Tuesday, February 19, 2008

American Education Abroad

Thanks to the sequence of unplanned events that were set in motion over fifteen years ago, my dream of going to graduate school still remains that - a dream. My friends don't fail to remind me that I could still do it, work on a program part-time, get a degree online and so forth. To me none of that is the real deal. I have always wanted to go back to school full-time, to be a student and nothing else and it is safe to say my time has passed.

Reading this NYT story about American universities setting up campuses abroad, I wondered what it might have been to have access to these in India when I was getting ready to go to college. Families like mine who have believe in keeping their daughters near them until they are married would have loved it. If the cost is significantly lower, it would be a huge blessing for meritorious students who lack the means to travel and live abroad.

While this is like the proverbial mountain moving to the Mahomet, you wonder what it all means in the long run ? Does a Harvard campus in Shanghai or Mumbai equal the "real" Harvard experience in Cambridge, MA ? Maybe it would the second best option after the real deal and hopefully a lot better than getting a degree online. For some reason this reminds me of a book I read some time ago - Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster

In order to maximize profits, many corporations looked for ways to cut corners: they began to use cheaper materials, outsource production to developing nations (while falsely claiming that their goods were made in Western Europe) and replace hand craftsmanship with assembly-line production. Classic goods meant to last for years gave way, increasingly, to trendy items with a short shelf life; cheaper lines (featuring lower-priced items like T-shirts and cosmetic cases) were introduced as well.

“The luxury industry has changed the way people dress,” she writes. “It has realigned our economic class system. It has changed the way we interact with others. It has become part of our social fabric. To achieve this, it has sacrificed its integrity, undermined its products, tarnished its history and hoodwinked its consumers. In order to make luxury ‘accessible,’ tycoons have stripped away all that has made it special.

“Luxury has lost its luster.”

What is true about how luxury lost its luster by way of democratization and cutting corners could easily become true about high quality education. To balance that loss, universities might come up with an uber-premium variation of their brand that is available only stateside and to a very select few.

The shops in Emirates, China, Singapore and India may end up being no better than a cheaper, mass-produced version of the real thing - much like the fashion industry. It would be interesting to see if these universities publish a caveat-emptor for the benefit of those who walk all starry eyed into their local Cornell campus in Asia and expect to come out with an education and recognition at par with their peers in the American campus.

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