Many higher education institutions in industrialised countries are focusing too heavily on funding problems at the expense of international mobility, the director of education at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has warned.
Barbara Ischinger, former executive vice-president for international affairs and public relations at Berlin Humboldt University, said higher education had had an international dimension from its inception.
"The international higher education trade has reached the level of a quasi-export industry and is estimated to be worth about $40 billion (Pounds 21.7 billion)," she said.
"We estimate that local demand for international student places, particularly in English-speaking destinations, will more than double by 2020. That means additional growth in masters programmes and distance learning."
Last month's meeting of G8 education ministers emphasised the importance of international mobility, portability of qualifications and greater co-operation on quality assurance and accreditation in the Moscow Declaration, which will go to the forthcoming G8 summit in St Petersburg.
Dr Ischinger said that in 2003, more than 2 million students studied outside their country of origin, 93 per cent in the OECD area, an 11.5 per cent increase over a year. But while countries might have international campaigns to attract students, individual universities were often not involved.
In most countries, "many institutions are still caught up in domestic challenges, especially funding challenges", she said.
She urged institutions to check the guidelines drawn up by the OECD and Unesco on "quality provision in cross-border higher education", designed to help students get easy access to information, particularly on international recognition of qualifications.
Dr Ischinger acknowledged that some countries needed to invest more in higher education. She said it was obvious there had to be a larger contribution of non-public funds, but the debate continued on how much of the tab employers, students or taxpayers should pick up. About 80 per cent of higher education is publicly funded in half of the OECD countries, with less than 50 per cent in Australia, Japan, Korea and the US.
There was concern that an increase in private funding could hinder wider access, Dr Ischinger said, but higher education expansion in countries with significant public funding had not led to large increases in the number of entrants from socially and economically disadvantaged groups.
"The contribution in terms of social cohesion has been quite modest, and we know many countries and governments are quite worried about that," she said. "The needs of non-traditional students have to be acknowledged."
Dr Ischinger said she hoped that in the wake of last week's OECD education ministers' conference in Athens, the OECD would reinforce its work in producing data and benchmarking.