Outsourcing higher education?

By Binod Singh (
Updated: 2010-12-15 15:28
Large Medium Small

The violent clashes between protesting students and police in London have gotten little attention as we have been occupied with security issues on the Korean Peninsula and the climate change conference in Cancun. Nevertheless, this issue deserves considerable attention from Asian countries.

The protest was over the issue of university fee hikes across the UK. If the measures pass, the amount for an average student would be almost four to five times higher than what they now pay. Universities in England and Wales want to increase fees to between 4,000 pounds ($6,305) and 20,000 pounds ($31,524) a year, according to a survey by BBC News. 

The fee hike has been termed "raud" and "unethical" because UK leaders, such as Nick Clegg, made promises during the election campaign to vote against raising fees.

During the student protests, the Rolls-Royce carrying Prince Charles and Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, got caught in the crowds. Dozens were arrested, some for violence-related offenses.

Although I am not in favor of violent protests even for the most genuine demand such as this, the adamant attitude of David Cameron's government has been most disappointing. We in the international community expect that the UK will find a quick and local solution to meet the resource crunch of its universities and the students should be allowed to go back to their normal routine.

But there is no visible solution for the students' lingering resentment against the government's decision. If Prime Minister Cameron is looking for a long-term solution to the issue, then he might think of killing the problem instead of solving it.

I am sure the UK does not expect the IMF to bail out their higher places of learning, as the IMF mandate does not allow it. Then what other options are there for Mr. Cameron when the domino has started falling across Europe? There is going to be much more panic in different regions of Europe as the Welfare State model has crumbled since the global financial crisis of 2008.

Since many universities in the UK are already fed by Asian students, why not relocate them to Asia itself, especially to China. This will cut expenses to an affordable level, which even UK students will be happy to pay. Infrastructure in China is now on par with the UK, and people's living standard is also on the rise. And most important, it will be an excellent chance for many Western youngsters to experience Eastern culture.

In the post-World War II era, we saw an unprecedented phenomenon of relocating manufacturing units to Asia. Then in the post-Cold War era, we saw the outsourcing of services to Bangalore and Dalian. It appears that in the coming years, world-class educational institutes may be relocated to Asia, especially India and China.

Relocating is the only way that Prime Minister David Cameron and his alliance partner Nick Clegg can keep their election campaign promises. Otherwise, the "UK democracy" will be soon branded as "Third World democracy," where leaders just make promises and then take a U-turn.

Is it the right time now to outsource UK universities to China? Probably not. But sooner or later, either the universities will be relocated to China or students themselves will move on to Asian ones. As the growing number of Western students on Chinese campuses indicates, the process of relocation is already under way.

The author teaches at Beijing Foreign Studies University and can be reached at