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UK Universities

“McDonaldisation” of higher education


Transnational education breaks the link between conventional ‘export education’ and student immigration, which is currently so politically controversial in the UK, allowing universities to grow international enrolments without the cross-border movement of students.

Although the emergence of massive open online courses opens up the possibility that anyone with an internet connection can enrol at a major US university, distance learning has been around for decades in the guise of correspondence courses.

Dominating distance learning as a way of reaching foreign students, and dwarfing the high-profile offshore campuses of some Russell Group universities, is what one critic termed the ‘McDonaldisation’ of higher education.

Like a classic industrial franchise, many UK universities license a third party – usually a private, for-profit company – to deliver their degrees through a foreign college.

Like McDonalds, many universities require their partners to deliver a curriculum and assessment regime that is as close as possible to the same degree on their home campus – the ‘Big Mac should taste the same in Beijing as in Birmingham’ principle.

nsing degrees in this way is widely assumed to be a natural extension of export education. With public funding growing scarcer, earning revenue from international tuition provides a welcome route to diversifying and growing revenue streams.

Licensing degrees to local partners opens up this new market. Local colleges can recruit local teachers at local salaries, unlike their university partners, which need to hire expensive, highly trained academics to support their research as well as teaching.

Local colleges can focus on high-demand courses in low-cost subjects like business and management, avoiding the heavy capital costs of a traditional university campus with laboratories and research libraries.

The government’s policy focus on the importance of transnational education, the vast numbers of students involved and the growing professionalisation of university management, all point to licensing being driven by an overwhelmingly financial imperative.

But a recent study published in the Higher Education Quarterly, “Why do English universities really franchise degrees to overseas providers?”, suggests there may be other motives operating behind the scenes.

The study finds that licensing is a predominantly post-92 university phenomenon, with most ‘redbrick’ universities shying away from the principal-agent risk inherent in allowing a third party to recruit to, teach and-or assess a degree under the university’s badge.

Licensing developed in the 1990s in a unique set of circumstances. The post-92 universities gained degree-awarding powers in 1992 after years of being validated centres of the Council for National Academic Awards.

Unlike their redbrick counterparts, the post-92 universities had sophisticated quality assurance systems and were expert at designing curricula and assessment regimes for external audit. It was a short step from being a validated centre to becoming a validating institution.

The post-92 universities were also keen to take advantage of the growing market for international students and, as private companies began to court the ‘new’ universities to allow them to offer their degrees, licensing offered a quick and effective way of internationalising a university and raising its profile in new, otherwise inaccessible markets.

The study also finds that, a decade and a half later, many of the participants interviewed across several universities felt that licensing arrangements had been maintained for extended periods for a range of non-financial motives.

University staff developed strong affiliations with their colleagues in the partner colleges and visiting the partners provided a range of benefits from staff development, building a spirit of camaraderie among staff and, at worst, a welcome break from day-to-day teaching.

Overall, this study challenges the notion that licensing degrees has been an aggressive strategy of market penetration by UK universities, which has the scope to be – in Universities Minister David Willetts’ words – “one of Britain’s great growth industries of the future”.

Instead, it finds that licensing has often been driven by a desire to be internationally connected and engaged in the educational development of other countries, and has been sustained over an extended period by enthusiasts with personal loyalties to colleagues thousands of kilometres away, reinforced by visits and longstanding friendships.

In the end, licensing might be ‘big business’, but while it may not be good business in financial terms, it is also not the money-grubbing cultural imperialism feared by so many of its critics.

Of interest