China soon to export degrees?

According to the Guardian, we are on the brink of a revolution which includes China becoming an exporter of degrees:

David Graddol, an applied linguist, said China, which has traditionally been a major source of international students, was repositioning itself as a net exporter of higher education, poaching students from its Asian neighbours, such as India, Japan and Korea. China, says Graddol, will soon be able to offer cheaper degrees that are taught in English and come with the added incentive of Mandarin, a language that is becoming increasingly important to the international business community.

As anyone who has visited a North American English-Speaking University knows, Chinese make up a large proportion of students in many programs (including Computer Science). This is equivalent, for China, to “importing degrees”. Now, they claim that China could reverse this and start exporting degrees. I think China can pull it off, but what would happen to the degrees we offer in the West?

Some claim that, to survive in the education market, Westerners ought to offer more online degrees. At least in theory, it makes sense, there will always be a strong demand, in Asia and elsewhere, for international degrees, especially if they can be have cheap (such as is possible online).

But I’m somewhat skeptical. Naturally, online courses and degrees is a growing market and it will keep on growing for many years to come, especially as web technology becomes more capable and bandwidth grows cheaper. Smart people put their long term money on online learning.

However, before online degrees become a distinct exportable good, you need to have your local students freely choosing the web instead of the classroom. Asians are not going to buy degrees your local population doesn’t value dearly.

I really think China can reverse its status as far as education goes, and by doing so, hurt badly Western Universities in the long run. I don’t think online degrees are going to be a viable escape for Western Universities. If China goes ahead with its plans to become an education provider, it will hurt, no matter what!

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the Université du Québec (TELUQ).

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