Tuesday, August 24, 2010
August 23, 2010
By Philip G. Altbach
A specter is now haunting international higher education — the dramatic proliferation of third-party recruiters and agents. Their job is to recruit prospective students in countries that send large numbers of students abroad to study at specific institutions as well as to provide general information about studying abroad. Many officials are authorized by academic institutions in the receiving countries — specifically in the United States, Britain, and Australia — to offer admission to students and to help them enroll. (The agents and the colleges that hire them all say that the college still controls admissions, but effectively the reality is that the agents are making offers.)
While by no means a new trend, this phenomenon is growing in size, scope, and notoriety, as international enrollments have become a compelling part of some universities’ bottom lines. The operators, of course, do not work without any source of income. They are paid by the universities that utilize them, usually by providing a fee, based on how many students are enrolled. Sometimes, shockingly, they are also paid by prospective students.
Agents and recruiters are impairing academic standards and integrity — and it’s time for colleges and universities to stop using them. Providing information to prospective students is fine, but money should not change hands during the admissions process, and universities should not hand the power to admit — after all, a key academic responsibility — to agents or entities overseas.
Old Ways and a New Wave
Thirty years ago, most students interested in studying abroad would locate information, apply to their preferred institutions, and enroll. In the days prior to the Internet, information could be obtained directly by writing to overseas universities or in some cases by going to libraries sponsored by embassies and information centers in major cities in the developing world supported by the main host countries — the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and the United States. Internationally mobile students (those who enrolled for credit in another country) were relatively few in number. In 1981, there were 912,300 internationally mobile students — the total has grown by 3 times in the past 30 years. Many students came from relatively sophisticated families able to access information and make informed choices or were sponsored by governments or other agencies. Universities in host countries seldom placed internationalization at the top of their agendas, and few, if any, looked to make money from overseas students. Cold War politics and neocolonial ties stimulated the major powers to sponsor information centers overseas.
This environment has changed. Indeed, practices only a few decades old seem quaint in today’s globalized world, where higher education is big business for many and perhaps 3 million students study abroad — the large majority coming from Asia and going to the main English-speaking Western countries and Australia. The United States hosted 671,000 of these foreign students — or 21 percent of the global total. These students contributed more than $17.65 billion to the U.S. economy and many billions more to the other main host countries.
The key shifts include the rise of the Internet, the commercialization of international study, and the transformation of study abroad from an elite to a mass phenomenon. While formerly limited mainly to an elite few, participating students were often provided with scholarships from home or host countries. International study is now a mass phenomenon where funding comes overwhelmingly from individual overseas students or their families, and the students themselves come from much wider social-class backgrounds and from many more countries than was the case in the past.
The Internet permits easy access to information concerning higher education institutions everywhere, although even a cursory glance at the websites of many universities reveals a striking lack of transparency that even borders on false advertising. Even degree mills can be designed to look like Oxford — sometimes even stealing pictures of Oxford. But good information is available to individuals who have the ability to carefully separate fact from fiction — not an easy task.
The Cold War ended by 1990, and most host countries have eliminated or cut back their overseas information centers. Some, like Australia, have purposely commercialized international student recruiting. The Australian government established the IDP agency to build higher education as an export industry. Other countries, including the United Kingdom, have moved to commercialize international higher education.
At the same time, the United States has repeatedly cut the budgets for overseas libraries and information centers without thinking about the consequences and now faces the costly investment of reopening centers and libraries and rebranding and remarketing one of America’s most valuable "exports."
As the number of overseas students has grown, the level of sophistication of the applicants has declined. At one time, fewer applicants were in large part interested in top universities overseas, although some government-sponsored programs placed students in less prestigious institutions. However, many of today’s potential students have little knowledge about higher education prospects and may want to study abroad because they cannot find access at home. Moreover, they feel that somehow an overseas qualification will boost their job prospects or serve as a prelude to migration abroad.
Many more academic institutions have entered the competition for international students. Most of these new entrants are not top "name brand" universities but are rather lesser-known — and sometimes lower-quality — colleges and universities of all kinds. These schools turn to recruiters since they feel that they have no alternative way to attract students from other countries. It is surprising that some quite respectable American universities have turned to agents and recruiters—perhaps feeling insufficient confidence that their quality and brand could attract overseas students. Top-ranked universities remain preferred destinations for the best and brightest students, but they can accommodate only a tiny minority of those who apply.
Agents and Recruiters Enter
This new environment produced an information and access vacuum that needed to be filled. Unfortunately, this deficiency has been accommodated in the worst possible way. Many universities, especially those with no international profile, seeking to attract international students find that they cannot easily obtain access to the potential market. Students find it difficult to locate reliable information about possible places to study amidst the thicket of competing web sites and the myriad of advertisements that one can find in newspapers, train stations, and elsewhere in the developing world.
The Internet has not solved the problem in part because it does not distinguish quality and provides unevaluated and unfiltered information. There is no way to easily evaluate the quality or veracity of information. Agents and recruiters have stepped into this environment of information overload and claim to provide a road map to the plethora of “information” currently available on the Internet and elsewhere.
The Actual Practices
If agents and recruiters only provided information, today’s situation would not amount to a crisis. It would simply be problematic because the evaluation of the information would still be questionable. They are, of course, hired chiefly by potential host universities and other higher education providers to attract students to their institutions. Not information providers, the agents are salespeople. Their purpose is to sell a product, and they can use any required methods.
They do not present alternatives or provide objective guidance to the potential applicants. Many of these operators — although it is not known how many — have authorization to actually admit students, often based on murky qualifications. Some of the least-scrupulous agents accept payment from both sides — their employing school or schools in the host country, as well as from the applicants — a clear violation of ethical standards. Most agents and recruiters are independent operators who have contracts with one or more overseas institutions. The universities in the host countries that employ these personnel typically are the less-prestigious schools with little visibility overseas and often a tremendous financial need for foreign students to balance their own "bottom lines."
American federal law forbids payments to recruit domestic students. Thus, one wonders why it is appropriate, or even legal, for a university to pay agents to bring them international students whereas not domestic students.
Agents and recruiters have no stated qualifications, nor are they vetted by anyone. Efforts are now underway to create "standards" for this new "profession" but with no powers to either measure compliance or discipline violators. Organizations like NAFSA-Association of International Educators, the largest membership organization of international education professionals, accept these operators as members with no questions asked, thus giving an aura of respectability to them. Other groups, such as the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, have raised serious inquiries about their role. Current efforts to set standards and somehow “legitimize” agents and recruiters through a new organization called the American International Recruitment Council may be seen as too closely linked to them.
The solution to this growing phenomenon with agents is simple: abolish them. Agents and recruiters have no legitimate role in international higher education. They are unnecessary and often less than honest practitioners who stand in the way of a good flow of information to prospective students and required data about these students to academic institutions in the host countries.
Objective and accurate information and guidance are needed for both institutions and students. These sources can be provided through the Internet, preferably through Web sites with some “seal of approval” from a group of respected universities or an international or regional organization that has universal credibility. It would be helpful if countries that eliminated or cut back on information centers and libraries overseas could restore them. The cost is not high and the yield in good will and reliable data would be immense. A significant role may exist for independent consultants who provide information and prepare students for the application process overseas but have no links and receive no money from the universities. Actually, a new organization, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, has been founded to establish and enforce appropriate standards relevant to this new role.
Universities in the host countries should immediately cease using agents and recruiters. Better and more useful information should be provided by universities themselves to more effectively inform prospective applicants. This goal may include visits by university admissions staff to potential students overseas for the purpose of information sharing.
The stain of commercialization in international higher education has been tremendously aided by agents and recruiters. It is high time that these operators are eliminated and replaced with open and transparent ways of providing information to prospective students. The admissions process should be put back where it belongs — students applying for study and colleges and universities choosing those best qualified — based on reliable individually submitted applications.
Philip G. Altbach is the Monan University Professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. He is also a co-editor and frequent contributor to "The World View," a blog at Inside Higher Ed.
Saturday, August 07, 2010
WSJ: English Gets The Last Word In Japan
Every Monday at 8 a.m., nearly 2,000 employees of Rakuten Inc., Japan's biggest online retailer by sales, gather for an asakai, or company meeting, at corporate headquarters along Tokyo's waterfront.
For the past few months the weekly meeting, like much of Rakuten's other in-house business, has been conducted in English, by order of its founder and chief executive. Not only must work documents be written in English, so must the menus in Rakuten's cafeteria and signs in its elevators.
By 2012, Rakuten's employees will be required to speak and correspond with one another in English, and executives have been told they will be fired if they aren't proficient in the language by then.
Rakuten, which has made recent acquisitions in the U.S. and Europe, says the English-only policy is crucial to its goal of becoming a global company. It says it needed a common language to communicate with its new operations, and English, as the chief language of international business, was the obvious choice. It expects the change, among other things, to help it hire and retain talented non-Japanese workers.
Most of the company's largely Japanese-speaking work force of 6,000 appears to be taking the new policy in stride, and many employees support it.
"To be honest, I was a little surprised at first," says Hideki Kamachi, who has worked at the company for about a year, as he studies English vocabulary words to prepare for the Monday morning meeting. "Sometimes I don't understand everything that is being said, but every week I understand more."
The policy was imposed by Rakuten's 45-year-old leader, Hiroshi Mikitani, a banker turned Internet billionaire, who speaks nearly flawless English. "Some people were a little hesitant, but they realized that we were going to do it whether they liked it or not," says Mr. Mikitani, a Harvard Business School graduate who left a prestigious job at the Industrial Bank of Japan to build a Japanese rival to Amazon.com Inc. His company has grown into a sprawling Internet mall with more than 35,000 merchants, an online bank and travel site and net sales of nearly 300 billion yen ($3.5 billion) in 2009.
Rakuten isn't the only Japanese company to have embraced English. It is widely used at some multinationals, including Sony Corp. and Nissan Motor Co., which both have non-Japanese CEOs. Fast Retailing Co., which operates Uniqlo, Japan's largest clothing chain, with stores in New York, London, Paris and Beijing, recently said it plans to hold meetings in English by 2012 if they include non-Japanese participants.
In the mid-1990s Japanese trading house Mitsubishi Corp. considered making English its standard language, but decided it was unnecessary. These days it says it uses English when it makes sense to do so, such as in dealings with foreign customers or its foreign units. Some lesser-known companies, including Nippon Sheet Glass Co. and electronics-components maker Sumida Corp., have used English for years as a common language for documents and meetings.
But few, if any, Japanese companies have gone as far as Rakuten.
The company's move comes as many businesses in Japan are expanding abroad at least partly because their home market, which has been sluggish for years, is expected to shrink as Japan's population declines. The trend has intensified the pressure many Japanese feel to learn English. Most of them have studied the language for six years by the time they graduate from high school, yet relatively few feel comfortable holding a conversation in it.
Partly as a result, Rakuten's so-called English-ization has stirred a frenzy of debate in Japan. On Twitter, blogs and mainstream media, pundits have weighed in on how Japanese schools teach English and whether Japan's language barrier is putting it at a global disadvantage. At a recent news conference, Takanobu Ito, chief executive of auto maker Honda Motor Co., called forcing Japanese workers to speak to one another in English "stupid." Rakuten's CEO has also taken jabs from Japanese nationalists, who say his policy is the first step toward the disappearance of Japanese and, ultimately, the collapse of Japan.
That argument doesn't sway Mr. Mikitani. "Japan is the only country with all these well-educated people who can't speak English," he says. "This is a huge issue for Japan."
Among the 34 countries designated as "advanced economies" by the International Monetary Fund, Japan had the lowest scores last year on the Test of English as a Foreign Language, a proficiency test given to foreign students who want to study in the U.S. It had the second-lowest score among Asian nations, outperforming only Laos.
Since April, when Rakuten announced its plan to convert to English, 220 employees have signed up for the discounted English conversation class the company offers at night. Others have formed impromptu English study groups after work.
Mr. Mikitani says comfort with English is especially important at Rakuten since its acquisition this year of U.S. online retailer Buy.com for $250 million and French Internet marketplace PriceMinister SA for EUR200 million ($264 million).
The company has compiled a vocabulary list of 5,000 words for its workers to learn, including terms like "monetize" and "functional." While executives will lose their jobs if their English isn't up to snuff by 2012, other workers will be passed over for promotions, Mr. Mikitani says.
The CEO freely admits "resistance doesn't mean anything to me." He presides over a company that has rules about almost everything, down to the number of napkins a worker can take from the company cafeteria -- "two pieces to each," says a sign in stilted English. Another sign in the cafeteria, where employees can get free breakfast and lunch, warns in similarly strained English that rice is limited to one portion: "Sorry another serving is not accepted."
A spokesman for Rakuten says the signs were made by a food-service company it hired, rather than its own employees.
Even the Japanese food options on the menu are listed in English. During a recent lunchtime, workers debated what they might get if they ordered "tofu hamburg steak curry" or "Chinese noodles with pork vegetables in miso-based soup spicy."
One woman paused for a few seconds in front of a sign that read "fried minced meat cutlet." She slowly sounded out the words, "min-ced-o meat-o katsu-retsu," and then stared down at a deep-fried cutlet sitting on top of a plate before moving on.
By contrast, a group of online grammar sticklers has emerged at Rakuten that enjoys correcting Mr. Mikitani's English. "Let's stop discussing about our policy to convert our main language to Eng. We are going to do this to become strong global company," Mr. Mikitani tweeted after his Twitter account was flooded for days with discussion of the company's language policy.
Someone replied in Japanese: "For your reference, one doesn't usually put 'about' after 'discuss.'"
Mr. Mikitani immediately wrote back: "Let's stop being picky."
He revisited the issue four days later, writing: "Well I think many native people use 'discuss about.' At least my friends at Harvard did. How good is your English??"
Monday, August 02, 2010
August 1, 2010
Plagiarism Lines Blur for Students in Digital Age
By TRIP GABRIEL
At Rhode Island College, a freshman copied and pasted from a Web site's frequently asked questions page about homelessness — and did not think he needed to credit a source in his assignment because the page did not include author information.
At DePaul University, the tip-off to one student's copying was the purple shade of several paragraphs he had lifted from the Web; when confronted by a writing tutor his professor had sent him to, he was not defensive — he just wanted to know how to change purple text to black.
And at the University of Maryland, a student reprimanded for copying from Wikipedia in a paper on the Great Depression said he thought its entries — unsigned and collectively written — did not need to be credited since they counted, essentially, as common knowledge.
Professors used to deal with plagiarism by admonishing students to give credit to others and to follow the style guide for citations, and pretty much left it at that.
But these cases — typical ones, according to writing tutors and officials responsible for discipline at the three schools who described the plagiarism — suggest that many students simply do not grasp that using words they did not write is a serious misdeed.
It is a disconnect that is growing in the Internet age as concepts of intellectual property, copyright and originality are under assault in the unbridled exchange of online information, say educators who study plagiarism.
Digital technology makes copying and pasting easy, of course. But that is the least of it. The Internet may also be redefining how students — who came of age with music file-sharing, Wikipedia and Web-linking — understand the concept of authorship and the singularity of any text or image.
"Now we have a whole generation of students who've grown up with information that just seems to be hanging out there in cyberspace and doesn't seem to have an author," said Teresa Fishman, director of the Center for Academic Integrity at Clemson University. "It's possible to believe this information is just out there for anyone to take."
Professors who have studied plagiarism do not try to excuse it — many are champions of academic honesty on their campuses — but rather try to understand why it is so widespread.
In surveys from 2006 to 2010 by Donald L. McCabe, a co-founder of the Center for Academic Integrity and a business professor at Rutgers University, about 40 percent of 14,000 undergraduates admitted to copying a few sentences in written assignments.
Perhaps more significant, the number who believed that copying from the Web constitutes "serious cheating" is declining — to 29 percent on average in recent surveys from 34 percent earlier in the decade.
Sarah Brookover, a senior at the Rutgers campus in Camden, N.J., said many of her classmates blithely cut and paste without attribution.
"This generation has always existed in a world where media and intellectual property don't have the same gravity," said Ms. Brookover, who at 31 is older than most undergraduates. "When you're sitting at your computer, it's the same machine you've downloaded music with, possibly illegally, the same machine you streamed videos for free that showed on HBO last night."
Ms. Brookover, who works at the campus library, has pondered the differences between researching in the stacks and online. "Because you're not walking into a library, you're not physically holding the article, which takes you closer to 'this doesn't belong to me,' " she said. Online, "everything can belong to you really easily."
A University of Notre Dame anthropologist, Susan D. Blum, disturbed by the high rates of reported plagiarism, set out to understand how students view authorship and the written word, or "texts" in Ms. Blum's academic language.
She conducted her ethnographic research among 234 Notre Dame undergraduates. "Today's students stand at the crossroads of a new way of conceiving texts and the people who create them and who quote them," she wrote last year in the book "My Word!: Plagiarism and College Culture," published by Cornell University Press.
Ms. Blum argued that student writing exhibits some of the same qualities of pastiche that drive other creative endeavors today — TV shows that constantly reference other shows or rap music that samples from earlier songs.
In an interview, she said the idea of an author whose singular effort creates an original work is rooted in Enlightenment ideas of the individual. It is buttressed by the Western concept of intellectual property rights as secured by copyright law. But both traditions are being challenged.
"Our notion of authorship and originality was born, it flourished, and it may be waning," Ms. Blum said.
She contends that undergraduates are less interested in cultivating a unique and authentic identity — as their 1960s counterparts were — than in trying on many different personas, which the Web enables with social networking.
"If you are not so worried about presenting yourself as absolutely unique, then it's O.K. if you say other people's words, it's O.K. if you say things you don't believe, it's O.K. if you write papers you couldn't care less about because they accomplish the task, which is turning something in and getting a grade," Ms. Blum said, voicing student attitudes. "And it's O.K. if you put words out there without getting any credit."
The notion that there might be a new model young person, who freely borrows from the vortex of information to mash up a new creative work, fueled a brief brouhaha earlier this year with Helene Hegemann, a German teenager whose best-selling novel about Berlin club life turned out to include passages lifted from others.
Instead of offering an abject apology, Ms. Hegemann insisted, "There's no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity." A few critics rose to her defense, and the book remained a finalist for a fiction prize (but did not win).
That theory does not wash with Sarah Wilensky, a senior at Indiana University, who said that relaxing plagiarism standards "does not foster creativity, it fosters laziness."
"You're not coming up with new ideas if you're grabbing and mixing and matching," said Ms. Wilensky, who took aim at Ms. Hegemann in a column in her student newspaper headlined "Generation Plagiarism."
"It may be increasingly accepted, but there are still plenty of creative people — authors and artists and scholars — who are doing original work," Ms. Wilensky said in an interview. "It's kind of an insult that that ideal is gone, and now we're left only to make collages of the work of previous generations."
In the view of Ms. Wilensky, whose writing skills earned her the role of informal editor of other students' papers in her freshman dorm, plagiarism has nothing to do with trendy academic theories.
The main reason it occurs, she said, is because students leave high school unprepared for the intellectual rigors of college writing.
"If you're taught how to closely read sources and synthesize them into your own original argument in middle and high school, you're not going to be tempted to plagiarize in college, and you certainly won't do so unknowingly," she said.
At the University of California, Davis, of the 196 plagiarism cases referred to the disciplinary office last year, a majority did not involve students ignorant of the need to credit the writing of others.
Many times, said Donald J. Dudley, who oversees the discipline office on the campus of 32,000, it was students who intentionally copied — knowing it was wrong — who were "unwilling to engage the writing process."
"Writing is difficult, and doing it well takes time and practice," he said.
And then there was a case that had nothing to do with a younger generation's evolving view of authorship. A student accused of plagiarism came to Mr. Dudley's office with her parents, and the father admitted that he was the one responsible for the plagiarism. The wife assured Mr. Dudley that it would not happen again.