The 2011 Global Forum in Vancouver

New delivery systems, the role of private equity in capacity-building, the growth and role of the for-profit sector in the US, transnational education in southeast Asia, immigration, the student experience in Qatar’s Education City and elsewhere, and the rise of ‘Destination China’: all of these and more were placed under the intellectual microscope by 120 delegates from more than 20 countries at the Observatory’s 2011 Global Forum, held in Vancouver on 25-27 May, a few days prior to NAFSA.

Forum presentations are posted on our website HERE. The HE media were represented: the Chronicle’s report is HERE and one from University World News is HERE.

The overall theme was ‘Levelling the international playing field’ which, for our purposes, was expressed in the rise of new countries in international higher education and transnational education (TNE), the rise of private providers, the use of immigration controls in traditional education-export countries (which makes the new national players comparatively more attractive), and in how HE is applied as a policy tool for social and economic goals and in national development strategies.

In his welcome remarks, Observatory Director William Lawton sounded a few cautionary notes. He reminded participants that in spite of global and borderless ideals, senior scholars from Iran, India and the Democratic Republic of Congo were absent from their number because they could not get visas to enter Canada. He further noted that while economic and political power were hurtling eastwards, the ‘international playing field’ was still well short of level for poor countries and regions.

‘Mathabo Tsepa, Lesotho’s High Commissioner to Ottawa, kicked off proceedings with an inspirational and moving account of the transformative power of higher education in her country. She and Daniel Schwirtz, an engineering postgraduate at the University of British Columbia, recounted the role of students who participated in a sanitation and clean water project in rural Lesotho.

Joseph Duffey, Senior Vice-President of Laureate International Universities and a former senior official with three US Presidents, spoke of the casual uses of the word ‘globalisation’ and suggested that the nature of public diplomacy had moved on from its roots in ‘winning hearts and minds’. Duffey noted the difference between building branch campuses and working with other countries as partners. The implication was the emergence of new models, as expressed by the Liverpool-Laureate partnership through which Laureate makes the university's programmes available online and provides personal student support.

As a theme, new delivery models ran throughout the Forum. Burck Smith, CEO of StraighterLine, an American company that offers no-frills online courses for $99/month, argued that the US was on the road to a ‘great unbundling’ of university provision and that its profound consequence would be nothing less than the end of the basic organising principles for universities as centralised institutes of learning, with academic staff and libraries (though he did not think that elite research universities would be affected by these developments). He insisted that contrary to what anyone might have read or heard, online courses were cheap to deliver. When challenged on the fundamental issue of what higher education is for, Smith retorted that students are able to choose their own purposes.

A partial counterpoint to that vision of the future arose from Tim Gore of University of London International Programmes. His landscape survey was devoted to demonstrating the increasing social and economic relevance of universities, its attainment through the incorporation of ‘frugal innovation’ (like that of the Indian manufacturer Tata) into the academy, the consequent disturbing of the global pecking order, and the flexibility of London International’s delivery processes.

Svava Bjarnason of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a part of the World Bank which provides long-term loans for capacity-building projects in developing countries, spoke about the growing role and impact of private capital in higher education in various parts of the world. She covered a number of case studies, including their investment in RMIT’s campus in Vietnam, and picked some trends for discussion, not least the increasing professionalism and quality of private HE providers in developing countries and the acceptance by governments of the value of the private sector in meeting demand for, and increasing access to, HE. She also noted the consolidation of smaller institutions in mature markets and a trend toward IPOs (stock market flotations).

Richard Garrett of Eduventures, an education research consultancy in Boston, gave a useful summary of how for-profit providers in the US have transformed the whole sector in the past 15 years. The numbers were impressive. There are now more than 1,600 degree-granting for-profit institutions in the US (30% of the total) and they are permitted in every state but Rhode Island. The adult (25+) education market exploded from 38,000 to 840,000 between 1987 and 2009 (see slide below). Enrolments in the for-profit sector now total more than 2 million after 440% growth in just over a decade, and it exceeds that of the private non-profit sector. Much of this is via online delivery and the conclusion was that the traditional sectors fell short of responding to the needs of mature students.


In 2008-09, degree-granting for-profits reported $20.5bn in revenues and $3bn in profits. What is fascinating, and also responsible for negative press in regard to quality, is that some 90% of this revenue comes from federal aid, and that while the for-profit sector accounts for 10% of students, they are responsible for 44% of the defaults on federal student loans.

The rapid growth of for-profits led to new regulatory oversight in 2009 and 2010. This led to a rise in admission standards, flat or declining enrolments, and more scrutiny by the feds of their own student aid. Garrett’s conclusion was that despite current pain, such regulatory push-back could reinvigorate the for-profits. Those that could innovate on the student experience and customer service would be formidable competition for non-profit higher education and would advance the for-profit contribution to American problems with cost, access and completion.

Looking north of the border, Toby Chu of CIBT Education Group (based in Vancouver with China as a hub) unwrapped credibility and transparency issues faced by private providers. They needed to provide better service in order to compete with public institutions, and they faced the revocation of licenses if the student loan default rate was deemed too high (they had the highest federal student loan default rate but the greatest improvement in the past decade) or if the curriculum did not meet job market demands.

Other issues were addressed. Jean-Philippe Tachdjian from the Edu-Canada (international promotion) section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada and Lesleyanne Hawthorne from the University of Melbourne took a close look at the jostlings for position in regard to student migration and the drivers for attracting talent.

Tachdjian noted that Canada, with its lack of a federal education ministry, has never expressed a single HE internationalisation policy document. It has, over the last five years, however, articulated a number of initiatives that together place Canada in a good position vis-à-vis its competitors. He juxtaposed the continuing underfunding of Canadian embassies in education marketing against the federal funding of postgraduate scholarships open to international candidates. He noted the interesting competition, using permanent residency fast-tracking, between provinces for talent. The current changes he described, including increased monitoring of international students, the creation of an authorized list of students, training and verification of agents and mandatory reporting to federal authorities all echoed changes afoot in the UK.

Using a wealth of primary data (see HERE), Hawthorne examined the key drivers of the international competition for talent: demography, compensation for out-migration, mismatches between the domestic skills base and what the economy needs, the under-supply of skills in key areas like healthcare, and bilateral and multilateral agreements on workforce mobility. She focused in on developments in Australian immigration policy, how it became so lucrative for universities (Melbourne’s revenues from international students increased from A$49m in 1998 to A$222m in 2007), and how it went awry. She noted that the education of traditional skilled emigrants was paid for at home and concluded that student immigration was no less intrinsically ethical than that.

Good discussions were stimulated by the sessions – one case in point being a cohesive panel on TNE in southeast Asia (see presentation by Fernandez-Chung et al). One theme here was the impossibility for governments to regulate TNE fully when the level of activity is as high as it is in Malaysia, for example. Another was that the commonest forms of TNE (through joint programmes and articulation pathways) do not necessarily stem brain drain from the host country because the students still leave for other countries.

The Forum ended with two panels, on Qatar’s Education City and developments in China and Hong Kong. The former had Ahmed Hasnah of the Qatar Foundation, Mark Weichold and Mariam Al-Mannaie from Texas A&M Qatar, Michael Worton from UCL (which is starting an archaeology programme there this autumn), and some current students and recent graduates. The China panel had Steve Healy from INTO University Partnerships, Zong Wa from the Chinese Education Association for International Exchange (who provided a useful update on China’s 10-year plan and the Study in China plan), and Winnie Eley from HK Polytechnic University (who described Brand Hong Kong and argued that HK and the Mainland were headed for more integration in HE internationalisation).

This represents just a sample of the programme and ideas discussed in Vancouver. There were case-study panels on international campus engagement and distance learning, regional harmonisation and Bologna, international mobility networks, and presentations from the government of Malaysia, Oregon State University and Manipal Education.

Feedback has been positive. Delegates agreed that the Forum was an interesting and engaging in-depth examination of some of international higher education’s most important themes, and that they looked forward to continuing the conversations started there. Planning for the next Global Forum is yet in its infancy but may be held in South Africa, China, or South Korea.




Sir Drummond Bone addresses delegates during the opening plenary session


Delegates collaborate during a session on Student Migration


The opening reception, sponsored by UBC, gave delegates the opportunity to network


Lesotho's High Commissioner to Ottawa 'Mathabo Tsepa and student Daniel Schwirtz