The world transformed: trends driving change in higher education

With one more year to go until the end of a decade that is transforming universities worldwide, Times Higher Education looks at the trends that have shaped the past 12 months

December 20, 2018
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Source: iStock

The past year has been characterised by a continuation of the trends that are rapidly transforming the global higher education landscape. From the seemingly accelerating rise of China’s research prowess to the shifting sands of international student mobility, it is a fair guess that we are witnessing fundamental change.

Here, Times Higher Education explores some of these trends in a series of charts that sum up another year in which higher education has not stayed still for long.

Has China already overtaken the US as the world’s leading producer of research?

The rise of China’s research power has been a defining trend of the decade and has inevitably led to predictions about the exact moment it will take over from the US as the world’s biggest producer of scholarship. An analysis covered by THE in July suggested that this may happen in just a few years, and that by the mid-2020s the US could also be eclipsed on citation impact.

However, a report for the US’ National Science Board earlier in the year showed that when you count the exact contribution to science and engineering research by different countries, China may already be ahead. The statistics used a fractional counting method to credit the proportion of each article that was authored by researchers from a particular country, and this showed that China overtook the US for output in 2016.

With other figures in the NSB report demonstrating the staggering degree to which China is investing in research, by 2030 the global research landscape could look very different from how it does today.

International student flows: could China be the next super-hub?

It is not only in research that China’s emergence as a driver of global higher education trends is being watched closely. For the past five years it has also become the number-one source of incoming international students for established higher education nations like the US and the UK.

Many university leaders in these countries worry about when this demand may wane, but this graph shows that they should also be wary of China becoming a destination of choice too. Its position towards the top right of the chart, which shows the relative change in student inflow and outflow in various countries from 2013 to 2016, suggests that it is significantly increasing student mobility in both directions.

China may be unlikely to suddenly start attracting large numbers of students from Europe and North America, but its position as a major hub for Asia could develop very quickly, especially if the option to study in English is pursued in the country. If that does happen, this could divert some student flows from other Asian countries towards China, further undermining a source of income for Western institutions.

Research collaboration increases despite divided world

The main global political trends of 2018 have revolved around the continued growth of nationalist politics in Europe and the Americas. But despite the threat of trade wars and increased restrictions on immigration, collaboration between researchers across borders is growing unabated.

From 2008 to 2017, the share of the world’s research output that involved international collaboration rose from 16 per cent to 21.5 per cent, according to figures from Elsevier’s Scopus bibliometric database. For some nations, such as Switzerland and the Netherlands, this cross-border working has become a cornerstone of progress, as this graph of selected countries suggests.

Meanwhile, from a position of being one of the leading larger countries for collaboration, Russia’s position has tumbled, while China has been one of the most improved nations. Meanwhile, the UK’s success in tapping into research networks over the past decade is clear to see. Only time will tell just how long this will last in the wake of Brexit.

Funding models: loans or bust?

Keeping a balance between public and private funding for higher education that satisfies taxpayers and maintains investment in universities is an issue that continues to vex politicians in many countries. But are there nations where this balance is now out of kilter?

This graph shows how funding per student in tertiary education relates to wealth, demonstrating that to a large extent, the richer a nation is, the more investment there is. But there are notable exceptions: the US and the UK, where loans and high fees fuel much of the sector’s income, appear to be two outliers.

Could it be that the higher education bubble is about to burst for countries where student loans help to fuel spending over and above national wealth? All eyes may be on the UK in the coming months, where a major review of fees and loans in England could shift the balance once again.

Grade inflation: has the penny dropped?

The year started with the latest figures on the rising share of graduates leaving a UK university with a first-class degree, which has now passed 26 per cent of classified degrees, more than three times the proportion 20 years ago. However, despite ministers huffing and puffing about the figures, there was still not enough evidence to pin the rise on grade inflation – the idea that students were achieving higher grades for a similar standard of work.

But in the last weeks of 2018 a new study was published, giving universities much less wiggle room. The research controlled for possible causes of increased grades, such as prior student achievement, to shed light on the increasing portion of firsts awarded for “unexplained reasons”.

It has led to bodies such as Universities UK and the Quality Assurance Agency calling for greater transparency from institutions to avoid employers and others losing faith in the system. And while politically this is only a hot potato in the UK at the moment, other countries where grades have been ramping up – particularly the US – will be watching the outcome closely.


Print headline: A sea change for HE

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