In recent days, the actions of two higher-education institutions have raised concerns about the oversight of their internationalization activities. Last week, an audit of Dickinson State University, a public institution in North Dakota, revealed that the institution had operated as a diploma mill for hundreds of international students, awarding degrees despite the individuals not completing all degree requirements, and many not even having a basic level of English proficiency. This week, a New York Times article raised concerns about degrees being offered by Empire State College (ESC) in Albania. ESC, part of New York’s public higher-education system, was operating in cooperation with the University of New York, Tirana (a private entity registered in Albania), to offer degree-granting academic programs to local students. The Times’ investigations suggested that the students were being misled by advertising, faculty were not approved by Empire State, and some of the courses were poor quality.
To us this raised a question about who provides oversight of a college or university’s international activities?
In short, international activities rely on internal oversight. External mechanisms don’t do a good job of crossing borders. Here we’re only commenting on the situation in the U.S., though there are commonalities with other nations.
Empire State and Dickenson State are both public institutions and the reports raise questions about the effectiveness of state oversight. In a study we recently completed of state regulation of the importing and exporting of higher-education institutions, we found most states just focused on what institutions within in their borders were doing. Few seemed to care all that much about what their public institutions did outside of the state. And for those that did care, they cared about process and finances, with quality rarely considered.
The institutional accreditation agencies aren’t filling the gap in oversight of offshore locations. They do have some procedures in place: Institutions are required to alert the accreditation agencies of any new teaching locations, and when these presences are substantial, such as a branch campus, a review team from the accreditation agency usually visits around the time that the campus is opened to ensure that it complies with home campus policies and procedures. In other words, accreditation is supposed to verify that an institution has appropriate internal oversight of the international activity. But in the ESC case, the Albania location was approved by the accreditation agency, Middle States Commission on Higher Education, as an “other instructional site” without making a site visit. If internal oversight by ESC breaks down, as is implied in the article, Middle States can’t provide the crucial back-up necessary to ensure quality overseas.
So, it is mostly left to the institution to assure its own quality. To be clear, we believe that most institutions take issues of quality seriously; setting up processes that allow faculty members on the home campus oversight of the hiring and curricular practices at the branch campus and making sure that programs offered to international students meet the same standards expected of all students. On paper, at least, it can all look quite solid.
However, despite the rules and regulations, constantly monitoring the activities of entity that operates thousands of miles away—particularly if the entity is not viewed as part of the core mission—is difficult to achieve via the typical university committee structure. And, let us not forgot that the diploma mill activity at Dickinson State occurred right here in the United States. This highlights another problem with the oversight of internationalization—international activities are often justified in terms of the potential revenue streams they provide. A nod to the creation of global citizens, of course, but the cynical selling point is that they bring more resources to the home campus. Again, it is not the typical case we describe, but rather a scenario that relies solely on institutional actors to guard against trading quality for profits that brings us pause.
Internationalization is an important goal, which almost by definition extends the university beyond its typical external oversight structure. Should internationalization activities remain the almost exclusive domain of the institution or does external oversight need to play a more substantial role?