International Partnerships Can Still Be A Success: A Response

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G.D. Goenka World Institute, partner university in India. Photograph from gdgwi.gdgoenka.com

Occasionally, SCAN publishes news hard hitting enough to have University management spitting feathers in embarrassment and frantically clustering to pull up the drawbridge on whatever questions have been raised.

The most recent of these occasions came soon after the publication of the Week Eight issue of SCAN in Michaelmas term, the front page of which doled out startling revelations about the academic standards of Lancaster University’s international campuses, particularly the GD Goenka World Institute in New Delhi, COMSTATS Institute of Information Technology in Lahore and Sunway in Kuala Lumpur. Low attendance rates, high failure rates, easy exams, poor learning outcomes, poor rigour of marking, and badly written exam questions accounts for just a handful of the concerns raised by external examiners of these ‘branches’.

I myself have written extensively about the lack of academic and critical values (which we purport to be disseminating the good word of across the globe) at these institutions in Postscript, my regular column in SCAN Comment. Hell, we’re currently still haggling to set up shop in the South of China, whose government have explicitly committed themselves to academic censorship.

When the aforementioned front page of SCAN caught the attention of University House, rumours of snotty emails being sent out and members of University committees being politely reminded not to run around telling everyone what’s been discussed in meetings came about. The external reports outlining the issues, which were “noted” by committee members, were merely summarised rather than appended to the meeting agenda in their entirety. Some individuals allegedly approached the University to ask for these full reports. Allegedly, these requests have yet to be honoured.

These are the actions of someone who knows they have done something wrong, and sometimes that’s all you need to decide which side of the fence you want to stand on.

A job well done by SCAN, I thought, until I read the apologist sentiments in Comment Editor Sam Smallridge’s article on the matter.

The author begins by reminding us of the “serious shortcomings” of our international campuses, and that these issues should be rooted out at the earliest possible opportunity. Let’s just rephrase that as “should have been.” Sunway has had since 2006, COMSATS since 2007 and GD Goenka since 2009. And what were the proposed solutions that came from the committee at which these failings were discussed? Only one, to poor attendance at GD Goenka – any student not meeting a minimum of 75% attendance will not be permitted to sit their exams and complete their course. A not at all draconian and compassionless proposal with no hint of pastoral care or desire to find out why attendance is so poor.

He adds that such “serious shortcomings” should not lead us to the conclusion that international campuses are “by definition a bad thing”, in response to an argument that nobody made. On the contrary, Smallridge feels that international expansion will eventually turn out to be a “force for good… and leave an even greater legacy.”

The article proceeds to fling damnations, but with some heavy ‘buts’, as the author sobs over just how crushingly difficult it must be for the University as it attempts to operate in the academic minefield that is establishing an international campus, before suggesting that these problems were probably “already foreseen”, as though that justifies anything whatsoever. If they were foreseen, then why didn’t the University regard Smallridge’s retrospective calls to sort it out? If they weren’t foreseen, the haste with which the University tends to dive arse-first into such partnerships would account for that. Bear in mind that its newly established Ghanaian endeavour set up its premises, recruited staff, marketed provision and recruited students on a six-month turnaround before its Autumn start.

But what I think is most infuriating and offensive is that this wad of failings is excused as “teething problems.” At first glance, yes, it’s a justification. On second glance, when you realise that students are potentially paying the price for these “teething problems” on top of their fees, it has no place in a debate on the matter. These are students. Not guinea pigs, not crash test dummies, not working prototypes, but students.

The author reveals; “I’ve been to Goenka… I’d say it was one of the best times of my life,” and we mustn’t discount the fact that he had a whale of a time as a key point.

There is some nice exposition on Lancaster’s volunteering programmes, but to suggest that it shows the University to be “in it for more than money” is untrue. Yes, we have widening participation schemes in Goenka, Sunways and COMSATS. This is due to the fact that our funding partners in these areas are local, and committed to developing HE provision. Ghana, on the other hand, has no such local partner, but rather a body known as CMA Investment Holdings, which according to its website is “the investment vehicle of the Wahi Family.” Ghana is a business operation, pure and simple. Even former Deputy Vice-Chancellor Bob McKinlay, on Senate, dismissed ethical questions raised about fees being ten times the Ghanaian national average minimum wage and insisted that the endeavour was purely academic and financial.

The article is insistent that GD Goenka stands to offer a higher education “incomprehensible to those who have grown up victim to extensive poverty.” Perhaps if its management course wasn’t five times more expensive than those offered at private institutions in India, or if its engineering courses weren’t £3000 a year in comparison to the nominal fee charged by public institutions in the region, or if the cohorts at GD Goenka and Ghana didn’t mainly consist of students from very rich families, I’d hold a little more faith in the University’s “social conscience.” Maybe if the University degrees were recognised by India’s national accreditation bodies, and therefore of any use for finding Postgraduate study at other local universities or work in the local public sector, I’d think more of the commitment to bolster workforces.

The author’s trip to Goenka gave him “a perspective… which may be harder to comprehend if you haven’t been there and seen it for yourself.” Well, I have a wad of figures, minutes and articles on my desk in front of me which are harder to comprehend if you don’t do any research.

I’m being awfully harsh, but while I feel it is vitally important that Comment writers get some truths at their disposal before putting pen to paper, Smallridge’s article does call for some honourable ways in which to engage with students of all classes. However, these aims are only achievable if excuses for the University aren’t made, and if the student body mobilises to hold the University to account over all of the above and demands engagement over obfuscation.