May/June 2002 // Vision
Global Universities:
Sowing the Seeds of the Future, or Hanging On To The Past?
by Chris O'Hagan
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Chris O'Hagan "Global Universities:
Sowing the Seeds of the Future, or Hanging On To The Past?" The Technology Source, May/June 2002. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

"Global universities" are in the news as conventional universities respond to the challenges posed by new technologies, commercial competitors like Phoenix and Jones International universities, and the increasing worldwide demand for higher education. It is thus timely to look at factors that could affect efforts within higher education to reconfigure access in the 21st century by creating 'virtual' institutions with a global reach. What are the motivations for taking such risks? What will characterize a successful global university? Who are the potential students, and what will make for a rewarding online learning experience? These and related questions lead me to query whether some institutions seeking to go global are hanging on to an elitist past, rather than sowing the seeds of a future mass higher education, which could provide millions of people with the intellectual and job opportunities they are currently denied.

Current Models

First, it will be helpful to set the context with a brief survey of current and proposed global universities built around conventional campus-based institutions. Universitas 21 is a consortium of 18 constituent universities spread across four continents that has signed a deal with commercial partner Thomson Learning to deliver "the course design, content, development, testing and assessment, student database management and translation for the project." (See link, paragraph 1) The 'project' is a free-standing e-university, offering brand new online degrees under the name of Universitas rather than converting courses from any one of the 18 constituent universities. This sidesteps problems with varying national quality standards, as well as consequent arguments about "equivalence of standing." It creates the first truly "offshore" university. But by avoiding national validation, Universitas poses a question mark around recognition of its qualifications; presumably it is relying on the prestige of its constituent universities to gain international recognition.

Another contender, the UK e-University, is based on a wholly national model, which some commentators believe is outmoded in a postmodern, multicultural world. One explicit aim is to "showcase" the excellence of UK higher education. Yet since free trade in education is not supported by nations as vigorously as for other "products" (protectionist measures are not uncommon), it could be argued that international partnerships are vital for success, and that a national global university is an oxymoron.

The Global University Alliance (GUA) e-university is up and running, has registered students, and offers a creditable selection of online degree courses and qualifications from the ten participating universities, through portals provided by its commercial partner NextEd. GUA degrees are validated and accredited by individual institutions, assuring conventional recognition of awards. As each partner is providing an agreed selection of online courses, scheduled over a three year period, the GUA model allows for a broad portfolio of available courses relatively quickly , and gives students a wide choice. The big question mark lies over the ease of credit transfer, and thus a fully integrated alliance. In the meantime, GUA's success will depend on how readily the GUA brand is seen as a significant, quality-marking component of its courses.

These three models encompass most of the options for configuring a global university, and their relative achievements will make for an interesting study, assuming each succeeds in going to market.

Reasons for Going Global

Many conventional institutions are quite happy the way they are, serving the same client group they have recruited for years, perhaps putting the odd toe in the waters of off-campus learning. Distance learning does not sit easily with close-knit, residential house traditions and rivalries. There will surely be a good market for this mode of study for a long time to come, particularly for the value of the social experience, as well as for the high cost—the conspicuous expenditure is a kind of badge of achievement.

The majority of conventional institutions, however, are undecided. They invest, often heavily, in technology on campus, but balk at the apparent costs and risks of a major expansion into the uncharted territory of volume distance e-learning. Those that are willing to go global do so from one (or a combination) of three motives:

Fear. Many institutions fear being left behind and losing students to other universities and new players. This certainly seems to lie behind the British government's support for a national e-University: a worry that UK higher education will cease to be competitive globally. Fear can lead to knee-jerk reactions, like throwing money at the development of online programs without regard to the marketplace and costs?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùparticularly the costs of supporting students in online learning.

Generating new income streams. This is a more rational motive. The Universitas partners fall into this category; otherwise it is difficult to see why prestigious universities should risk their reputations on such a venture. Along with the first motive for going global (fear), the desire to generate new income reveals an overarching concern about growing competition in higher education. This desire notwithstanding, recent notes of caution can be heard. John E. Kobara, president of, has observed, "A year ago there was no chancellor or president in the country who didn't say that universities should be seriously thinking about online courses. Today, they are going back and asking some important and tough questions, such as: Are we making money off of it? Can we even pay for it? Have we estimated the full costs?" (quoted in Carr, 2001).

Access. The first two concerns emphasize the significance of a third motive: enabling more people worldwide to benefit from higher education, for personal development and enhanced employment opportunities. This appears to be a significant motive behind the GUA: "the Global University Alliance is dedicated to providing students from around the world with accessible, rewarding educational experiences...enabling students to master practical and vocational skills as well as knowledge." (GUA 'About GUA', paras 2 and 3) The consortium includes universities with substantial track records in providing non-traditional learners access to higher education: Athabasca University in Canada, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University in Australia, and the University of Derby in England.

The Access Mission

Access has been at the heart of various distance-learning universities. John Daniel, vice chancellor of the UK Open University, has observed that traditional campus universities cannot hope to meet exploding world demand. "In the last seven days, somewhere in the world, a new university campus should have opened its gates to students. Next week, in a different location, another university ought to begin operations" (Daniel, 1996, p. 4). As Daniel suggests, population growth means increasing demand for education, which cannot be satisfied by building traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions. He argues that distance learning, enhanced by new technologies, is essential to meet the demand in a cost-effective way. If we factor in higher participation levels fuelled by the rapidly growing knowledge-based economy in the West, and snowballing economic growth in the East, then the problem?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùor the opportunity?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùis even greater.

Prestigious institutions are not access-driven. Their reputations are sustained by the difficulty of entry and the cachet lent their awards by scarcity value. Such institutions risk diluting this by going global, which may be one reason why Universitas 21 and Cardean do not offer degrees under the names of the individual partners. Institutions with a wide access mission, rather than an elite mission, are likely to be better able to meet Daniel's challenge to the higher education community. Such institutions tend to have broad portfolios of vocational and professional qualifications, to have more modular, disaggregated course organization, and to be highly student centered and concerned about the overall learning experience. These factors will be critical to success in the new global and technological environment.

Meeting Student Needs

In much of Asia, income is increasing substantially for large numbers of people who realize they can invest their small surplus income to generate a bigger surplus. There are two obvious investments: starting up a new business, or improving one's employability through education. Indeed, these are closely linked. The most desirable qualifications are business and IT skills, because businesses need organizational, managerial and computer skills, and they want to employ staff with accredited awards. Qualifications in the non-vocational sciences and humanities?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthe bread and butter of traditional universities?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùhave little mass appeal. Christopher Ball, chairman of the the Global University Alliance, has reported that market research carried out on behalf of the GUA in Asian countries concluded that a global university should have five faculties: business, information technology, health, education, and... the rest (Ball, 2001, p. 13) . Shortage of local higher education opportunities in the more desirable subject areas in the Asian market, plus the attraction of a Western qualification, means that affordable distance learning is potentially in high demand.

Frank Tait, senior vice president for global marketing at SCT, a U.S. technology solutions corporation which has growing interests in China, has commented, "The (Chinese) Ministry of Education and Ministry of Culture expect to support more than 240 million students with distance education... (because) as the population and the number of those eager to retrain and/or obtain degrees in business and technical fields grow, universities will not be able to meet the demand for education with the traditional classroom model, they will have to put a distance model in place" (Morrison and Tait,2000, last para).

It would be foolish to underestimate the sophistication of potential customers in this marketplace. These are capable students. Because of the lack of educational opportunities for their parents, they are usually first-generation students in higher education, with little trace of the Western liberal notion of education for personal fulfillment. They want to improve their economic and professional standing. There are already strong signs in the West that students are also acting more instrumentally, with less concern for subject interest and more for career prospects—hardly surprising in a mass system where an undergraduate degree is less extrinsically valuable. In some countries, this is manifested in a continuing relative decline in applications for science and engineering subjects, but big increases for business studies and information technology.

I predict that universities that successfully package professional and vocational courses for the online market will find that similar courses become attractive on campus, particularly as average university enrollment rates in the West reach 50%. Economic factors are likely to drive this—the convergence of developed and developing economies in a post-industrial environment will produce similar employment requirements, and the successful exploitation of technologies will provide good learning experiences at reasonable prices. The argument that returns will be limited because students in the developing world will generally opt for the cheapest course leading to the desired qualification is na?ɬØve, and a typical post-colonial insult. Price is one of a number of factors. Already, budding students have access to Web sites that tabulate the pluses and minuses of universities and courses. Reputation will be critical, but the most highly-regarded campus universities should be careful: this is a new world in which reputations will be made and broken.

In a distance-learning environment, a modular, disaggregated course scheme is essential for enabling credit transfer, clear progression, student flexibility to put together the right mix of knowledge and skills, and motivation through accumulation of credits. The current market is mainly for postgraduate degrees (because these students can afford the cost, around $10,000 or more for a master's), so it is important that postgraduate as well as undergraduate courses are of a modular design. Again, it is the access-led institutions that have addressed student needs through such a pick-and-mix program organization—an approach belittled by some elite universities.

The Total Learning Experience

An emphasis in recent e-learning publications, on the problems of creating good online resources has tended to obscure other factors that contribute to quality online learning. From a technological perspective, this requires reliable and fast computer servers and a 24-hour support center. From a pedagogical perspective, a clicks-and-mortar model has the potential to address student needs most closely, avoiding the loneliness of distance learners and the cost and inconvenience of full attendance. At the very least, supervised exams in person are essential to prevent plagiarism and ensure quality. Ideally, a local center is desirable, offering tutoring, additional resource access, and a meeting place for students. Such centers could also support videoconferenced classes from home institutions. Global universities able to provide such a sense of a real, physical identity are likely to have stronger brand images. Online tutoring is also essential, if potentially time-consuming and expensive. The potential conflict between good contextual support and economically viable scale is a challenge faced by all new online operations.

Sowing the Seeds of the Future, or Hanging on to the Past?

Those universities in the 21st century that have the capacity to break with 19th century traditions of higher education, which still dominate most of the world's universities today—that is, research-led, residential, lecture-based, content-driven—could be the new world leaders in the online environment. They will develop reputations for relevant, quality learning, with efficient and effective support for students. They will be able to compete with emerging private and corporate institutions. Those that hang on to the past may find a few niche markets among richer students wanting online qualifications which shout of conspicuous expenditure, but which in the end are not very relevant (practically and vocationally). Future-looking institutions will be characterized by student-centeredness, manifested in a demand-led approach and provision of a high quality learning experience; broad portfolios of vocational and professional qualifications; and the ability to uncouple units of learning to provide programs oriented to each student's cultural and employment context. Carol Twigg, guru of The Learning MarketSpace, similarly suggests that "a new kind of institution--one built on inclusiveness and accessibility...rather than the exclusiveness and inaccessibility that typifies our medallion institutions," is the coming competitive challenge to existing universities, and not technology per se (Twigg 2001, penultimate para). Perhaps so, but I would argue that it is very much technology that is now taking the "inclusiveness" challenge out into the globalization of higher education opportunities.

Peter Scott, former editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement and now vice chancellor of Kingston University (England), has written, "Mass higher education is a novel epistemological phenomenon as well as a new sociological formation" (Scott, 1998, 39). He sees a radical change already in progress in knowledge production in the 21st century, one that has also been noted by various philosophers of postmodernism: a shift from traditional scientific research, as conducted by traditional universities, to more socially-distributed knowledge production. Such knowledge is generated within a context of application; it is transdisciplinary; it is heterogeneous and diverse; its generation is accountable, not autonomous; and it demands new definitions of quality. Scott notes that a key feature of this new innovation system is de-institutionalization: "This is a profound change because we have always assumed a tight association between cognitive values and social organization, which is why we have universities. We may have to get used to much looser relationships. The dispersed, distributed university perhaps" (Scott, 1998, p. 39). Three years after these observations, such universities are becoming reality, but with the potential for a mismatch between traditional values (research, autonomy, disengagement, 'objective' knowledge) and the new, performative kind of knowledge characterized by Scott and others—and, as I have argued, a related mismatch between traditional values and the growing worldwide demand for performative qualifications. More recently, Scott (2000) has even argued that it makes sense for access-led institutions, rather than traditional research-led institutions, to train the researchers of the future.

Massification and Commodification

There is one potential critique of my argument: capitulation to "McDonaldization." This global burger-bar analogy is tenuous and overwrought, but as an acceptance of the commodification of higher education, the accusation has some justification. A degree of commodification is the price we pay as intellectuals for widening access to the opportunities that higher education has previously provided for an elite minority. That is not a past I wish to hang on to. Yet accepting a degree of commodification does not mean surrendering to the lowest common denominator in the marketplace. We must find spaces within the market to continue to develop our more liberal agendas. That is what faculty have always done. It is another reason why we academics should not cling to a past in which those old spaces are disappearing. We must find new spaces for our agendas and for different, more universal opportunities.


Frank Tait has observed with some excitement, "The amount of investment in infrastructure construction in China is phenomenal... buildings are being wired with category five wires... I was able to use my cell phone from the Great Wall of China... As the Chinese economy changes, America may lose skilled workers to China because of the economic opportunities there" (Morrison and Tait, 2000, para 14). SCT is aware of the potential for collaboration. So are a few campus-based universities in the West. Frank is learning Chinese.

Just as we will see Asian countries play a more dominant economic role over the next 30 years, so we will see a transformation in higher education, with the decline of the traditional research-led, somewhat conservative university, and the emergence of a new group of global, accessible distributed universities. Economic forces will merge with new, performative epistemic values in shaping learning and scholarship in the 21st century, and place these distributed, partnership-based universities at the forefront of higher education. Those institutions that continue stubbornly to hang on to their old elitist values will become antiques. Not worthless: perhaps some will be highly sought after in a nostalgic and snobbish kind of way. But antiques all the same.


Ball, C. (2001, January 23). Opinion: It's time to ask students what they want to learn for their degrees. The Guardian, Higher Education section, p13.

Carr, S. (2001). Is anyone making money on distance education? The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved February 16, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

Daniel, J.S. (1996). Mega-universities and knowledge media: Technology strategies for higher education. London: Kogan Page.

Morrison, J. L., & Tait, F. (2000, November/December). Globalizing the knowledge economy: An interview with SCT's Frank Tait. The Technology Source. Retrieved April 10, 2001 from the World Wide Web:

Scott, P. (1998). Mass higher education: A new civilisation? In D. Jary & M. Parker (Eds.), The new higher education: issues and directions for the post-Dearing university (pp. 29 - 40). Stoke-on-Trent: Staffordshire University Press.

Scott, P. (Ed.). (2000). Higher education re-formed. New York: Falmer Press.

Twigg C. (2001, May), Tracking the competition, The Learning MarketSpace. Retrieved May 22, 2001, from the World Wide Web:

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