Over the past two decades, neoliberal globalisation has opened up trade borders, commoditised the higher education sector and established a global higher education market.
Furthermore, the changing political and economic environment especially after the Cold War resulted in rapid globalisation, technology development and a contraction of borders for trade, labour and academic mobility purposes.
Currently, a global higher education market exists particularly for internationally mobile students and lately for domestic students wishing to take international programmes in their home countries.
This article focuses on the commercialisation of higher education and its role in ushering corruption into higher education.
Corruption in higher education
Corruption in higher education should not only be seen in terms of misuse of research funds, presentation and construction of fraudulent data or inequitable admissions practices.
It should also include micro-level university-related practices in learning, assessment and certification of students and graduates respectively. Grade inflation, sub-standard graduates, and the usage of postgraduate students in teaching and research as free or low-cost assistants form part of the phenomenon of corruption in higher education.
The commercialisation of higher education has made universities into corporations whose primary objective is the profit motive and gaining market share and rankings. This is seen in the design and offering of market-based programmes, practices in assessing and awarding degrees, opening offshore (and domestic) branch campuses, and even offering overseas programmes.
The tensions between universities and key stakeholders – industry, society, governments and students themselves – within an environment of decreasing public sector funding, society’s and industry’s demand for higher education and the rise of a global higher education market, further complicates the matter.
In fact, the demands of the key stakeholders take precedence over traditional university mandates around the betterment of society and the formation of global citizens.
International higher education
The establishment and rapid increase of tuition fees, business enterprise within universities and increased privatisation of higher education show the commercialisation of national higher education systems.
The proliferation of overseas (and even domestic) branch campuses and programmes in (but not limited to) developing nations goes beyond national and regional boundaries, expanding a highly lucrative but increasingly competitive global higher education market across national borders.
What these trends have brought into the higher education sector is an increased competitive environment and the decline of the capacity of universities to function efficiently.
New university standards seem to be characterised by increased student intake, the importance of ranking high on national and global tables, financial sustainability and a short-term focus on meeting industry demands at the expense of quality, relevance and a sense of communal identity and responsibility.
Offshore branch campuses and overseas programmes have followed the money trail to developing nations, charging high tuition fees and granting degrees affiliated to or even awarded by their mother institutions.
Questions about quality, learning, assessment, recognition and awards linger, but the profit motive of offshore branch campuses cannot be denied.
In Hong Kong, degrees from overseas programmes are not recognised (although allowed) by the government, and industry is given the choice to accept or decline recognition. Similarly, local programmes are increasingly offered based on consumer and industry demands.
Short-term demands and contemporary trends dictate university programme offerings based on a profit rationale rather than society’s needs and the long-term skills and competencies required by university graduates to survive and prosper in an ever-changing knowledge-based economy.
These new standards have led to lax admission requirements, a focus on short-term goals and short-term relevance of academic programmes. Furthermore, university practices such as limiting failures have led to grade inflation and the awarding of degrees to sub-standard graduates.
Practices of students assessing lecturers and professors' teaching performance also enhance grade inflation as poor student assessment affects promotion and tenure possibilities. Similarly, university practices of using postgraduate students in teaching, grading, and research worsen the quality of teaching, the students’ learning experience and even the quality of research conducted by these postgraduate students.
In essence, when we disregard the quality of student learning and its outcomes due to the profit motive and the race to the top of the league tables, we have ventured into a new form of corruption in the higher education sector.
Universities' diminished power and effectiveness is seen in the case of City University of Hong Kong, whose students protested against Hong Kong’s national education plan last September. The students demonstrated just outside the library, an area where silence is a necessity, and even painted the floor of the university with giant white Chinese characters.
In spite of repeated emails and reminders by the university administration, these demonstrations outside the library and other public areas within the university continued for some time and as of 12 January, the giant painted characters are still on the university's floor.
Do we teach students to respect the rights of other people and public property? Or is it no longer the university's role to mould the future leaders of society and give them a sense of responsibility towards local, national and global issues? I am sure a vast number of similar cases can be found not only in Hong Kong, but in other parts of the world as well.
The commercialisation of higher education tends to diminish the role and power of universities to function effectively, given the competitive environment and the demands of the various stakeholders.
Giving in to the pressures and tensions faced by universities, however, leads to corruption in higher education in the sense of not fulfilling the traditional university role of societal betterment, lowering the quality of teaching and learning, and providing sub-standard graduates lacking a sense of responsibility and the necessary long-term skills and competencies to survive and adapt in a rapidly changing knowledge-based society.
It is time to step back and rethink the role and function of contemporary universities and the contribution commercialisation has made to corrupting the higher education sector.
* Roger Y Chao Jr is a PhD candidate in Asian and international studies at City University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong. His research mostly focuses on regionalism, higher education and internationalisation of higher education.
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