Jane Knight

Dr. Jane Knight focuses her research and professional interests on the international dimension of higher education at the institutional, system, national, and international levels. Her work in over 60 countries of the world helps to bring a comparative, development and international policy perspective to her research, teaching and policy work. She is the author/editor of many publications on internationalisation concepts and strategies, quality assurance, institutional management, mobility, cross-border education, trade, and capacity building. Her latest 2008 publications include Higher Education in Turmoil-The Changing World of Internationalization (author), Financing Access and Equity in Higher Education (editor), and Higher Education in Africa: The International Dimension (co-editor). She is an adjunct professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto and is a Fulbright New Century Scholar for 2007-2008.

Other interviews:

Jane Knight. Unintended Consequences of the Growth of Internationalization
NAFSA: Association of International Educators

Adjunct professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto

"We can speculate as to what some of the implications might be, but we don’t have enough experience, or enough data to be able to say that this is what is happening."

Author of the paper “Commercial Crossborder Education: Implications for Financing Higher Education” published in Higher Education in the World 2006, Jane Knight focuses her research and professional interest on the international dimension of higher education. Today, she talks about the recent changes in crossborder higher education.

Which model of cross-border higher education is most evident in the trends that you’ve reflected in your paper?

I think that we’ve seen three models of education moving across borders in the last couple of decades, but I think it’s important to say that education has moved across borders for centuries. If we consider even the term "university", "universe" is part of that, which implies academic mobility. There’s nothing new about academic mobility, but what is new, however, is that it is no longer just the students, professors and researchers who are moving across borders with their knowledge: we are now seeing a greater incidence of programs moving across borders, as well as providers. In the past, this happened through development cooperation, but we have seen a movement from development cooperation to academic partnerships, educational linkages and exchanges. We are now considering academic mobility and academic partnerships with a commercial rationale, and what’s new is the commercial aspect, the fact that it is the programs and providers that are moving.

What factors will contribute to the growth of cross-border education?

When we look at the rationales that are driving cross-border education, it’s important to look at the rationales driving the country that is sending the education program or provider across the border. Some people use the term "export", and talk about who is "exporting" it. I prefer not to use trade language; I prefer to talk about "sending" and about the countries who want to receive these programs or institutions or companies that are being set up. There are different rationales depending on whether you’re a "sending" country or whether you’re a "receiving" country, and depending on whether you are a country that is quite well developed in terms of coverage rate, national regulations and coverage of undergraduate and graduate programs or not. Without making it too complex, I think a general rationale for receiving is that some countries need additional programs and providers to increase access and, in some cases, to improve quality. Now, I think that’s highly debatable: in some countries the belief is that if you don’t have good, reliable, quality-assured providers, the quality will not improve or increase, which is very true. However, there are countries such as that would like to use the presence of highly reputable, international, foreign universities and providers to work in in cooperation with Korean universities to raise the quality through examples of good practice, and this can improve quality.

There are of course also financial reasons, and at this point we should be talking about both the sending countries and the receiving countries. If we take some of the sending countries and their public higher education institutions— and the are good examples of this—they have had their government subsidies or grants cut back to such a degree that they are having to look for alternative sources of funding. The alternative sources of funding that they’re considering are recruiting international students or establishing programs and branch campuses and institutions and franchising in other countries. The financial aspect is therefore also a motivator for countries that want to send out or “export” programs. It is also a motive for many private media, IT, e-learning, and private educational companies that are one hundred percent privately owned and traded on the stock exchange. Their motive is profitability. There is therefore a financial motive for the sending countries, and that’s why we refer to a “commercial” aspect.

Now, let’s talk about the receiving countries. Do they have a financial motive? There is some debate as to whether a receiving country would be able to keep its public government grants static if it had lots of foreign providers. Would they be able to decrease them, or would they have to increase them? All three scenarios work. Some countries will say that they would like to have foreign cross-border providers to decrease government subsidies. At this point, I don’t know of many examples of this, although there will perhaps be more of them in the future when the enrolment rate is high enough, when there is a critical mass enrolled in cross-border education. I don’t yet know of a country that has such a large percentage of students enrolled that it has made a big difference in being able to decrease government subsidies. However, there is the fact that fee-paying students at domestic universities may move from the domestic university to a private foreign university, which could have an impact on the domestic university.

What do you mean when you say that?

Well, domestic universities could redirect funding to other priorities. It’s a complex picture, a very complex picture. We are new to this and we can speculate as to what some of the implications might be, but we don’t have a) enough experience, or b) enough data to be able to say that this is what is happening. What we do know and what we do emphasize is the complexity of it all, which makes us wary of drawing overgeneralized conclusions that this is what will happen. As I have just pointed out, you have to separate sending from receiving, highly developed from undeveloped, graduate from undergraduate, etc.

Cross-border education is growing rapidly, as you say. Is action being taken to create an international education area similar to the European Higher Education Area? Are attempts being made to create a unified international area of education, in which cross-border education will make it possible to go from one place to another without being limited by regulation systems and so on?

I don’t think we’re talking about the creation of a common international space: I think we’re talking about increased mobility between and among countries. I don’t think that we are losing, necessarily, the emphasis on a country or a region. Education is a tool for socialization, cultural identity and national development, and I don’t think higher education should lose sight of these goals. Therefore, although I don’t think we are necessarily looking at a common international system of education, I think we are looking at tools that will enable students to move from country to country to complete or further their education, and for employment purposes. We should be considering mechanisms for the recognition of students’ qualifications in different countries for the purposes of further study and work experience. Yes, we would like to encourage exchanges. This is a world in which there is greater interdependence among countries: for instance, some of the world’s problems and challenges in environment, health, crime, terrorism and climate can’t be entirely solved by a national research team. We have to have interdisciplinary international teams working together on research. But I would not characterize it as creating a national space: I would characterize it as building bridges. It’s more about building bridges between and among countries than about trying to develop a common space.

Why do you think mobility is increasing?

When we talk about international academic mobility, first and foremost I think we’re talking about student mobility. Student mobility, as I've already said, has been around for centuries. What is new is the cross-border mobility of programs, institutions and companies, but this is not to underestimate the importance of student mobility. We are living in a world in which certain factors facilitate student mobility while others inhibit it. And there is the issue of brain drain—I don’t mean brain circulation but brain drain. In the knowledge economy, international students who are highly scholarly and highly able, as well as faculty members, are recruited by another country, and they study there and perhaps even stay on later. Some linkage between student recruitment and immigration laws may therefore occur, which may be a good thing in that the student or scholar can stay for three, four, or five years, gain some work experience and then return to their country or even a third country, where they will be able to contribute to nation-building. That is what mobility is about.

Countries that are quite small and are suffering a lot of brain drain are suggesting that the program, institution or company go to their country. Students would then not have to leave and they could still get an international education. They would not be lost to brain drain if—and this is a really big ‘if’—the curriculum were to be contextualized to the needs of that country. I don’t think we’re going to necessarily see student numbers decrease, but we may not see them increase at the same rate. We might see a larger increase in the number of programs that are on the move. Another issue is that it’s getting harder and harder for the citizens of certain countries to get visas enabling them to study or work in other countries.

I think there is, in some cases, a desire to recognize cultural entities. is an interesting example of this. For a long time, it has been very active in sending its students abroad to study, but it went on to develop legislation encouraging foreign institutions to come in and work on twinning programs or franchise programs, so that more Malaysian students are exposed to international education but never have to leave the country. is now at the stage where it is keen to attract other Islamic students from the region, because it is culturally similar and the students will therefore be supported and feel comfortable and at home. Attempts are being made to recruit female Islamic students to come to because of the cultural issue, which is a very interesting policy.

Why do you think cross-border education is more of a commercial issue than a cooperation issue between countries?

I have indicated that I think there is a shift from development cooperation to more educational exchange and linkages to commercial trade. I would say that it is definitely an aid to trade shift. What I feel though is that it’s definitely an increase in the middle area, in academic linkages and exchanges. We are seeing many more exchanges, the development of joint degree or double degree programs, and an increase in the number of international cooperation agreements that are being signed between institutions for designing or delivering curricula. I don’t want to underestimate in any way the increase in academic linkages and exchanges: that increase is new, but the fact that they’re doing it isn’t new. What is new is the commercial aspect of it, and the commercial aspect of it is increasing. We’ve talked about access, quality, capacity building and strategic alliances, and about the rationales that drive them. However, some rationales are just income-generating rationales, and we have a whole new set of providers. We now have multinational companies setting up their own universities that are being traded on the stock exchange and whose bottom-line motive is a desire to make a profit. Now, they may be offering quality education, they may be offering education that meets some of the needs of importing or receiving countries, but really it is the receiving countries’ responsibility to ensure that cross-border education fits in with their national policies and their objectives for the development of the higher education sector or even national development. To do this, they must consider implementing regulations that will license any kind of provider—whether a company, a non-governmental organization, or a traditional university. They must license them, register them, accredit them, and ensure that the qualifications they offer will be recognized for a job in that country or elsewhere. A lot of responsibility is now being placed on the receiving country to ensure that the right policy frameworks, the right regulations are set in place to take advantage of cross-border education and to safeguard against some of its risks, because there are risks involved. Countries need to have the capacity and the political will to carry out that kind of analysis and to implement the right systems.

What do you think of the role of new providers in cross-border higher education?

By new providers I assume we’re talking about media companies, IT companies, professional organizations, and some virtual universities. There is a diversity of new providers, so it’s inappropriate to make generalizations about whether they are good, bad or indifferent, or about what their impact is. They are a reality, and the fact that we live in a knowledge society and that the demographics of the number of secondary school cohorts show us that we need more higher education, continuing education, and lifelong education opportunities. There is a demand for more professionally oriented and upgrading courses and some of the more traditional universities and institutions that strive to combine teaching, research and service should perhaps consider that they cannot respond to all of society’s needs of in the knowledge economy or provide new kinds of learning opportunities. Perhaps these new providers do have a role to play, therefore, and perhaps they have a role to play both domestically and across borders.

What do you think of the role of new technologies in facilitating the development of cross-border education?

I think we must acknowledge the potential of ICTs. New developments and new potential are what we need, but we need to learn how to use technology appropriately, pedagogically, and to use it appropriately across borders, in different cultures, different languages, and different indigenous knowledge systems. I don’t think it’s the technology itself that is exciting but how we use it for pedagogy and how we use it when we’re delivering education across borders and in countries with different systems. I personally feel there is a lot of potential, but there is a lot of work to be done in terms of how we maximize technology to ensure it is an effective pedagogical tool.

How do receiving countries safeguard against the risks of handing over higher education programs to foreign countries?

There are risks and I think we should be clear about that fact. Some of the risks are related to quality, in that poor-quality programs are being offered or the content of the programs is not specifically relevant to the needs of that country. Other risks are that the programs are fee-based, that equitable access cannot be guaranteed and that they are therefore elitist; that the programs do not fit national policy objectives; and that the programs only deal with market-driven subjects like business and IT and therefore perhaps affect the programs that are offered by domestic institutions. These are just a few examples.

Handing over higher education programs to foreign countries is not the answer or the panacea for everybody, and it requires careful planning by the receiving country in response to questions such as what it is that these foreign providers can best provide, how domestic education may be enhanced, improved or augmented by cross-border education, and what cross-border education can replace. But it needs to be thought through and planned according to national policy objectives and objectives for the development of the higher education system. This happened under development cooperation and this happens, usually, under academic linkages and exchanges. It sometimes does not happen under commercial trade because commercial trade is often only concerned with profit. I think one of the things we need to be concerned about is not short-term gain but long-term challenge. If those providers or organizations that are there for profit only—and they’re not all there for profit but for other reasons—don’t make their profit margins and they leave, what sort of gap is going to be left in that receiving country if the government or other higher education institutions have not compensated for a) the arrival of these providers, or b) their departure? It requires analysis of where they can complement, cooperate or, in some cases, compete with domestic providers, but it needs to be planned and they need to have the legislation and policy in place to ensure that they are bona fide, accredited providers.

I'm sure you've heard about diploma mills and accreditation mills. Diploma mills are not even institutions; they sell degrees without having to provide much program. Accreditation mills are a new thing though, and there are a lot of them. Some cross-border providers are not even accredited in their home country, or they may not even have a home country, but they need accreditation and so they go to an organization that sells accreditations that have no real meaning. A receiving country needs to have the capacity to look at the actual quality of an accreditation, and that accreditation needs to be licensed. And I don't want to underestimate the work that needs to be done to prepare for that.

Do you think that cross-border education is the complement, or the perfect complement, in a globalized economy?

Cross-border education is not the silver bullet to answer all of the problems that we have in trying to increase access to higher education and in trying to increase its quality and relevance, but it does have potential. I think we need to talk seriously about the exciting new opportunities of cross-border education but also about the threats and risks it involves. Individual countries must decide for themselves. We have talked about receiving or sending countries setting education policy and setting educational regulations to help ensure that cross-border education is an asset, but we are now living in a different world in which trade agreements have also had an impact on education. Education is one of the twelve service sectors in the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Trade in Services. This is new territory for the education sector. We have to be aware of the existence of these trade agreements and how they may impact the way cross-border education is imported into a country. I think the education sector has to be very proactive on this point. We need to work with the trade negotiators, making them understand what the nature of higher education is—the fact that it is both a public and a private good—and the higher education sectors in each country need to collaborate with the trade officials who are negotiating trade agreements that include education. Working with trade officials and immigration officials in this whole area of cross-border education is a new challenge for us.



  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government