Snubbed [By Jiao Haiyang/China.org.cn]
In this era of the "Global Village," there's a vast movement of young people crisscrossing the globe in search of higher educational opportunities. But is it necessary?
Half a million Chinese currently study overseas. Almost 160,000 of them are in the U.S. – nearly 22 percent of its total number of foreign students – and 50,000 are in the U.K. In China, its universities enroll 260,000 foreigners, and the U.S. will soon overtake the Republic of Korea as the main source. Meanwhile, Nigerian students go to Malaysia, Sri Lankans head for Singapore, students from Kazakhstan study in the Middle East, and so on.
They are a valuable source of income for host countries. In 2010-11, for example, international students contributed an estimated US$20 billion to the American, 5 billion pound (US$7.9 billion) to the British and A$9.4 billion (US$10 billion) to the Australian economies respectively.
Britain hopes to quadruple current numbers to nearly 900,000 students over the next 15 years – a quarter from China's growing middle class; this, BBC noted, "could deliver more than 11 billion pound annually to the U.K. economy – more foreign revenue than today's exports of cars, food, beverages and tobacco."
The Australian government candidly admits: "Education is one of Australia's largest exports, with many universities dependent on international students' tuition fees." Many schools would be in trouble if the foreigners stopped coming.
Yet, why shouldn't they? In fact, is the traditional practice of bringing together huge bodies of resident students the most efficient, cost-effective way of dispensing advanced education today?
No matter how interesting I try to make classes, I know some students will be asleep, reading a book or surreptitiously surfing the Internet via their laptop or other hand-held device. That is a reality for many college teachers.
This underlines the fact that a major technological revolution in dissemination of knowledge means university education like that of China – still based on direct class-based teaching, repetition and deference to professors rather than arguments in seminars, individual study and critical analysis – is rapidly going out of fashion.
Computers and inexpensive telecommunications have sparked a revolution similar to that produced by radio and television in the last century. The new digital media challenge venerable schools, some centuries old, to re-examine how they pass on knowledge to the next generation. Technology now allows us to make education more accessible, affordable and effective – in many cases without leaving home.
Why should a young man or woman have to journey halfway across the world to study at a possibly second rate university (if they can't get into Cambridge, Oxford, Yale or Harvard, for example) under possibly mediocre teachers?
Instead, why not go onto the Internet and look for the world's best teachers in any given subject and learn "at their feet" through cyber technology? Some forward-thinking universities are now working on this approach and, in the process, cutting the cost of education.
In my computer, there are 15 downloaded "live" lectures in the MP3 format on the American Civil War delivered by David Blight, professor of history at Yale University and a noted authority on the subject with many books to his name (downloadable for Kindle and the iPad), that have given me a much deeper understanding of American history.
I came to tertiary education late, having been forced to leave school at the age of 16. Having finally gone back to school as a mature student, I gained my first two degrees through distant learning – textbooks, computer material, television and radio programs, plus computer feedback on my regular assignments. The only residential requirement was an annual week-long "summer school" at a designated regional location.
I believe many courses could be taught in this way, creating a wider knowledge base for young people. Universities now facing cash flow difficulties could drastically cut costs by dispensing with some of the cash-draining campus infrastructure and use the money to improve the teaching side of their operations.
On a recent holiday in Australia, I visited the University of Southern Queensland (USQ) where almost 80 percent of students learn online. Its three campuses around the state offer no live-in facilities, but foreign students can find cheap home-stay arrangements with local families. Some services, like libraries, are shared with the local community, helping to keep down costs and, thus, fees.
Of course there's the issue of interaction between teacher and student and among the students themselves, but we have a whole array of channels like e-mail, chat rooms, Skype and computer conference calls that young people now widely use for study. This could be supplemented by only short visits to the physical university for, say, summary courses and final exams. Cambridge does this with its MBA program.
I use the Internet frequently now as a time-effective means of communicating with students for supplementary teaching and feedback, on-demand. I'm convinced this is the way ahead if universities are to avoid pricing themselves out of existence.
The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit: http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/geoffreymurray.htm
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.