Expansion causing 'chaos' across the world

Philip Altbach says global expansion may entrench the dominance of Western university systems

April 11, 2013

The world’s university system is in “chaos” because of the globalisation and enormous expansion of higher education, a leading scholar has argued.

Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, warned that there was “a lot to worry about” in the global sector and that the downsides of these two trends were being ignored.

“Global mobility of students and faculty is higher then at least since the period of the medieval European universities,” he told a symposium in his honour held at the institution on 5 April.

But this movement had created a brain drain from the “peripheries” of higher education to the “centres” – North America, Europe and parts of the English-speaking world such as Australia – he said.

“The developing and emerging economies are subsidising the rich countries by educating many through the bachelor’s degree and then losing them,” Professor Altbach argued.

The internet had made the world “smaller” but had not diminished the dominance of the West’s established university systems, he added.

Massive open online courses (Moocs), themselves controlled by the world’s elite universities, were “somewhat overhyped” and could take longer than expected to find their place in the global academic system, he said.

Turning to the rise of English as the “Latin of the 21st century”, Professor Altbach said it allowed global communication for those who know it but “seriously disenfranchises” those who do not.

The language’s hegemony forced academics in Asia to work in a second language and to “conform to the academic norms and methodologies” of journals that were controlled by editors in the anglophone world, Professor Altbach said.

All in all, the rise of English and the internet could entrench the power of the “centres” of higher education, he concluded. The idea that the world was entering a century of Asian academic dominance was “exaggerating quite a bit”, he continued.

Professor Altbach also highlighted the dangers of the global explosion in student numbers, saying that “massification” had led to an “overall decline in quality” because people with a broader mix of abilities now had access to university.

It was difficult to maintain quality standards in rapidly growing university systems, he said.

Governments lacked the money to support this expansion, which was one of the reasons why tuition fees have risen and why the idea of higher education as a public good has been “greatly weakened”, he argued.

Professor Altbach acknowledged that there were many benefits to globalisation and massification, but he was “convinced that too many in the higher education community do not recognise the deep problems that we face in the current era”.

Among the other speakers to offer their thoughts on the future of higher education was Patti McGill Peterson, the presidential adviser for global initiatives at the American Council on Education.

She asked if the rise of Moocs could entrench a division between “elite” education at “traditional” universities and “mass” education online, thereby creating “even deeper divisions between class, race and the ability to pay”.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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