International students have regrettably become a commodity. Universities and colleges in developed countries, often supported by their governments, actively pursue them. In the United States, for example, there were a record 1,078,822 international students studying during the 2016/2017 academic year, accounting for 5.3 percent of all U.S. university and college students.1 According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, which considers international student recruitment as an American export, international students contributed $39.4 billion to the U.S. economy in 2016.2 The most high-minded universities and colleges recruit international students to serve as leavening for their student bodies and to bring truly diverse perspectives to their campuses. However, many universities and colleges recruit them principally for financial gain. In recent years, state universities have increasingly looked to international students to make up for reductions in state appropriations and some have compromised academic standards and skirted accreditation requirements to recruit those students.
Myanmar has become a center of some of the worst abuses, but it is not unique. Reports of abuses of international student recruitment in many developing countries by U.S., U.K. and Australian universities have been reported.3
Myanmar’s educational system is dreadfully deficient having been transformed by two dictators into a system of oppression. Government schools offer K + 10 years of study using a rote learning pedagogy and a government mandated curriculum and materials that have changed little in fifty years. At the conclusion of schooling, students take comprehensive matriculation examinations, which determine both high school graduation and admission to government universities. The passage rate in recent years has been just 30 percent. Most of those fortunate to pass are placed in government universities, but students have little, if any, choice about where and what they study. Curriculum, syllabi, and textbooks are mandated by the government, and students are only examined on their ability to memorize material. Prospects for graduates are bleak with staggering levels of unemployment. Companies prefer to employ foreign-educated graduates.
There is also a thriving private school system in Myanmar. Most private schools offer a British-style curriculum leading to International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) “O” levels, and a few schools offer “A” levels as well. However, most Myanmar students leave private schools after completing only IGCSE “O” levels at age sixteen. Graduates of private schools seldom enter government universities.
It is against this background that great demand for higher education, as Myanmar people describe it, “to international standards” has developed. However, there are three significant problems that Myanmar students face: most lack the qualifications, preparation, and finances to attend a foreign university. Nevertheless, this has not stopped those seeking to profit off the situation. Sometimes the agents lure the students in with assurances of scholarships being awarded and then are satisfied with what they charge the student for helping them with their applications, knowing full well that the student is unlikely to attend the university. Sometimes the agent convinces family members to sell assets to fund the education. Assets typically include the family home. And sometimes the student is able to secure a loan from a Myanmar bank. The interest rates are in excess of 10%.
Some American universities take advantage of the Myanmar market. The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) used to prohibit the use of commissioned agents to recruit international students but abandoned this policy due to pressure from universities desperate for international student revenue. However, NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices requires that “member institutions that engage agents must ensure that their relationship is completely transparent to students and families and conducted with integrity and accountability.” Such NACAC member institutions are failing to abide by this requirement in Myanmar.
Myanmar student recruitment offices and events tend to look alike. Enter and you will see a list of partner universities often including a famous research university (e.g., Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc.) with which the agent has no relationship. These are there to suggest credibility to Myanmar students. The agents boast about the reputations of the universities they represent. I attended one session where a low-ranked regional university was compared favorably with top-ranked national universities. Myanmar agents normally charge students for helping with their applications and never disclose that they receive commissions of up to 20 percent of first year tuition for placing the students at a partner university. Bait and switch is a common business practice.
Connect University, a Myanmar educational services company, is another example of questionable recruitment practice by American universities.4 It effectively operates as a community college offering two years of a liberal arts curriculum and claims that those who complete its program can transfer with two-years advance standing to a list of American universities:
California State University, Fresno
California State University, Monterey Bay
California State University, Northridge
California State University, Sacramento
College of Staten Island (City University of New York)
John Jay College (City University of New York)
Salisbury University, Maryland
University at Albany (State University of New York)
University of North Alabama.
Connect University is not authorized by the Myanmar or any other government, and its courses are taught mostly by individuals who hold only bachelor degrees. It accepts a Myanmar government leaving certificate representing kindergarten plus ten years of schooling for admission. I attended an information session it held two years ago, and it was then claimed to be operating under the auspices of the Center for Advanced Studies, a Tokyo-based educational development and liaison company that is not authorized to award degrees in Japan and is also not authorized to operate in Myanmar.5 This begs the question, on what basis are its courses being accepted by the American universities and colleges with which it claims to have articulation agreements?
Another questionable international student recruitment activity concerns California State University Monterey Bay, SUNY at Morrisville State College, the University of North Texas and the University of Rhode Island. All of these institutions have an agreement with ONCAMPUS – a wholly owned subsidiary of Cambridge Education Group Limited. Pursuant to the agreements, ONCAMPUS recruits international students, who attend partner university classes as students of ONCAMPUS rather than the partner university. After one year of successful study, the students are automatically admitted with advanced standing to the partner university. I learned of these agreements through a group of Myanmar students who showed me acceptance letters from the ONCAMPUS program even though they had only completed IGCSE “O” levels and had not taken an SAT or ACT. What these universities and colleges have been doing through their ONCAMPUS agreements is circumventing their bachelor’s degree program admission standards by accepting ONCAMPUS students as transfer students.
In the process of helping hundreds of Myanmar students apply to American universities, I noticed that many university and college admissions offices have compromised their English language admission standards. Nearly all have minimum Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) or International English Language Testing System (IELTS) score requirements, but many permit substitutes. These substitutes include study in a school where English is the language of instruction, scores on SAT, ACT, or AP examinations or passage of a college-level English course. These substitutes are problematic. There are schools in Myanmar where English is the language of instruction but where the level of that instruction is far from fluent. Relying on SAT, ACT or AP scores means ignoring conversational skills, which the written tests do not assess. As for passing a college-level English course, international students have found their way to specific on-line university and college English classes that have a reputation for easy grades.
U.S. institutions are not alone in taking advantage of the Myanmar market. British technical and vocational skills development institutions (e.g., BTEC, City & Guilds) assess and award qualifications to students based on U.K. technical and vocational standards. The most common such qualification sought in Myanmar is the Higher National Diploma (HND), which is offered by many Myanmar companies in cooperation with British skills development institutions. The skills development institutions provide the curricula, set and grade comprehensive examinations and award the HND to those who pass the examinations. The Myanmar company provides teachers, teaching facilities and recruits the students. The income generated is split between the Myanmar company and the skills development institution.
Offering HND to a country such as Myanmar makes sense, but the system is abused. HND is designed for students who do not finish school. However, in Myanmar, university students and university graduates are also recruited even though there is no evidence that the HND credential helps them.
A handful of “new” British universities (mostly former polytechnics) offer bachelors and “top-up” degrees by means of validation. British universities award degrees based on comprehensive examinations taken at the conclusion of a course of study. Validation is an arrangement with a foreign company or institution to recruit students and provide instruction on a course of study leading to an examination set and graded by the British university. The recruiters for the programs in Myanmar are evasive when asked about success rates and are often untruthful about the value of the credential. The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the English government agency responsible for overseeing these programs, used to report that only 20 percent of students who begin validation programs successfully complete them. In recent years, the QAA has changed the way it tracks students. Now, it only reports the percentage of students who pass and fail the comprehensive examination. Students who enroll and do not take the examinations are not counted. This change simply masks the problem of low success rates.
One type of validation program is the “top-up” degree. Students who complete HND are admitted with two years advanced standing on a three-year bachelor’s degree program. They study for a year and, if they successfully pass the comprehensive examination, are awarded a bachelor’s degree. These students typically leave school without graduating at age 16, earn HND in two to two and a half years and then earn a bachelor’s degree in just one year.
Degrees awarded through validation programs and especially “top-up degrees” are not well-received. As Dr. Johanna Waters of Oxford University and Dr. Maggi Leung of Universiteit Utrecht have shown, through their research of the Hong Kong market, such qualifications are of suspect quality and are not recognized by the Hong Kong government, universities or employers.6 The situation in Hong Kong is akin to the situation in most developed countries. Waters and Leung suggest that British universities would be wise to pay more attention to the geographically specific and long-term consequences of their educational offerings. This is especially true in Myanmar where people are ignorant of Western education and very vulnerable to scams.
My final example of recruitment abuses in Myanmar concerns the University of Business and International Studies (UBIS University). UBIS University is a “boutique” Swiss private university owned by the U.S. investment and advisory firm, Hamilton White Group, LLC. Switzerland does not regulate private universities leaving it to the market to determine whether they are worth attending. UBIS falsely claims to be accredited by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (which does not accredit individual institutions).7 In fact, UBIS has a modest office in Geneva and few Swiss students. The bulk of its students are overseas. With little oversight, it allows a Myanmar educational services company to award its MBA degree for a fee.
It is a shame that the Myanmar Ministry of Education has not taken steps to curb these abuses of its citizens, but universities and colleges that recruit international students and regulators also have responsibility. Universities and colleges should review their international student recruitment activities. Faculty members, who surrendered their responsibility for determining admission to undergraduate programs early in the twentieth century, should reassert their role as gatekeepers of academic standards. They should at least review the practices of their Admissions Offices and, if warranted, wrestle back decision-making responsibility for undergraduate admissions. Boards of Trustees and Governors should look closely at the quality of their international student intake, the cost of any commissions paid, and consider the full cost of educating deficient students who strain student support services and hinder classroom instruction. It might well be that the income earned from recruiting the students is outweighed by the increased cost of educating them. NACAC and regional accreditors in the U.S., the QAA in the U.K. and the Australian Universities Quality Agency need to be more effective in ensuring that universities and colleges adhere to their standards. The admission of students who have not earned an American high school diploma, “A” levels, or the equivalent should not be permitted even when being admitted with advanced standing. The need that many universities have for greater income should not come at the expense of academic standards or the most vulnerable students in the developing world.