The Flat World of Higher Education

08/05/2013 11:04 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

In 2005 Tom Friedman declared that the World is Flat. Few of us in business, industry and in education, would argue with his assertion that many of the most compelling barriers to gaining access to international markets have fallen. At the center of this phenomenon is the exponential growth of information transferal. From a business perspective, new markets are opening faster than most of us can respond.

This access has contributed to the expansion of opportunities for trade and commerce among nations that would have otherwise been out of reach. It has also given rise to a greater interest from the higher education community to locate new markets. The opportunities for students to participate in academic programs in virtually any geographic region, worldwide, are tremendous.

Today, it is not unusual for over 275,000 American students to study abroad in any given year. Similarly, colleges and universities in the United States enroll nearly 700,000 foreign students a year into mainstream and specialized programs at undergraduate and graduate level. The benefits to the colleges and universities who vigorously pursue and successfully maintain international programs are significant. This is a growth market for educators.

In 2002, as the former Provost in a Western New York liberal arts based college, I was privileged to lead the faculty in the launch of a new business study program in the People's Republic of China. The program was designed to provide one year of study for China students progressing through partner institutions. Our growth curve was steep, quickly becoming the largest foreign program of higher education in the PRC and is still serving thousands of students.

Today, I am equally fortunate to be president of another liberal arts based university in Georgia, Thomas University. Using lessons learned from that first initiative TU is preparing its first business studies program in the PRC, scheduled to begin in the 2013-2014 academic year. TU is already active in the PRC and among a select few schools that have been approved by the Ministry of Education to offer an RN to BSN study program. That initiative has been underway for several years.

I have been asked many times over the past eleven years what are the greatest lessons that have been learned from developing, launching and sustaining successful programs abroad, and more specifically in the PRC. The following was published and detailed in the Journal of Management Policy and Practice (Volume 12(1) 2001 in a co-authored article highlighting those key lessons:

  • Locate and qualify intermediaries who will represent your institution on the ground. This is common practice in the PRC and without such support it is extremely to navigate all of working relationship within such a complex culture.
  • Identify and qualify potential partner schools. Be selective as there are many eager and reputable schools to engage in the PRC.
  • Establish a plan of action and specific goals for your initiative. Without this initial step you risk not establishing a credible link to your mission.
  • Understanding and working within the Communist Party infrastructure. No business is conducted in the PRC, including that of education, without the Party's oversight.
  • Garnering faculty, administration and staff support for these initiatives. Over time, these complex initiatives will become more accepted and routine in your operations with a wider involvement of key constituencies within your school.
  • Do not underestimate the challenge of negotiating with officials at PRC partner sites. Patience and a deep understanding of the subtleties of negotiation is an absolute requirement for developing, launching and sustaining long term working relationships.

Any one of these factors, poorly addressed, can derail the best of academic initiatives. This is precisely why so many colleges and universities have failed in the PRC. In the same respect, once mastered, the rewards more than make the effort worthwhile.