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Higher Education & Research: Trends & Challenges in a Globalized World

Exploring the new trends and new facets of higher education and research has assumed added significance in the globalized world of the twenty-first century. Since the strength of today’s economies is increasingly based on how well they can harness knowledge and expertise, the role of the higher education system has become crucial in international competition. It is this system that determines an economy’s capacity to adapt swiftly to new situations, new markets and new technologies: countries with the least competitive higher education systems incur more substantial costs than others in our globalized world.

Globalization is exerting a deeper impact on higher education and research than ever before. Industry and services have been offshoring into emerging countries at a fast pace, highlighting the crucial role of technological sophistication and, more generally speaking, the importance of the knowledge economy in international competition.


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In today’s digital era, many academic institutions have gradually connected with one another to build global networks. This situation stems from the technological revolution in communications, developments in science, as well as the very nature of knowledge, which now operates via accumulation and paradigm shifts.

Three major trends are shaping education and research at a worldwide level:

  1. Increase in international mobility in tertiary education, which is giving rise to new modes of competition within higher education and research;
  2. Economic competition, which is now playing a key role in higher education and research; and
  3. Competition amongst academic and research institutions, which is impacting on their concentration, diversification and modernization.

Fast Growth in Mobility

International mobility in higher education is not a new phenomenon, but the speed and the level to which it is growing is exceptional. In the first years of the twenty-first century, globalization has ushered in a new cycle of international mobility in higher education and research.

New Cycle in International Mobility: International student exchanges are growing. Europe was certainly innovative when it launched its famous Erasmus program in 1987. This program was first and foremost aimed at “encouraging the emergence of values and a common identity via direct contacts between young Europeans with a different language and culture.” Erasmus provides the opportunity for, and organizes, students exchanges between European universities for six months or one year. No diploma is delivered in the host university but there is the possibility for students to transfer and accumulate credits thanks to the European Credit Transfer System (or ECTS). The European Union funds this program with a large mobility budget of about € 450 million per year.

This is a very good example of organized cultural diversity in higher education. Yet, international student exchanges remain a “pedagogical luxury” reserved for universities of industrialized countries.

Real international student mobility is where students leave their home country to study and graduate abroad. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the international mobility of students in OECD countries has more than doubled in the past twenty years. The number of international students in OECD countries has increased twice as fast as that of local students in OECD countries. All in all, the number of international students enrolled in higher education courses in OECD countries totaled 2.7 million in 2004. Six countries host 67% of the world’s foreign or mobile students: with 23% studying in the United States, followed by the United Kingdom (12%), Germany (11%), France (10%), Australia (7%) and Japan (5%).

Student mobility is matched by international mobility among academics and researchers, which has also soared over the past twenty years. However, it is very difficult to measure the extent of this development. At a national level, academics are still hired to a large extent on a statutory basis; however, an international market of academics and researchers, based on disciplines, is emerging.

New Forms of Mobility: The new forms of “international mobility of educational goods” at higher education level are more complex. One instance is the mobility of courses between countries. In this category of mobility, often called offshore in its sophisticated form, a university sets up a subsidiary in a foreign country. This offshoot offers the same courses, programs and diplomas as the “parent company” in the host country.

Educational franchising is an even more sophisticated form of mobility and is widely practiced by British and American universities. In this arrangement, the parent university transfers a complete curriculum, and therefore a diploma, to a foreign university. It implements quality control and ensures supervision of the educational process in exchange for a payment on all diplomas delivered.

The offshore model also encompasses the forging of international alliances and partnerships between foreign universities to design curricula or research programs in a given country.

Ever Fiercer Competition

The new forms of mobility exert a profound influence on the national higher education and research systems. Stiffer competition has arisen between countries in relation to their higher education and research systems, and also between academic institutions.

Emergence of a Market of Students and Academics: Fierce competition has pitted the most developed countries against one another for attracting the best foreign students to their schools and universities. They have a clear intention to exert their influence by training the elite of third-party countries. Such policies are an application of the soft power theory propounded by Professor Jo Nye. Influence spreads via political, economic, legal, cultural and military elites.

Likewise, attracting the best foreign students to the national educational market, combined with an appropriate immigration policy, enables a country to develop public research policies based on the brain drain from foreign countries, or its own brain gain. Host countries implement highly selective immigration policies. According to the OECD, the United States is “the main magnet for highly skilled migrants.” According to the available figures, in fact, in 1999, 27% of scientists and engineers in the United States with a doctorate in science and engineering were foreign-bom, this amounted to 44.6% in engineering and 46.4% in computer sciences'".

In addition to these political and scientific stakes, international student mobility represents a highly attractive economic market. According to the OECD, international trade of educational services accounts for 3 percent of total global exports of services. It has become one of the main items that ensure the break-even of the balance of payments in a country such as Australia. In addition to tuition fees paid by foreign students, noteworthy amounts of money are spent on traveling to, and staying in, a foreign country. International student mobility enables a country to gauge the international attractiveness of its institutions and, therefore, assess the international prestige of its higher education and research institutions.

Competition for hiring the best academics is intensifying among higher education and research institutions. It is crucial for an institution’s staff to boast a Nobel Laureate or the winner of a Fields medal to attract the best academics and researchers and to improve chances of obtaining maximum public and private funding. Competition via compensation and living conditions offered by institutions is highly unequal; since most countries organize the career path of their academics and researchers within their civil service, they cannot seriously compete on this playing field.

Higher Education Remains a Profit-less Market: The rapid spread of competition in the fields of higher education and research has introduced market components into a sphere that once remained remote from such concerns. Competition operates through numerous processes that depend on the nature of funding. Bidding in calls for tenders enables institutions to gain access in a transparent manner to substantial funding for both research as well as teaching. However, competition also prevails with respect to the share of public funds an institution may receive. Lastly, the field of private funding is expanding due to mainly three factors: tuition fees, breaking into such markets as consulting or ongoing vocational training or tapping sponsorship. We are witnessing the emergence of a diversified market, or rather diversified markets, of higher education and research. At present these markets remain quite unique since they are developing without the concept of “profit.”

An Overhaul in Higher Education and Research

National higher education and research systems were set up after World War II. The missions assigned to higher education and research during this period of rebuilding and economic development were straightforward:

  1. Ensure economic growth through scientific and technological progress; and
  2. Ensure economic growth by increasing the popu-lations’ level of tertiary education. This mission was based on the call for social cohesion which was supposed to depend on access for the highest number of school leavers to higher education.

The national models performed well until the 1980s. Today, they are caught between the anvil of national tradition and the hammer of the need to internationalize.

The present context, composed of distinctly separated national higher education systems that are isolated and protected by the state, needs a tough reorganization and radical changes to respond to the new challenges of national and international forces in higher education and research.

Of course, there are a number of significant hurdles in the way of mobility and resistance to the introduction of market forces. Some obstacles have been deliberately erected and are related to regulations, procedures implemented to the accreditation of diplomas, and the national status of academics, etc. However, there are also other obstacles, such as linguistic, cultural and financial barriers.

The New Challenges

Three challenges of varying significance arise from the impact of globalization on higher education systems:

  1. The appearance of standards in this field,
  2. The increased inequalities between academic insti-tutions, and
  3. The difficult connection between teaching, research and economic growth.

Standards in the field of higher education used to be determined at a national level. The state set out how studies were to be organized and structured and defined qualifications and diplomas. Nowadays, by contrast, competition sets overall “standards.” However, negotiations carried out by individuals who move from one institution or one country to another, as well as by the institutions themselves, have led to the emergence of two major trends: the American academic system has become the benchmark system for educational programs; and the institutions that are most highly exposed to international competition (business schools, for example) set their own standards within the framework of international associations.

Inequalities between academic institutions are increasing at the national as well as international level. The most blatant relates to the ability to gamer funds and human resources, followed by the quality of teaching and research and, lastly, the diversity and quality of the services required by teaching and research.

For instance, the operating budget of Princeton University in 2006 exceeded $1 billion for around 8,000 students. In the same year, the respective budgets of the London School of Economics (LSE) with 7,500 students and Sciences Po in Paris (6,500 students) totaled €335 million and €135 million. More strikingly, the major US research universities have capital funds that total several billion dollars: Harvard University’s endowment stands at $26 billion.

Technological, scientific and financial resources are concentrated in a small number of educational institutions. Consequently, the developments under way are resulting in a dichotomy within higher education and research systems. American and British universities hold a preponderant position among the world’s best universities. In the 2006 Times Higher Education Statistics (THES) table, they accounted for half of the top 100 universities.

In the face of this splintering and fragmentation of higher education systems, the emerging challenge is how academic institutions may be democratized. How can the quality of all institutions be guaranteed? How can efficient national and regional planning be ensured? How can the number of students gaining access to higher education be increased?

The third challenge, and certainly the most complex one, concerns the relationships between the three poles of teaching, research and economic growth. A recent report published by Institute Montaigne, a French think-tank, highlights the extent to which Europe has lost ground in global competition in research and higher education.

Europe, for instance, must rapidly raise at least twenty of its higher education institutions to the level of the world’s major universities. Nowadays we acknowledge an economy’s competitive advantage, and therefore its long-run growth, on its ability to harness innovation and file patents. For this to happen, appropriate and sufficient resources are needed at research level and a close relationship needs to be ensured between research and the country’s economic fabric. The traditional model of higher education is not adapted to this new deal.

The issue of new technologies is now crucial. New technologies - i.e. new materials, nanotechnologies, biotechnologies, new information and communication technologies - define ways in which production is ensured and stimulate the entire economy. “The new bases of tomorrow’s economy are appearing on campuses, in laboratories and within communities of researchers maintaining a dialogue with investors.”

  • The fate of higher education and research systems will depend on their capacity to respond to three issues:
  • Assessing the quality of teaching and research products
  • Assessing the level of concentration of resources: How can resources be concentrated in a small number of institutions while ensuring the system is democratized?
  • The interconnecting of research, teaching and growth: Universities, the essence of knowledge production and transmission, must develop in a tight link with the economic fabric within which they operate. However, is this compatible with the total scientific freedom desired by academics?

It is now clear that a liberalization process is under way in higher education and research at a worldwide level. Nothing can stop this change. There is an urgent need to channel these new dynamics to benefit our societies. Undoubtedly, thought needs to be given to the fact that knowledge is first and foremost a “public good” and seldom a market commodity. Therefore, a balance must be sought and struck between the competitive development of higher education and research and its public service mission. 

Francis Verillaud

 

Source: Essays on Muslims and the Challenges of Globalisation, Institute of Policy Studies, Islamabad. Republished with permission.