A different world

Financial models that have stood firm for decades are failing, technological revolution is opening new doors and a growing middle class is creating unprecedented demand. At a time of extraordinary economic and demographic change, Elizabeth Gibney explores five trends that are transforming the face of global higher education

January 31, 2013

1. The boom in undergraduate study

Over the past decade, the number of people entering higher education has soared. Between 2000 and 2010, the percentage of adults worldwide who have received tertiary education rose from 19 per cent to 29 per cent, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, and all estimates suggest that this growth will continue, albeit at a slower pace.

In the book Making a Difference: Australian International Education (2012), contributor and higher education consultant Bob Goddard estimates that the number of students around the globe enrolled in higher education will reach 262 million by 2025, up from 178 million in 2010.

The source of that growth will change the dynamics of global higher education. According to Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the US, just two countries will be responsible for much of the increase in numbers: China and India. In both countries, the population exceeds 1 billion, while enrolment levels in 2010 were only 26 per cent in the former and 18 per cent in the latter, according to Unesco. “In India and China, the target is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average rate - around 30 per cent or so,” Altbach explains. While this target may be adjusted in future - “the Chinese are rethinking expansion as they’re beginning to have more unemployment of university graduates,” he says - “it’s very hard to turn off the tap”.

Sub-Saharan Africa, where the average enrolment level is about 6 per cent, will also contribute to the increase, says John Fielden, director of the higher education consultancy firm CHEMS Consulting and a former consultant for the World Bank. And other parts of the developing world may witness dramatic rises. “In Sri Lanka alone, you could see a five-times increase if the state sector could get its act together,” he predicts. “I have no doubt that the bulk of the developing world wants to move up to gross enrolment of 20 to 25 per cent.”

According to the OECD, the higher education boom is driven by efforts to cultivate knowledge economies in developing and emerging countries. And, according to the OECD’s Education at a Glance 2012 report, demand for a university education is likely to hold strong, having already withstood the global economic crisis.

However, applying his own “law of expansion”, Altbach predicts that, except in a few small, wealthy countries, any expansion in a country’s higher education system will result in a lower quality of education and of graduates. This is because growth in enrolment means that students of a wider range of ability are being taught; it can also lead to a scarcity of highly qualified staff while government funding is likely to become stretched.

Another implication of mass participation is increasing inequality within higher education systems, he adds. As the system grows, “the difference between the top and bottom higher education establishments of any country becomes greater,” he says. “This doesn’t mean the Harvards and Oxfords are of lower quality, but the difference between Oxford and institutions at the bottom of the hierarchy will be greater, and institutions at the bottom will make up a larger proportion of enrolments.”

Distance education may be one way to meet the escalating demand for higher education, although quantitative predictions about growth are difficult in this area, says Altbach. According to his paper “Trends in global higher education: Tracking an academic revolution”, co-authored with Liz Reisberg and Laura Rumbley, 24 “mega-universities” are already providing distance education for millions across the world.

Private institutions, such as the 308,000-student University of Phoenix’s online campus, are taking a lead in creating “hybrid” models, which offer degree programmes through both online platforms and traditional campuses, while prestigious institutions such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are among those introducing massive open online courses in an effort to provide free, quality education to the masses (although most Moocs do not carry academic credit).

Having been involved in efforts to launch the nationally funded - and failed - UK eUniversity in 2000, Fielden is sceptical about the role of distance learning. Those working on the project “found then, as The Open University found, that you have to have some face-to-face contact”. The hybrid model “has more potential but it can be more expensive and difficult” to implement, he cautions.

2. The growth of private provision

One area is expanding more rapidly than any other to meet the growing appetite for higher education: private provision.

Over the past 20 years, provision across most of Latin America has flipped from being predominantly public to mostly private, says Altbach. This phenomenon is now being repeated in other parts of the world, particularly in Asia.

Experts on international higher education agree that private education will inevitably make up much of the provision in countries with ambitious enrolment targets because of the speed of growth needed. The private sector (including the likes of Pearson and Microsoft) will also play an increasing role in developing course content as well as in supplying back- office services, predicts Fielden.

But ideology and hostility from existing institutions can get in the way of private sector expansion, he adds. “I work in several countries where the private sector has been ridiculed or ignored by the public sector, but [many in the public sector] understand the reality, and reluctantly some of them will even accept there are places where the private sector does it better.”

The typical model - certainly in rapidly growing higher education systems such as those in Africa - is likely to end up very mixed, with private provision dominating in some disciplines such as business, law and accounting, Fielden predicts.

In some parts of the world, such as Malaysia, the private sector plays a vital role in the country’s higher education ambitions and there are few serious concerns about its quality, says William Lawton, director of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education. Countries including India and South Korea also have a growing number of excellent non-profit institutions. However, growth in private provision usually means an increase in the number of for-profit, “demand-absorbing” institutions, says Altbach.

Certainly, several large US-based for-profit companies, such as the Apollo Group, are expanding abroad, establishing campuses, purchasing existing foreign institutions and marketing their distance education offerings overseas.

Private for-profit education can cater for non-traditional markets in a cheaper, accessible format, but thorough regulation will be needed to ensure quality, says Joanna Newman, director of the UK Higher Education International Unit. “The commercial model of many of these for-profits, as I understand it, is that they need bigger volumes and shorter courses, which risks meaning less contact time, lower quality of provision and bigger dropout rates,” she says.

In the US, which led the way in for-profit expansion and where enrolment at for-profit colleges has risen almost 10-fold since 2001, quality has recently come under scrutiny. A 2012 report by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, For Profit Education: The Failure to Safeguard the Federal Investment and Ensure Student Success, questioned whether, given their high dropout rates, the 30 for-profit colleges investigated delivered reasonable value for taxpayers, who, in effect, support these institutions because their students can access government aid. The report suggests that the cause of such problems may be high levels of spending on marketing and recruitment in comparison with outlays on teaching and student support.

Some policymakers, at least in the US, have not given up on the alternative: a two-tiered public education system comprising community colleges offering two-year courses and universities running four-year courses. The Obama administration is in favour of community colleges and hosted an event to celebrate them at the White House in 2010; however, completion rates and rates of transfer to four-year institutions remain low.

A key question is how developing countries will rapidly expand their higher education systems while ensuring that public institutions have sufficient funding and deliver quality teaching. For countries such as India, given the enormous growth needed, ensuring any kind of quality will be “a very big challenge”, says Altbach.

3. Students (or their families) having to pay their way

With rapid growth in student numbers and, in many countries, constrained budgets, there has been a shift towards funding higher education from private sources.

Between 2000 and 2009, the proportion of spending on higher education that came from private sources grew by an average of 7 percentage points across OECD countries. Although some of this comes from increased income from private research funding and the sale of university services and consultancy, in most countries, the majority has originated from students paying for tuition.

In recent years, countries such as Finland (in 2010) and Hungary (from 2013) have introduced fees while others, such as the UK, have vastly increased tuition costs. Falling state funding in the US, which hit a 25- year low in 2011, contributed to an increase in fees of 42 per cent between 2000-01 and 2010-11.

Although there are countries that buck the trend - such as Germany, where some states are even dropping the small fees they had introduced - this is unlikely to be sustainable, says Altbach.

He cites two reasons for the worldwide change. One is the inability or unwillingness of governments to fund growth in higher education, and the second is a shift in attitudes towards higher education, from the concept of higher education as a public good to its being a private good. “Partly it’s ideology and partly it’s reality,” says Altbach. “Higher education provision is expensive, and enrolment is expanding. Governments are unable, unwilling or a combination of the two, to make those investments.”

The impact of fee increases will vary from country to country, but one likely change will be a drive towards greater transparency, Altbach contends. “There’s much greater demand for accountability. The whole movement in the US and globally to provide outcome measures, I think, is driven at least in part by the fact that students are being asked to pay themselves - and they want to know [more about] what they’re getting” in return for their money.

As has already been seen in the US, with students increasingly taking time out of college for paid work, longer graduation times and higher dropout rates are also likely consequences of increased fees, says Altbach.

Equality in access to higher education is likely to remain a concern for voters - and therefore politicians - and will drive efforts to develop student loan schemes that are funded or at least guaranteed by governments.

In Australia and the UK, student loan repayment levels are already based on income. Discussion in the US is under way about whether income-based repayments would help to avoid the situation where, according to the most recent Department of Education figures, some 13.4 per cent of borrowers default on their loan repayments within three years.

Of course, private education can still carry a cost for the state. By giving state-backed loans and scholarships to students who attend private institutions, as happens in the US and the UK, the government may take on the very costs that it is trying to avoid, says Fielden. Rarely do students end up paying back more than 50 per cent of their loan, he says, and he believes that in some African nations the figure is as low as 5 per cent. “If private funding is bolstered with [state] funding” in this way and this is the result, “it’s not much of a saving”, he says.

The desire to expand enrolment on the one hand and to limit costs to the public purse on the other can result in policies that conflict with efforts to boost the “knowledge economy” - government caps on total student numbers, for example. According to Altbach, in countries with free tuition or low fees, ways will often be found around such limits, such as allowing universities to take in fee-paying students on top of their state allocation.

4. New regions driving global competition in research

The number of scientific papers being produced across the world is rapidly increasing, particularly in developing countries. It is no coincidence that this is happening alongside some enormous hikes in spending on research and development and government drives to build world-class research universities.

Asia in particular is ploughing more resources into research and development. China, which already spends $179 billion (£112 billion) in this area, aims to increase spending from 1.8 per cent of gross domestic product to 2.5 per cent by 2020, which would put it almost on a par with the US. South Korea aimed to raise its figure to 5 per cent by the end of 2012.

High-spending nations such as China, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and, more recently, Brazil are starting to see this investment bear fruit. According to Thomson Reuters, in China alone there has been an 80 per cent increase in scientific literature in terms of annual output over the past five years. The Royal Society’s 2011 report Knowledge, Networks and Nations predicts that China will overtake the US as the world’s top producer of research by 2020, and potentially as early as this year.

According to Fielden, if excellence is based on research quality, as it is in many international university rankings, China might have as many excellent higher education institutions as the US within just two decades. “In the [government-led] Project 211 and Project 985 schemes, China is aiming at having 100 or so excellent institutions, so [the system will look] very similar to the US with different tiers and the same number in the top elite tier.”

Although developing countries are yet to match the established scientific nations in terms of quality - at least as measured through the number of citations by other researchers - this is likely to change, suggests Jonathan Adams, director of research evaluation for Thomson Reuters.

“If you look at the average citation rate coming out of China, for instance, it’s still below the world average - but if you start disaggregating [the results by subject], there are a lot of papers that are highly cited. The sheer volume of research means [quality is] diluted,” he says. “What we’re looking for and expecting to see is growth in the new areas that they’ve identified as priorities - in biotech, nanotech, energy and clean energy.”

In a New Year’s speech, India’s president, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, pledged to position India among the top five global scientific powers by 2020. Like China, the country has the talent and potential to be a research power, but it’s a question of getting the democratic - and bureaucratic - “juggernaut” moving, says Adams. Both countries are likely to see efforts to move the research base from research institutes further into universities, he adds. “I think we’ll see a shift there, and that’s one of the things that will really drive those universities up the international league tables.”

Worldwide, the number of researchers within the population is increasing and “any sensible strategy for economic competitiveness” will put research investment high on the agenda, he adds. But increasing international competition is likely to encourage more concentration of funding in a small number of institutions, says Adams.

For Altbach, this means an inevitable but not necessarily destructive split into research and non-research universities. As long as institutions and governments focus funding on good teaching and ensure that staff maintain a connection with research, there is nothing wrong with the majority of institutions focusing on teaching, he says. “That’s how all systems will have to be organised in this mass arena.”

5. Internationalisation will grow broader and deeper

In response to a more integrated world economy and improved travel and communications technology, almost every government around the world, from Canada to Gambia, is making an effort to internationalise higher education.

According to Goddard, the number of internationally mobile students is expected to almost double to 8 million by 2025. Benefits include increased funding and powerful global alumni links for institutions, access to high- quality and culturally diverse education for students, and skilled-migrant streams for governments.

But the pattern of exchange is likely to shift as traditional origin countries - such as Singapore, Malaysia, Jordan and China - strive to become destinations themselves. China, for example, aims to host 500,000 international students by 2020, up from the current level of 260,000.

Countries seeking to quickly increase skill levels might choose to follow in the footsteps of the Brazilian government, which this year rolled out its Science Without Borders scheme to fund 101,000 students to study abroad, on the condition that they return.

As universities in developing countries improve and institutions get better at retaining their skilled academics, it may be the turn of Western institutions to confront the challenge of a drying-up stream of academic, as well as student, talent, says Adams. “We’re already seeing fewer Brazilian postgrads heading for the US and more staying in Latin America; that may increase,” he explains.

And according to the British Council, the boom in international student mobility may be slowing. Lawton of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education says: “When you combine a slowdown in mobility with the … continuing growth in demand, this means that the recent growth in transnational education - education delivered by an institution based in one country to students located in another - is a trend that can only continue.”

The past decade has already seen a huge rise in the number of programmes and institutions that are operating internationally, including the setting-up of full campuses abroad, and niche subject or bilateral partnerships between institutions involving joint qualifications and academic posts.

Qatar, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and China have all promoted internationalisation in national policy, including inviting prestigious foreign universities to establish local campuses. In all cases, for students in the host country, this form of education is likely to be more accessible and cheaper than travelling to the UK or the US, while still allowing them to benefit from an institution’s high “brand value”, says Newman.

To date, foreign campuses have been the preserve of mainly US, European and Australian universities, according to Fielden, but it’s only a matter of time before there is a Chinese campus in London.

As transnational education matures, it is likely to evolve, says Newman, as happened in Qatar at Doha’s Education City, which developed from a cluster of foreign campuses into a single research and teaching institution, renamed the Hamad Bin Khalifa University in 2011.

Research itself is also becoming increasingly international, driven by the pressure to publish in international journals, and academics’ desire to work with the best researchers, tap local expertise and collaborate on global problems. The number of internationally co-authored papers - which on the measure of citation data are, on average, better quality - has more than doubled since 1990, and now more than a third of all research papers are the direct result of international collaboration.

Commenting on Australian institutions’ rise in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings this year, the vice-chancellor and president of Monash University, Ed Byrne, highlighted their close partnership with China - now Australian universities’ main research partner - as a contributing factor. Collaborating with institutions in countries with young populations and booming research and development budgets may be one way for Western universities to maintain their top positions.

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