regional context.
Western Governors University (United States)
Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh Business School) (Scotland, United Kingdom)
Central Queensland University (Australia)
University of South Africa (UNISA) (South Africa)
As you can see from this short list, there is a diverse offering available in all hemispheres. If you simply begin searching, you are sure to find many more reputable and affordable colleges and universities all within reach online.
Ignoring national boundaries for the sake of higher education may not be the solution for all of the ills of the global higher education system. The curriculum of many fields aren't easily transferable into an online program; most especially those disciplines which require time in laboratories such as Chemistry or Medicine. There is something to be said for face-to-face classroom contact, too. The value of peer discourse is incalculable. However, the potential of delivering academic programs online has yet to be fully realized. As learning management systems evolve and methods for online collaboration expand, the ability to interact with peers in real-time will become more common, thereby making the world our classroom. If we are to think and act globally, shouldn't we also learn globally?
Faced with budget cuts, colleges and universities have no choice but to either cut costs or to raise new revenue. The need to remain competitive makes replacing (or increasing) revenue a more favorable option. Some universities have been successful at commercializing their research through intellectual property licensing, their publications and by developing curriculum for executive education programs. As many brick and mortar institutions have brought their curriculum online, it has not resulted in the reduction of tuition because the delivery system remains labor intensive and the revenue model has not changed to focus on profitability. Western Governors University, University of South Africa and Heriot-Watt University all have different curriculum delivery systems and revenue models that merit further study.
Heriot-Watt University, for example, is delivering some of its curriculum in an asynchronous self-study model which significantly lowers labor costs. Their distance learning program at the Edinburgh Business School and a satellite campus in Dubai (another campus is planned in Malaysia) are generating revenues that are repatriated back to the home campus in Edinburgh. Major capital improvements to infrastructure (new student housing, classroom space, curriculum localization and translation, etc.) and reinvestment in the community make the students the benefactors of these profits. Their distance learning delivery system has the potential to scale to hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions, of students worldwide. This scalability takes advantage of economies of scale that maximizes profits for the institution. At the same time, it provides expanded access, flexibility and tuition at more competitive rates. 
Assuming consumers are willing to participate in this global education market, the problem then becomes the criteria by which one evaluates programs at colleges and universities on an international level. The quality of the materials, accreditation, notable alumni, peer interaction and, most importantly, the integrity of assessments are all factors that should be considered. The quality of the materials can be evaluated by ensuring the authors are recognized experts in their field. Accreditation by a local governmental agency and/or internationally recognized accreditation body is important for ensuring continuity and consistency. For instance, Heriot-Watt University is accredited by Royal Charter issued by the British government and Western Governors University is regionally accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, an approved accreditation body of the US Department of Education. Notable alumni may also be an indicator of quality and rigor of an international university. Nobel Laureates Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu are both alumni of the University of South Africa. The ability to interact with your peers may provide a lifeline when difficulties arise from studying unfamiliar material. This is one of the drawbacks to distance learning but if it is possible to communicate with peers, then it may be possible to get the answers you need. Probably one of the most important considerations is the integrity of the assessments. At no time should it be possible to refer to notes or receive assistance while an examination is conducted, or this should be an immediate cause for concern. The integrity of the testing facilities is very important to the validity of the degree. If assessments are administered without controls, it is impossible to ascertain whether one has mastered the material. Examinations at Heriot-Watt University and the University of South Africa are proctored at testing centers all over the world. These are often the same testing facilities that administer the GMAT, GRE and other standardized admission tests that require a high level of security.
The higher education establishment must be challenged both internally and externally to create a more efficient market. Tuition cannot continue to grow at this rate without serious economic consequences in the future. Globalization represents an opportunity for higher education to expand into new markets and generate new revenues; enabling it to weather adverse budget conditions, stabilize tuition costs and stimulate local reinvestment. It also represents an opportunity to expand student access and reduce the burden of student loan debt which creates cash flow for stimulating economic activity. A side benefit will be increased awareness and appreciation for global issues.
Tom Harney has been working in the Information Technology space for 14+ years. He's interested in Entrepreneurship, Philanthropy, Social Justice, Foreign Language and Culture, Global Travel and all things Internet. Tom is a graduate student at Western Carolina University enrolled in the Masters of Entrepreneurship program. Webmasters and other article publishers are hereby granted article reproduction permission as long as this article in its entirety, author's information, and any links remain intact. Copyright 2011, Tom Harney.
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