A Time for the Flexible University?: What For-profit Institutions Can Tell Us about International Education in a Post-Pandemic World

Much has been said of the increasing marketization of international education, where efforts to maximize profit from foreign student tuiton undermine research and teaching within the university. In defining how exactly universities are “marketized,” scholars mainly highlight the increasing precarity of academic labor and the allocation of university resources to profit-generating academic programs. I argue that a missing piece in this literature is the notion of flexibility or institutions’ ability to cater to multiple consumer demands and unexpected change in the global market. With the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, universities have attempted to enact such flexibility, hoping to navigate the loss of international students and the challenges of social distancing policies. Yet, I argue that universities’ past efforts at being “flexible” to student demands are what made them more vulnerable to disruptions such as the pandemic. I base my arguments on the case of low-tier, for-profit universities in the Philippines, which have seen an influx of “unlikely” students pursuing degrees for professions where Filipino migrant workers are highly represented (eg. nursing). I hope to show how the mixed outcomes of creating “flexible universities” is particularly evident among for-profit institutions, where faculty have limited say in institutional policies and international students often have less economic and social capital.

Yasmin Y. Ortiga is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Singapore Management University. She studies how the social construction of “skill” shapes people’s migration trajectories, changing institutions within both the countries that send migrants, as well as those that receive them. In 2019, she received the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. She recently published the book, Emigration, Employability, and Higher Education in the Philippines (Routledge). Her work has also been published in Global Networks, International Migration Review, and Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education