Degrees of mediocrity

Imaduddin Ahmed | The Friday Times

Pakistan’s newest university has a campus in cyber space

Mention ‘online university’ and conjure up images of illiterate Pakistani politicians with degrees worth as much as their rhetoric, earned by exercising a MasterCard. This is an image that Universitas21Global will fast overcome. New marketing challenges, however, await the online graduate university, entering the “ripe and promising” Pakistani market (words Dr Murkesh Aghi, “CEO” of Universitas21Global).

A stream of examinations can ease readers’ minds that paying one’s way won’t be enough to earn a certificate with this university, whose flagship courses are its MBA and masters in management sciences. It derives its credibility from the motifs that 19 universities spread over four continents lend to its certificates – even though a lot of its faculty do not actually teach at these universities “The use of these universities’ logos signifies that Universitas21Global’s staff and degrees are quality assured to the same standards as the degrees in these institutions,” explains University of Nottingham’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Sir Colin Campbell.

Accreditation and quality assurance are one matter – prestige, important in the business world – another. None of the associated 19 universities make the top 40 cut of the Financial Times’ Global MBA Rankings 2006 and only Edinburgh makes the top 40 of The Economist’s 2005 MBA rankings. Universitas21Global’s undemanding admission requirements aren’t going to do anything to boost the university’s prestige.

To its credit, the university is fast gaining media recognition (several articles have been published in the Financial Times ) and corporations are investing their own money in the self-proclaimed “premier online university” to develop their staff, among them: Hewlett Packard, ExxonMobil, Maersk Shipping, HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank, Ministry of Defence in Singapore, Satyam Computer Services, Aditya Birla, Frontline Technologies, CNBC and StarHub.

Where does Universitas21Global fit into the Pakistani market? Experience shows that a reliable customer base is corporations. But how about non-sponsored individuals?

Set at a cost of approximately US $9,000 for a Masters programme for Pakistani students, it’s not an education accessible to the majority. Unlike the Indian, Singaporean and UAE markets, Pakistan has a small upper middle class.

If, as Punjab Governor Khalid Maqbool suggested at an introductory conference to the press and corporations, Universitas21Global collaborates with and helps develop faculty and facilities at the Allama Iqbal Open University and the online Virtual University of Pakistan, Universitas21Global will have done Pakistan a service.

The cost of US $9,000 is, however, still about a third of the price of campus based equivalent masters programmes offered at endorsing UK, US and Canadian universities, and may entice Pakistani students who believe they can make global contacts via internet interaction.

Universitas21Global’s constructivist approach to learning, as opposed to instructor-lead learning, may appeal to yet more students.

A section of the populace keen to avail of the option will be working professional mothers, who will have the flexibility of taking classes in their own time and at home after work. Paraplegic students too may find relief in an online university with international quality assurance.

Campus based MBAs can certainly be seen as a safer bet. The Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) for example has strong name recognition in Pakistan and now a formidable alumni network in the country, while its expatriate alumni have also been highly successful. Three year old Universitas21Global, on the other hand, has little to show for alumni achievements, and Pakistani corporations are yet to endorse the university. If one excludes the cost of not earning an income while studying at LUMS, an MBA programme at LUMS will come to roughly the same price as a Universitas21Global MBA.

Yet another factor against online universities is that, as much as internet facilitated exchanges have become an integral part of a business day, face-to-face interactions are where deals are lost and made. Employers will want to know that their MBA graduates are capable of sealing the deal. Pakistani campus based MBA programmes offer students opportunities to develop their personal interactions; Universitas21Global will not.

As for Universitas21Global’s argument that there is a market among women who are constrained to their houses because of religious and cultural conservatism, I’m not a buyer. Universitas21Global offers vocational education, and there’s not much sense in training for a job you can’t take up.

What Universitas21Global offers:
– MBA
– MSc Information Systems Management
– Executive Diploma and Certificates in ISM
– MSc Tourism and Travel Management
– Executive Certificate of Financial Management
– Executive Certificate of Management Studies
– Executive Diploma of Business Administration

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