The three models of higher education systems globally

University systems are born from unique historical and social traditions but can be categorised under three coherent models, according to Samuel Martín-Barbero and Adrian Monck

May 26, 2018
Three Pillars

At the beginning of the 20th century, barely half a million people were in higher education worldwide. As the century closed, the number had risen to more than 100 million. That incredible growth, much of it in the second half of the century, gave rise today to different university models. One could now classify regions in the world according to how their historical traditions and socially conservative or liberally competitive policies apply to their national university systems. We have identified at least three categories:

The Equalisers

Defined by domestically-focused systems in countries with staunch egalitarian convictions and institutional rigidity that advocate equity. These countries prioritise balance and access (versus merit-based gains), an agreement among all the agents of education and social cohesion in all major policies. Public spending (often subsidised by the state) finances the entire higher education system. 

Advocates of this approach argue that between 4 and 5 per cent of a country’s GDP is the reasonable amount needed to sustain this model. The countries that have chosen this formula defend education as a public good akin to health and housing. They produce inclusive systems in which enrolment fees are below the actual operating costs. Most countries in this category are from Europe and Latin America.

Certainly, the equalisers’ autonomous self-funding model is struggling, partly because of cutbacks in public spending. Not all universities are adapting to these changing times, nor are they all attracting alternative private funding at the same pace or learning to better manage their alumni databases and connect with their corporate environment. 

Still, universities in countries such as the UK, the Netherlands and Switzerland perform well. The most advanced countries to achieve this well-balanced approach are Germany, Japan and South Korea, which combine public and private spending to fuel their university budgets.

The Revolutionaries 

These are countries with growing economies, rankings-obsessed governments with deep pockets that allow them to establish national universities with fabulous facilities and abundant resources although, sometimes, lacking the philosophical roots that define the previous category. These countries believe that education is an engine of economic development (not so much of social integration) that must be incorporated into the country’s production base. Universities are the suppliers of a much-needed workforce. 

Inspired in some cases by the great Anglo-American technical and technological universities, these countries create their own higher education platforms in which they encourage the selective entering of international players – be it independently or through joint ventures – within their own territory. Foreign universities provide specific knowledge in areas such as engineering, medicine and nursing. These countries have decided to directly spur their own academic-industrial revolutions, giving their main tools (universities) a national mission. Towards the end of the 19th century, the polytechnics that emerged in Europe’s main cities did so at the same time as the steel and textile sectors reached their commercial peak.

This second classification includes countries such as Singapore, China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and more recently, Russia. Some of these states even have university cities and go as far as hosting between five and seven foreign universities with campuses for undergraduate and postgraduate degree students. Other countries with geographical proximity and shared commercial interest have extended their universities’ operations to establish themselves in revolutionary countries, for example, Australia in Southeast Asia.

The Globalisers

The third category in this set is the group of countries with a staunch economically liberal tradition: the globalisers. The countries are a benchmark in the generation of science; in transferring knowledge to the market; in fundraising; in recruiting the best talent in the fields of teaching and research; and in attracting a wide variety of foreign students (the US takes in about 1 million international students every year). These countries’ systems are mainly competitive, exclusive, practical and selective, fixed as they are on individual merits and measurable results. Globaliser systems are found in the US (which is almost a category on its own) and, to a lesser extent but still highly successful, Canada.

However,in globaliser countries, there is a disconnect from reality that is born of the division between the state and the university (as well as populism tarnishing the ideals of globalisation) which has created a need to re-evaluate the whole university-industry business model which, in the case of the US, is built upon stifling student loans. There have even been shocking (and paradoxical!) cases of students suing their colleges for not being immediately employed, or employable, upon completion of their studies, which raises the question: is the price of education in some universities worth it?

In light of the growing number of universities globally, perhaps there is leeway to consider an additional fourth category, one that has not firmed up yet, although it is inspired by existing systems. We refer here to the possibility of students simultaneously studying and working from the very beginning of the their postsecondary education journey. The jobs in question would be skilled, in exchange for wages, and linked to the students’ disciplines. This calls for lifelong learning and mandatory community service; it incentivises mobility, both within students’ countries of origin and abroad; and it calls for a greater liberalisation and updating of curricula in several disciplines – medicine, law and architecture, for instance. We must not countenance the mental torpor that Clark Kerr, 12th president of the University of California, warned of decades ago in his 1963 Godkin Lecture, The Uses of the University, when he said: “Few institutions are so conservative as the universities about their own affairs while their members are so liberal about the affairs of others.”

Samuel Martín-Barbero is vice-chancellor of the Universidad Camilo José Cela in Spain and Adrian Monck is head of public and social engagement at the World Economic Forum.

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