‘Universities must network or face closure,’ says ex-Utrecht rector

Uncertainty over funding and the movement of foreign students to megacities will spur institutional mergers, says Bert van der Zwaan

September 27, 2019
Cityscape network

Dwindling numbers of international students and falling levels of public funding could force European universities to close unless they merge or collaborate with nearby institutions, a former vice-chancellor has warned.

Forecasting the global higher education landscape in 2040, Bert van der Zwaan, rector magnificus at Utrecht University from 2011 to 2018, said international student mobility would peak by about 2025 – with those studying abroad heading mainly to Asia and North America, rather than to Europe.

Most internationally mobile students – estimated to hit 8 million by 2025, up from 5 million at present, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – will be based in “megacities”, such as Shanghai, Beijing and New York, where graduate jobs are plentiful and research universities can cooperate with each other and industry to form “highly visible knowledge ecosystems”, predicted Professor van der Zwaan, at a session at the European Association for International Education’s annual conference on 26 September.

“These megacities will be talent pools, technology pools and, increasingly, [magnets] for investment,” said Professor van der Zwaan, a former chair of the League of European Research Universities, who believed 10 global centres would increasingly dominate university league rankings owing to improved research performance linked to their networks, and, therefore, would be able to recruit more lucrative international students.

To compete with these emerging research powerhouses, universities in Europe will be “required to network, as individual universities will not be able to survive”, he said, adding that a sharp decline in domestic students in many EU states over the next two decades would increase the pressure for institutional cooperation.

“In the Netherlands we have 14 research universities and 41 applied science universities – there are simply too many universities and I predict this number will reduce by 5 per cent over the next five to 10 years unless they begin working together,” he said.

Dutch universities could, he suggested, work more closely with Belgian institutions to create a knowledge and education ecosystem able to rival London, which would be hit by the UK’s departure from the EU, he said.

“The pattern of how universities work is changing,” he told Times Higher Education. “In the US, the power bases of industry and education are increasingly found on the east and west coasts. Even Chicago is finding it harder to stand out on its own,” said Professor van der Zwaan. “Even Harvard will find it harder to stand alone,” he added, saying that those outside the world’s top 10 universities had realised institutional collaboration was the best way to remain competitive.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: ‘Institutions must network or face closure’

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