Among the futuristic skyscrapers of downtown Singapore, a small group of academics, business people and IT experts are busily preparing their university for the flood. A flood of such biblical proportions, they proclaim, universities around the world will be wiped out unless they take heed. Although these other universities will be submerged, however, theirs—an online university—will be launched with the deluge.

For in populous East and South-East Asia, they argue, the tide of demand for university degrees is rising fast. In countries like China, India, and Indonesia, tens of millions of qualified students will soon want a higher education, but there will not be enough space in traditional universities, both within and beyond their borders, to accept them.

South America and Africa will soon bulge with demand, too, they argue. And if this demand isn’t managed by traditional universities, then the bit-players of higher education—online universities—will wash away the centuries-old monopoly brick-and-mortar universities have held on the conferring of degrees.

U21 Global, a Singapore-based online university that will soon open its virtual doors, seems to be on to something. In China, especially, the demand for post-secondary education is so great the government is encouraging private universities to set up as quickly as they can. According to the Chinese Ministry of Education’s website, 5.3 million students wrote the college and university entrance exam this year. The total number of students enrolled in Chinese higher learning institutions was 3.5 million last year. Only 3 per cent of Chinese between ages 18 and 22 attend college or university, despite overwhelming demand.

The United Nations has declared increased access to higher education in emerging economies as one of its fundamental goals for this century, and it too encourages virtual universities. According to a study by Merrill Lynch, one of the world’s leading investment banks, there is a US$15-billion market for them at the moment. And that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to what’s expected.

And He said to build an ark…

The seeping of e-degrees into higher education—especially MBAs—is nothing new. Major universities have been marketing online diplomas for some time. Neither is the existence of entire virtual universities setting up to offer them. What makes U21 Global different is that traditional universities have created it for international markets. If successful, it will change the way traditional universities do business and mark the beginning of a new world.

Created by 18 of the world’s better-ranking traditional universities—McGill, UBC, University of Hong Kong, and the University of Nottingham, to name a few—U21 Global has the academic thrust to maneuver on the flood water. Starting in 1997, nearly all these universities first gathered to learn from one another through academic and student exchanges, among other things. This league of universities, called Universitas 21 (different from its soon-to-be-formed company), quickly moved to incorporate itself with an eye to seizing the international markets for e-education.

The plan was to license their names and logos to form an Internet degree with impressive brand power. The profit from the venture would be divided among the member universities to help them manage the coming flood. An ark, so to speak, would be built, called U21 Global. It would protect traditional universities from losing control of their ideals and ways of operating and help them navigate a globalized economy.

An MBA program would be the first to be offered, reportedly at total price of US$12,000—a cheap deal compared to traditional universities’ fees. A Master of Information Systems would soon follow. Both programs would be in English, with the option of Mandarin being available a year later. Students would write assignments and tests online and participate in mandatory bulletin board and real-time chat room discussions. Video conferencing at the end of the program would confirm a student’s identity. Basic student services, including a bursary system, would be created. All that was needed was a company with experience in online educational delivery.

At first, this league of universities tried to team up with one of the largest media corporations in the world, News Corporation. Concerns erupted over image and academic integrity, and the deal fell through when it was revealed Microsoft was a third partner. Six months after, in late 2000, a joint-venture agreement was reached with Thomson Learning, a subsidiary of Canada’s Thomson Corporation.

Each university had to invest a minimum US$500,000 to join the venture. Some put in more: University of Glasgow, for example, put in $2 million; Melbourne University, which initiated the venture, put in $5 million. All together, the universities would provide US$25 million of equity, with Thomson Learning matching it dollar-for-dollar. An arm’s-length company to approve curricula and ensure quality would also be set up.

According to their business plan, U21 Global plans to have 1,000 students in 2003, operating at a loss of US$27.7 million. By 2005 it plans to service 27,000 students with a profit of $12 million; by 2011, 500,000 students, with a profit of $1.6 billion, and expansion into India and South America.

“The one thing I can say in conclusion is that this is an entirely altruistic enterprise as far as all the participating universities are concerned,” says Alan Gilbert in e-mail correspondence with The Varsity. He’s the vice-chancellor at Melbourne University, who initiated U21 Global as well as its supporting league of universities.

“The goal from [a league of universities] perspective, is to provide affordable, high-quality online education to people who, in most cases, for reasons of isolation, low purchasing power or grave educational under-supply, would not otherwise have access to such an education,” he said.

But not all the universities Gilbert gathered were enthusiastic about creating an online university, or doing it with such speed. U of T backed out of the venture and the league of universities, fearing the international licensing and shared legal responsibility both entailed. Another university followed suit. The speed with which U21 Global was becoming a reality triggered a letter from the union of American Association of Professors demanding the venture be more thoroughly discussed with them. Faculty members at Melbourne University became deeply divided over U21 Global. Even the senate of the Australian government expressed serious concern over the venture.

All aboard (except students)

Critics argue that U21 Global isn’t a university at all, but a hastily rigged, profit-hungry venture that will sink its member universities’ time, money and reputation.

“My biggest concern is the devaluation of a UBC degree,” says Tara Learn, vice-president of external affairs at UBC’s student union. “[U21 Global’s] MBA program sorely lacks direct person-to-person contact. I think one of the key things employers look for—especially in business—is social intelligence. I don’t think it’s up to UBC par.”

Learn sees U21 Global as an extension of its member universities, which include UBC, selling the universities’ names cheaply in international markets. U21 Global would use professors and course material from its member universities to do this. In other words, UBC, a public university, would be providing for-profit education.

Gilbert counters, saying the league of universities is assuring the quality of the curricula and lending only their names to create a single, high-quality brand degree. Though the university they form with Thompson Learning is for-profit, the member universities remain public in nature.

Definitions are obviously being fought for in this new realm. Students of the league of universities that supports U21 Global are fighting to be defined, too. They have no representation in these umbrella structures, and so have no say in what’s done with their universities on this global level.

Concerned student union presidents from U21 Global’s member universities have formed a student network in response. Just before U21 Global’s general meeting at Lund University in Sweden, a handful of these student leaders held their own meeting there to discuss the implications of the league of universities and its joint-venture company. Though they generally agreed U21 Global has tremendous potential to fund their universities, the lack of communication and participation within either power structure gravely concerned them.

“I’ve never got an official response from the U21 admin about why we weren’t included in the talks,” says Martin Doe, president of the Students’ Society at McGill. “The whole network is lacking student representation.” Both he and Learn attended the meeting in Lund.

Gilbert says it is inappropriate for students of the member universities of U21 Global to seek representation within the company’s decision-making bodies.

“To the extent that a student voice is important—and it is—it should rightly be the voice of students enrolled in U21 Global.”

Hopefully, the demands of those voices will not be just for a degree.

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