March/April 2001 // Case Studies
A Partnership for International Exchange: The Tokyo Accounting Center-Athabasca University Program
by Peter S. Cookson
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Peter S. Cookson "A Partnership for International Exchange: The Tokyo Accounting Center-Athabasca University Program" The Technology Source, March/April 2001. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The revolution in global communications and the globalization of national economies have created unprecedented opportunities for international networking, exchange, and collaboration. One such opportunity is the Tokyo Accounting Centre-Athabasca University Program. Begun in July 1997, the program prepares Japanese accountants for the United States CPA exam. It is a concrete example of the promise of joint international educational programs using distance learning technologies.

International exchange is a process of increasing behavioral interdependence. Cookston (1987), using a framework conceptualized by Scanzoni (1979), described a three stage model of development of international cooperation to explain the process of exchange between organizations across international boundaries as follows:

Stage I: Exploration

Stage I covers the first contacts between two or more international entities and their initial efforts to forge some kind of relationship through subsequent contacts. These entities seek to learn about each other in order to determine the likelihood that the other can provide resources needed to attain strategic objectives. If these entities discover that some kind of association may be mutually beneficial, they proceed with an exchange.

The relationship between the Tokyo Accounting Centre (TAC) and Athabasca University (AU) began shortly after TAC, one of the largest accounting schools in Japan, recognized that many students who read and write English were interested in obtaining a United States credential as a certified public accountant. Accrediting agencies in each U.S. state have different sets of prerequisites for the CPA exam; in six states, non-North American nationals who complete 30 credits of relevant course work may sit for the exam. TAC officials began a search for a North American university willing to allow TAC students to complete the credits.

TAC was attracted to AU because, unlike conventional residential institutions, AU is a university whose sole mission is distance education. It has inherent structural flexibility non-existent at most other universities. In contrast to traditional universities, where teaching is the sole responsibility of individual faculty members, at AU the multiple and varied instructional functions are "unbundled" and then assigned to different subsystems within the university. For example, as components of a multidimensional process, disaggregated instructional operations are conducted by the following:

  • Content experts, who compile course content;
  • Course coordinators, who determine a course's overall design;
  • Course materials editors and visual designers, who develop the physical and visual layouts of print and digital course materials;
  • Educational technologists and multimedia specialists, who orchestrate the interplay of media and text;
  • Professors and tutors, who interact with students and produce and grade exams;
  • Registry staff members, who administer exams; and
  • Academic advisors.

AU's capacity to "unbundle" teaching creates flexible options for partners in an international exchange, options that can result in significant cost savings for both partners. As Daniel points out, "These technologies are simply the working practices that underpin the rest of the modern industrial and service economy: division of labor, specialization, teamwork and project management. These are not the traditional working practices of universities" (1999, p. 8).

At the outset, executive officers at TAC and AU found themselves disclosing their interests and agreeing to enter into a mutually beneficial exchange. TAC needed a way to enable its students to complete 30 credits of course work; AU needed a way to cover the costs of entering into the exchange and to expand its overseas programming.

Stage II: Expansion of Interlocking Interest-Spheres

In stage II, according to Scanzoni, partners' range of shared interests typically broadens through continued communication and exchange. This creates in its wake a sense of increasing interdependence. The partners decide to engage in jointly planned programs, at first on a trial basis.

In the case of the TAC-AU exchange, initial explorations led to the development of a joint program to prepare Japanese accounting professionals to pass the United States CPA examination. To implement the exchange, one member of the accounting faculty and an associate registrar were assigned to visit TAC and negotiate the terms of a formal relationship. A warm relationship emerged, and over several days, a model of exchange developed that met the needs of both institutions. This program has the following features:

  • TAC determines eligibility for the program. To enter the program, students must be able to read and write English. About 10% of the 82,000 students studying with TAC in four cities meet this requirement.
  • AU supplies each TAC instructor with a complete set of course materials.
  • TAC instructors incorporate AU materials into appropriate accounting courses, many of which focus on accounting methods and principles used in the United States.
  • TAC instructors use the same textbooks as AU instructors and have been granted permission to make reprints of some other AU materials.
  • AU instructors create exams that resemble the actual CPA exams TAC students will sit for in the U.S. Administering challenge exams is less expensive than sending AU's own faculty to Japan, or contracting people in Japan to teach courses. Challenge exams are not only an inexpensive way to administer credit, but also they are an efficient way to assure top quality instruction.
  • TAC compensates AU to cover the costs of making and marking the examinations, plus the administrative overhead.
  • Without revealing questions actually included in the exams, AU faculty members build relationships with TAC instructors by discussing topics covered and the different kinds of questions on the exams. TAC instructors, in turn, let the students know what to expect.
  • Before TAC students can take the CPA exams in the United States, they must first complete 30 credits from a North American university. TAC arranges for students to sit for an exam for each course. Upon passing the exam, AU awards three credits. Students can sit four times for each exam but are not allowed to sit for more than three exams at a time. They typically complete the 30 credits in two years.
  • AU staff mark all exams and report to TAC instructors any problem areas that may have shown up in the evaluation. The instructors thus learn what to do to improve student performance.
  • For each student who fails an exam, AU prepares an individual assessment aimed at better professional formation.
  • Before a student who fails an exam can re-sit for that exam, TAC must vouch that the student is prepared to retake the exam.

The expansion of shared interests, begun in June 1997, resulted in a mutually beneficial business development that appears to be working well for both partiesas well as for students. Of the students who have sat for the U.S. CPA examination, between 65%-75% have passed. This is almost double the pass rate (25-35%) of U.S. students. This statistic reflects the high quality of instruction, individualized attention, and personal feedback that participants in the program receive—far more than U.S. students usually receive as they prepare for the same examinations.

Stage III: Commitment

According to Scanzoni, the parties involved in an exchange reach this stage when they form a general expectation to maintain the relationship. They repeat activities that began earlier, reinforcing the balance of short-range and long-range interests. What began as a limited one-on-one relationship can evolve into a recognized network with an identity and a mission of its own, thus maintaining the flow of benefits which arise from the association. What prevails is a genuine sense of commitment to the exchange.

In the case of the TAC-AU exchange, stage III began when a third formal agreement was signed by the senior TAC and AU executive officers in April of 1999. TAC agreed to provide a center for AU examinations in Tokyo four times a year as well as registration and administrative support to AU students residing in Japan. AU agreed to continue offering regular home study versions of each of the ten courses required for the certificate. Additionally, it agreed to award a university certificate in accounting (USA) to AU students registered with TAC that will be "ladderable" (i.e., constitute an intermediary credential en route) to a full Bachelor of Commerce degree.

Besides acknowledging their mutual responsibilities of maintaining the integrity of high academic standards for the current program, AU and TAC declared in their agreement a commitment to "work together to expand services and programs to students residing in Japan." This expansion focuses on two distinct areas: (1) TAC's promotion of AU's degrees and certificates to be delivered via home study to Japanese residents, and (2) TAC's role as AU's agent in promoting and delivering courses and programs in cooperation with other Japanese institutions.

Thus, TAC and AU have proceeded through stages I, II, and III of the international exchange and cooperation process. Underlying this process is the principle of reciprocity, based on each institution's benefits and willingness to make changes for a common good. The value added for both parties is made possible by each institution's willingness to build on each other's strengths.

Exchange Outcomes

The TAC-AU exchange has resulted in the following:

  • AU's involvement has broadened the experience and influence of its center for commerce and administrative studies. This reflects the dedication of AU's faculty and administrative officers, who negotiated and implemented the terms of the exchange. The AU faculty association and the accounting department faculty are also to be commended for their willingness to consider other ways of doing their work.
  • The TAC-AU exchange is a clear demonstration of AU's flexible pricing structure, which has allowed AU to cover costs and TAC to provide North American credits within its existing fee structure.
  • Now that the TAC-AU exchange has reached stage III, the shared experience can serve as a springboard for expansion of international exchanges between AU and other Japanese institutions.
  • The program's long-run revenue has now passed the break-even point. Given the now modest revenue stream, neither institution has to subsidize the exchange.


Although cooperative and collaborative agreements among educational institutions can be easy to draft and sign, they can be difficult to implement. However, higher education institutions with distance education programs have a clear advantage in forging inter-institutional collaborations. Because teaching responsibilities in distance education can be "unbundled," collaborating institutions can more readily accept a division of labor for instructional tasks than is possible in conventional higher education, where instruction is the sole responsibility of individual instructors. Because the application of communication technologies enables each partner to perform complementary educational roles, the TAC-AU partnership demonstrates the viability of synergistic and mutually beneficial international inter-institutional exchanges, which are possible when educational institutions engage in mutual exploration, expansion of interlocking interest-spheres, and a shared commitment to success.

In the near future, emerging Web-based technologies will no doubt expedite such institution-to-institution collaborations, resulting in an expansion of learning opportunities otherwise unattainable. For example, AU will soon have the capacity to permit TAC to download course exams from secure Web pages. Given the success of the TAC-AU exchange, this program now serves as a replicable template for future AU exchanges with institutions in other parts of the world. As a concrete example of the international exchange process at work, the TAC-AU partnership may also serve as a model worthy of replication in other international collaborations.


Cookson, P. S. (1987). International cooperation and exchange. In C. Klevins (ed.), Materials & methods in adult and continuing education (pp.101-108). Los Angeles: Klevens Publications, Inc.

Daniel, J. (1999, April). Distance learning in the era of networks. The ACU Bulletin of Current Documentation. 138, 8.

Scanzoni, J. (1979). Social exchange and behavioral interdependence. In R. L. Burgess & T. L. Huston (eds.), Social exchange in developing relationships (pp. 61-98). New York: Academic Press.

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