Island Programs: Myths and Realities in International Education
by Leon Hanouille, Ph.D., CPA, and Peter Leuner, Ph.D.
From the U.S. perspective, direct placement into the educational system of a host country has been the traditional means of providing students opportunities for foreign education. Related programs date back to colonial times and found their apex in the Rhodes and Fulbright Scholars.
However, during the latter part of the 20th century, alternatives arose through what have come to be called “island programs,” micro-campuses of U.S. institutions in foreign centers. Although this program model has been heavily critiqued, this paper stresses the advantages of island programs to both students and academic institutions.
The range and modalities of study-abroad activity in international education are considerable. Along the spectrum, three main categories may be traced:
- Direct enrollment into a host country’s indigenous system of higher education. These may be of the one-way, direct placement variety or of the traditional exchange variety (“send us one of yours and we’ll send you one of ours”).
- Island programs. Since these are the focus of this paper, they will be defined more completely further on.
- Hybrids, including but not limited to U.S.-accredited offshore universities offering U.S.-style programs of study into which foreign-study students can be slotted, and travel/study courses offered by various international organizations.
Obviously, there are examples of program models that do not inhabit any one of the three categories above, but the vast majority is covered adequately by this typology.
Proponents of the direct placement model often contend that island programs are culturally and academically inadequate: they do not expose U.S. students to “the real thing.” A cluster of perceptions has arisen round island programs, and some of these caricatures have led to the spawning of a generally negative myth that this paper actively contests.
This paper originated as a panel at the British Universities Transatlantic Exchange Association Conference in Keele, England in July 2000. That discussion used the London island programs of U.S. universities as its main point of reference. Allowing for differences in both language and culture, we suggest that this arena nevertheless serves as a valid focal point for the analysis of island programs. The myths to be examined, although they are heavily interrelated, may be summarized as follows:
- Island programs are ghettos of U.S. culture in a foreign country.
- Island programs are a dying breed that are far past their peak of popularity and effectiveness; as such, they constitute an economic drain on their sponsoring institutions.
- Island programs are seriously deficient in, and even completely lack, cultural integration, both social and academic.
Island Programs as Ghettos
At their extreme, island programs have been accused of being ghettos of U.S. culture in a foreign country, surrounded by an almost impenetrable membrane that prevents meaningful contact with the host culture and community. Such a situation, needless to say, contradicts the generally accepted purposes of a foreign study experience.
For reasons discussed below, island programs are indeed largely self-contained academic programs that operate as exported micro-campuses. Rather than insulating and isolating their students, however, the academic program center acts to direct and facilitate access to the local culture, whether academic or social.
The program center is a source of information on local institutions and customs, a repository of experience providing helpful do’s and don’ts relative to interaction with the surrounding community, and a stable contact point for parents, friends and the home institution wishing to contact specific students.
Current Relevancy of Island Programs
Despite the critique of island programs as cultural bubbles, they remain very popular, constituting the most widespread model of study abroad chosen by U.S. institutions. London alone hosts well over 60 U.S. programs (some islands, some hybrids) and the number continues to increase. In the summer of 2000, New York University decided to establish its own presence in London along broadly island-program lines.
Moreover, far from being an economic drain, island programs can actually contribute to their sponsoring institutions. Quite apart from the prestige of offering their students a wealth of international cultural experiences, the sponsoring institutions benefit from being able to keep the tuition and fees paid by the students, without loss to outside entities.
In the normal course of events, these are sufficient to cover all costs of administration, including facilities and staff. Additionally, the program can attract students from other institutions, thereby providing a net revenue that might not otherwise be earned.
Issues of Cultural Integration
Detractors of island programs argue that they deny their participants the opportunity for cultural integration, both academically and socially. Let us examine first the academic, then the social issues.
Direct placement programs do indeed immerse their participants in the educational milieu of the host country’s indigenous system. But this may not be to the benefit of the student. The experience can be too intense, intimidating and beyond the ability of the student to adapt, especially in non-English-speaking countries.
For example, Syracuse University in central New York State, has a large population of Asian students, especially at the graduate level. Instructors there have noted that these students immediately gravitate toward each other, so that they may speak their own language and cook their own food. In effect, although they are direct placement students from Asia, they form their own islands of safety and familiarity. It is reasonable to expect that U.S. students in non-English-speaking countries would do likewise.
Even in English-speaking institutions, the systemic differences can lead to insurmountable obstacles. The British environment, for example, although it is changing, is still – depending on the institution – often based on readings and tutorials. U.S. students, geared as they are to a structured syllabus and well-defined requirements, face a difficult adjustment to a different approach and different set of expectations.
Worse, since most U.S. students are overseas for only a semester, let alone a full academic year, there is really not enough time to make that adjustment. Also, in terms of social integration, host institution undergraduates are largely involved in established friendships and patterns of social interaction, and may not necessarily make any significant effort to accommodate foreign students studying alongside them for just a term.
Socially, it is argued, direct-placement students must interact with their classmates and, therefore, become immediately aware of the modes of interaction appropriate to the host culture. If we again draw on the Syracuse University example, however, we note that, as already presented, foreign students exhibit a cluster tendency, tending to gather with their own. In addition, the local host-culture population might not be as willing and able to reach out to the visiting student as administrators and faculty might imagine.
In fact, assimilation of short-term visitors may simply not be high on the agenda of many host-institutional cultures in the first place. Thus, unless the international student is naturally gregarious and extroverted, direct placement may not afford the enriching cultural integration that proponents claim.
Rather than inhibiting it, island programs actually provide a vital function of mediation. They actively seek ways to inform their students of aspects of the host culture; they encourage and facilitate cultural integration. In the academic arena, faculty from neighboring indigenous institutions can be employed to teach courses at the island. Capable instructors can adapt their normal approach to the structure more familiar to the students. The resulting blend gives the students an international flavor in a more digestible form.
Admittedly, U.S. students in this context do not have the opportunity to exchange ideas with their foreign counterparts and do, therefore, lose something. But these students gain an exposure and an experience that they might not otherwise have had because of their inability to adapt to a direct placement.
The island can ease social interaction, as well. Field trips and special lectures provide the students background on the host country’s history, politics and customs. In many programs, students are encouraged to find their own housing or are placed with host families. In the former case, their neighbors and neighborhoods are of the surrounding culture. At the very least, the students are exposed every time they go to the store for food and supplies, or take public transportation to get to their island. The latter case of a host family encourages greater interaction, but can place a strain on both the student and the hosts.
Either way, the island campus provides a safe haven where the student can go for friendly advice and information whenever it is needed. Some would argue that direct placement programs necessitate rapid maturation and independence, but these can evolve in an island program, too, with the added benefit of a safety net for those who might need it.
Other Advantages of Island Programs
As an extension of our review of island-program characteristics, it is important to realize that there are several other advantages to an island program for both the student and the institution.
- Because it is sponsored by the student’s own college or university, the island will offer courses that are approved by and either parallel or complement those offered on the home campus. These courses will readily fit in with a student’s program of studies. Thus the student does not lose any time or credit by studying abroad.
For similar reasons, students from other schools may find the program’s courses attractive and acceptable. By contrast, the courses available through direct-placement programs may not satisfy the requirements of the student’s academic program, especially if the student is in a specialized area of study, such as management or communications policy and theory.
- Because it is sponsored by the student’s own college or university, the island will time its activities to coincide with those of the home campus. Thus, the student is not affected by differences in the length, timing, or subdivisions of the academic term, or with worries about how many credits will be allowed for a particular endeavor.
- Similarly, the student need not be concerned about differences in determining the grade for the course. The basis of assessment should be consistent with that on the home campus.
- Further, within the same context, students in direct-placement programs must typically plan on a full year abroad, while island programs easily accommodate those who wish to spend only a semester.
- The shape and content of European higher education (both regionally and nation by nation) is now in a transitional state, following the Bologna Declaration and various moves to reduce monolithic state-funded systems. Island programs insulate U.S. international education administrators and their students from the resultant uncertainties and provide a more stable basis for planning the international experience.
- Students (and parents) may be more comfortable with the familiar rules and regulations, even in a foreign land. Moreover, parents appreciate having a single point of contact for communication and information.
- Students often find it easier to convince friends to accompany them on an island program, thereby providing an extra layer of comfort and security for both.
- From the institution’s point of view, legal requirements and possible litigation are less of a concern. U.S. universities operate in a litigious environment and are subject to the many burdensome requirements of their state’s education laws. Study abroad demands a duty of care beyond even that required on the U.S. campus. An institutional attraction of the island program is, broadly, that the U.S. university can apply its own quality-control mechanisms and avoid an uneven provision of student welfare. The institution can, therefore, be sure that its exported standards meet U.S. legal requirements, which are, to be sure, different from those in Europe.
- For both the institution and the student, there is a greater potential for innovative courses that are specifically geared to the study-abroad experience rather than to the needs of the domestic system.
- Those students who have sufficient initiative, self-confidence and (if needed) language skills to attend a foreign university can do so while using the island as a safety net, as previously described.
- Institutions sponsoring island programs provide themselves with a ready-made avenue for faculty development that enhances both the student experience and the institutional goals. The island offers faculty the opportunity to visit, teach and/or research, using the island as the base abroad. The faculty experience, in turn, facilitates program expansion as U.S. faculty become recruiters on their home campuses. In a direct way, faculty have an enhanced sense of program ownership.
Direct-placement programs of the Rhodes and Fulbright genre, and their successors, are of great benefit to the right kind of students. The number of such students remains, by definition, significantly smaller than the size of the total potential market for study abroad. Island programs, and the many derivative hybrids, are successful in extending those benefits to students of lesser or differing abilities, with perhaps less loss of cultural integration than their detractors have claimed.
Island programs certainly offer greater peace of mind and overall comfort. Both will continue on the U.S. education menu and be encouraged by the various sponsoring institutions. Colleges and universities without the resources or facilities to sponsor their own programs can ally themselves with those who do, thereby affording their students unparalleled opportunities for growth and development.
The island-program model continues to offer a market-sensitive, structurally-compatible and educationally defensible option in international education.
Leon Hanouille is an assistant professor of accounting at Syracuse (New York) University School of Management, Syracuse.
Peter Leuner is director of Syracuse University London Centre.