Author explains his book on international education

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Richard J. Joseph’s new book, Bridging the Gap Between the Abundance of American Higher Education Talent and the Immense Foreign Demand for It: The Great Chasm in Global Education (Oxford University Press) is not your standard book on international education. Joseph bases his arguments on “the world of finances,” although he believes that focus will yield other desirable outcomes. Joseph was formerly the president of Babson Global, a wholly owned subsidiary of Babson College that works to collaborate primarily with educational institutions around the world to design curricula and improve educational delivery capability that extend Babson College’s reach. He’s also been the provost of Bryant University and of the Hult International Business School.

Joseph responded to questions about his new book via email.

Q: What is the “great chasm” and how do you propose to bridge it?

A: The gap between the abundance of American higher education talent and the immense foreign demand for it is the great chasm in global education … The abundance of talent stems from the slackening growth of the U.S. higher education sector in the new millennium. Contributing to the slowdown are flat enrollments, adverse demographic trends, U.S. visa restrictions and intensifying competition. The immense foreign demand has been fueled by the expansion of the global economy over the past few decades. It has been shaped by the pressing need in emerging markets to develop an educated workforce.

U.S. colleges and universities can bridge the great chasm by partnering with other academic institutions and with multinational corporations, foreign governments and/or private investors to provide higher education services to members of the international community. These services go beyond course offerings and study abroad. They include program design and development, academic advisory services, project development, and management and technology transfer.

Bridging the great chasm, however, is not an easy feat for most U.S. colleges and universities. It is complicated by an institutional culture that is averse to commercialization, an organizational structure that is operationally slow and a governance system that often leads to indecision, conflict and paralysis …

Q: You write that your arguments derive from the world of finances, not philosophy. Why?

A: Because in higher education, the “world of finances” supports the “world of ideas.” Not to diminish the importance of the philosophical—in my book I adopt a materialist approach to the challenges facing American colleges and universities in the changing landscape of higher education. I argue that only through a strong economic substructure (i.e., the world of finances) can the ideological superstructure (i.e., the world of ideas) of American higher education flourish. Indeed, a solid substructure makes possible the proliferation of educational, professional and academic opportunities for teachers, scholars, researchers and students.

Furthermore, I argue that if, in this changing landscape, the economic substructure of the U.S. higher education sector is not strengthened, its ideological superstructure, which encompasses teaching, learning, research, scholarship, knowledge creation and the pursuit of the truth, will lose its vibrancy—not for the elite few of American colleges and universities, but rather for the vast majority (emphasis placed on “vast majority,” because the elite few are relatively better off than the 4,000-strong mid- to lower-tier institutions, some of which operate at the margin). Bridging the gap between the abundance of American higher education talent and the immense foreign demand for it is one way to fortify the economic substructure of American higher education, improve the financial condition of the vast majority of U.S. colleges and universities; enhance the vibrancy of American teaching, learning, scholarship and knowledge creation; and promote the dissemination of liberal, democratic ideals globally.

Q: What do colleges need to do beyond recruiting international students?

A: First, to sustain their activities in the world of ideas, they need to seek out alternative sources of revenue. Tuition is just one source. Its overall level has been negatively impacted by adverse demographic trends and a tightening of U.S. visa restrictions. (In light of the current political climate in the country, these restrictions are unlikely to ease up substantially anytime soon.) Indicative of the current malaise in the U.S. higher education sector are flat enrollments, escalating discount rates, shrinking margins, declining profitability per institution and diminishing returns per employee (all discussed in my book). These trends risk eroding the economic foundation of the sector, which supports the entire ideological superstructure of American higher education.

Second, they need to consider exporting their services abroad on the premise that if, because of tighter U.S. visa restrictions, all the world cannot come to America for higher education, then U.S. colleges and universities should take American higher education to all the world. Indeed, if inbound student mobility has been restricted, then outbound institutional mobility should be facilitated. International expansion promises to create a pathway out of the impasses that U.S. colleges and universities currently face in a slow-growth, crowded and highly competitive domestic market. That pathway leads to emerging markets for higher education in East, South and Southeast Asia; the Arab world; and Latin America, currently valued at over $1.7 billion.

Third, they need to take a hard look at their traditional business model(s) for delivering higher education. As mentioned, the prototypical model is characterized by an institutional culture that is averse to commercialization, an organizational structure that is operationally slow and a system of governance that often leads to conflict, indecision and paralysis. These features pose obstacles in the way of international expansion.

This is not to say that all U.S. colleges and universities should “go global.” Every institution should decide for itself, based on its own peculiar circumstances. Nor is it to imply that entering a foreign market(s) is the only option available to American colleges and universities, or even the best option in every situation. To be sure, there are other options, such as launching new programs, discontinuing unprofitable ones, adopting novel modes of delivery, expanding auxiliary services and tapping into new segments of the domestic market. Rather, it is to put forth an international option for improving the financial condition of American colleges and universities and to advance it as a general proposition …

Q: You talk about ethical issues in international higher education. Do you favor U.S. campuses in China? Do you support American universities cutting off ties to Russia?

A: Your questions raise an ethical dilemma that I squarely address in my book: the righteousness of providing higher education in countries whose policies or practices conflict with American liberal values.

Opinions differ. Some say that doing so is tantamount to endorsing or condoning reprehensible conduct. A few might go further to argue that it renders an academic institution complicit in what are essentially criminal acts. For many in this camp, the “right” course of action is to boycott the country. Doing so would send a potent message to the repressive regime, thus forcing it to rethink its unacceptable practices and policies.

Others argue that the primary duty of any college or university is to fulfill its mission. That mission is to educate and enlighten, not engage in foreign policy. Besides, they might point out, most citizens of the foreign country had nothing to do with the deplorable acts of their government. Indeed, they may well be the victims. Thus, in a sense, to educate and enlighten them is to empower them—to equip them with the ideological weapons necessary to combat government repression.

In the final analysis, American colleges and universities must decide for themselves, based on their own mission, purpose, values and needs. And all of their stakeholders should be comfortable with that decision.

Q: Some may look at the world today, with the war in Ukraine and global inflation and think it may be a good time to focus on home. Why should some institutions go global?

A: For three reasons:

First, going global could improve their financial condition in the context of a nearly static, slow-growth domestic market. In light of an intensification of competition in this market, the alternatives available to them at home are growing few and far between.

Second, arguably, they have an altruistic calling—a moral imperative, if you will—to educate and enlighten other members of the world community. Internationally, U.S. colleges and universities are at the forefront of teaching, research and scholarship. In light of their pre-eminent position, as well as this moral imperative, they can and should play an even greater role in taking American higher education to all the world.

Third, by fortifying the economic substructure of the U.S. higher education sector, the globalization of U.S. colleges and universities could strengthen the critical role that America plays in knowledge creation, intellectual advancement and the pursuit of the truth. Doing so is particularly crucial at this juncture, in light of a shifting international balance of power, the rise of alternative ideological systems and extant threats to a liberal world order. Like higher education in other Western societies, American higher education is imbued with the ideals of a democratic society. Spreading these ideals around the world is not just noble but also vital for the future of this order.

This is not to say that U.S. colleges and universities should strive to impose the American way of life on the rest of the world—what amounts to cultural imperialism. Rather, it is to say that they should strive to strengthen a liberal world order in which men and women can pursue the truth freely, without fear and based on their own cultural values.

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