Higher Technical Education: A Borderless Future?

Sandip Roy, Department of Chemical Engineering

 

While services currently account for over 60% of global production and employment, they represent only about 20% of total global trade. However, the new generation of ICTs has the potential to enhance this trade by imparting traditionally local services an unprecedented international mobility. The recent success of BPOs in banking, health and other sectors are testimony to that prospect. The GATS, General Agreement on Trade of Services (a companion to the GATT, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), which was launched during the Uruguay round of talks, and whose results came into force in 1995 is aimed precisely at unbarring international trade of services; which inter alia, includes 'education'. Unlike with any other services, the annexation of education in GATS has ushered in a fervent debate not only amongst national policy-makers but within the academia as well.

         Not unexpectedly, the opinion within the international academia is a divided one. Those who are for liberalization of the education sector argue that such a move will allow greater accessibility of higher education by the global population. Traditionally, however, the academia has perceived itself as very distinct from trade, and rather as a 'disinterested' generator and provider of knowledge. It would not be inaccurate to say that this still remains the majority viewpoint within the academia. It is pointed out that the key purposes of the academia are securing wider social and cultural benefits. Thus, those skeptical of the current WTO developments maintain that regulating education through trade frameworks and a consequent 'commoditization' of knowledge can cause the academia to lose its non-profit character, which is essential to its creative functioning.

         Nevertheless, the current world-order, both in terms of social and technological parameters, is itself far too complex for academia to remain isolated from. On the one hand buoyed by rapid technological advances, higher education sector has emerged as one of the most important components of global strategy; on the other hand, the world today is in the grip of an unprecedented demographic expansion, mainly in the developing economies. As a result of these twin pressures the demand for higher education, particularly professional courses and non-traditional delivery modes, is increasing in most countries. But while demand is growing, the capacity of the public sector to satisfy the demand is diminishing. This is due to budget limitations, the changing role of government, and increased emphasis on market economy and privatization.

A mimicry of business?
There is nothing new in academic mobility for students, scholars, teachers and knowledge, as this has been part of higher education for centuries. What is new today is that academic programs and providers are also moving across borders. Corporate and for-profit educational institutions are emerging. Also, branch campuses and franchise arrangements are being developed across nations. Economic logic is increasingly driving this international 'supply' of education. Propelled strongly as they are, by the emerging ICTs and of course, the economic zeitgeist of globalization, these realities may be irreversible. What then are the likely further impacts of liberalization on higher education? How does the academia capitalize on the benefits of the ongoing transformation and minimize the threats to its traditional strengths?.............more on next page