The Australian

By Julie Hare

The world's most progressive universities are adopting a new approach to higher education that is akin to multinational companies' global supply and distribution chains.

''These universities want to execute their research and teaching all around the globe, leveraging new sources of academic talent, new sources of financial support and new student markets, much as multinational companies do,'' Sean Gallagher and Geoffrey Garrett, from the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, write in a paper released today. They argue that Australia's two-decade success story in exporting higher education to Asia is under threat on several levels, including competition from high-quality but cash-strapped US brand universities seeking new revenue streams in post-financial crisis America.

The emergence of open online courses and bricks and mortar engagement in Singapore and China are also game-changers and it is often the same universities involved on all three fronts.

In Sydney this week Duke University provost Peter Lange said a medical school in Singapore and a major campus in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, would promote the Duke brand in Asia, helping with recruitment of the best and brightest staff and students and strategically placing the university in key areas of China's growth. ''It's a modest investment because the city of Kunshan is building the campus,'' Professor Lange told the HES.

It will include an ''incubator of new education and research models housed in experimental teaching spaces and wet and dry research labs, allowing Duke faculty to tailor and test their programs before they are offered in the Chinese market''.

Importantly, it also will deliver a ''valuable revenue stream'', although Professor Lange said that was not a primary reason for Duke's interest in China.

In their report, Dr Gallagher and Dr Garrett say the new ''multinational university'' is being led by ''some of America's best known and financially strongest private universities''.

In addition to Duke, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and New York University, among others, are forging new partnerships in a game-changing approach to internationalisation.

''The goal of multinational universities is to 'slice up the value chain' around the world through complex systems of supply, production and distribution of higher education and research,'' Dr Gallagher and Dr Garrett write. 

''This might mean using a developing country to do research because it is cheaper to build better infrastructure and hire researchers at a similar quality to those at home. Or it might mean designing degrees in-country that are tailored to what the market demands, instead of the one size fits all of the branch campus.''

Australia is going to have to rethink its approach to international education. There are two options: mass market, lower price, lower quality as the US wins the battle for on-campus students with its undergraduate teaching and lifestyle-focused campuses.

Alternatively, Australia must look at value adding, with work-based internships as part of the education package, teaching interpersonal skills and building on-campus accommodation.

The authors say it is not just about China. India and Indonesia ''will also be central to Australia's higher education future''. ''Unlike China, they have young populations with high birthrates. While the strategic path ahead for either country is not clear, the potential for both is enormous.''