By 2025 internationalisation will have sharpened the hierarchy in world higher education, with a handful of university "transnational corporations" in the highest tier alongside private firms, and local community college-style institutions in the lowest.
This is one of the forecasts made in a new book, Globalization and Internationalization in Higher Education, edited by Felix Maringe, senior lecturer in education at the University of Southampton, and Nick Foskett, vice-chancellor of Keele University.
Professor Foskett told Times Higher Education that a key theme of the book is the failure to understand higher education internationalisation in the context of the globalisation of the world economy, rather than as simple recruitment of international students.
The concluding chapter, written by Professor Foskett and Dr Maringe, considers how internationalisation will reshape world higher education by 2025.
Two key factors will be continuing growth in student numbers and constraints on public funding, they argue, leading to "an increasing marketization of the global higher education system, with competition for growth a key characteristic".
For universities in national systems where participation rates are already high, the only option will be to compete for students internationally or adopt niche specialisations. The authors say scarce public funding for research will increasingly go to the elite that have the international networks to attract the best academic talent. These pressures will "establish a number of distinctive tiers of universities" acting as "closed systems", Professor Foskett and Dr Maringe write.
At the top will be a group of universities operating with "limited constraint by domestic national policies and markets". These "trans- national corporations of the higher education world" will comprise two groups: "perhaps less than five" established universities, typified by Harvard University; and "one or two" business corporations, typified by the University of Phoenix.
To universities in this top tier, the authors argue, internationalisation will be "innate" - whether through cross-cultural programmes, overseas campuses, or distance learning.
Professor Foskett told THE that traditional universities "will have to be much more aware of quality and differentiation in the marketplace" and play on their links to top-class research and leading businesses, as they compete with private firms focused on providing courses in bulk at a low price.
The authors argue that a second tier of internationalised universities will operate in the global arena but remain "rooted in their own national higher education system".
A third tier will operate mainly at national level, with some opportunities for international engagement in terms of students and resources, while a fourth tier will "typically have more limited academic range, akin to the concept of community colleges, and with a strong focus on education and little engagement in research".
In the second, third and fourth tiers, the authors suggest, regional mergers and partnerships will create "super universities" with strong roles in regional economies.