22 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
Advanced Search
View Printable Version
GLOBAL: Higher education in the future

The enormous challenge facing global higher education in the next decade is the uneven distribution of human capital and funds, which will allow some nations to take full advantage of new opportunities while others drift further and further behind. This is one of several future trends predicted by a report for the UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education. It says accelerating change is presenting more complex problems with each passing decade.

Unstoppable globalisation will oblige institutions to rethink traditional degree programmes and past pedagogies, so as to prepare increasingly diverse student cohorts for a borderless economy, says Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an academic revolution.

"'Talk and chalk' is far from adequate as we move further into the 21st Century," write Philip G Altbach, Liz Reisberg and Laura E Rumbley of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the US, who UNESCO commissioned to write the report.

In the concluding chapter, "Future Trends", they point out that current trends - massification, rapid globalisation, impacts of technology, and movement of students and scholars, programmes and institutions across borders - will continue. The future will be shaped by shifting demographics, technological breakthroughs, and international political and economic forces. But it is possible to identify emerging trends.

Changing enrolments

Expansion higher education has continued at "a staggering rate" - from 51,160,000 tertiary students in 1980 to nearly 140 million in 2006: demand will continue to grow but will come from separate sectors in different countries, write Altbach, Reisberg and Rumbley. New growth will be in the developing world - especially in China and India.

Developed countries appear to have largely achieved universal access and some - Japan, the Republic of Korea and Finland - have enrolment ratios nearing 80%. Mass higher education has opened access to previously excluded populations, and gender inequality has been erased in most countries.

But in some European and East Asian countries there have been declining enrolments among the traditional age cohort while demand has grown among non-traditional students. "Systems and institutions will need to adjust to these new and, in many ways, unprecedented realities."

Also, expansion has not solved persistent social inequalities. Students from minorities, rural areas, older students and the disabled are under-represented. "Modern societies are increasingly concerned with greater access for these population groups," says the report.

From access to completion

It is now recognised that higher education has not become more inclusive or accessible if large proportions of 'new' students fail. In future, the authors point out, "institutions will be measured by their success at supporting students through to completion, not by simply getting more students through the door. This new perspective implies changes, and not only in how institutions measure success - reputations and budgetary allocations will also be affected.

The meaning of 'completion' has also changed. Achievement has been measured by credits, academic performance and qualifications awarded. Now universities must be accountable for what and how students learn. There will be rising concern about the nexus of issues around achievement and learning. "Initiatives like the Bologna process will test new measures that will undoubtedly have significant influence on future trends."


Mass enrolment created the need for diversified systems - hierarchies of institutions serving different needs and constituencies. In future the private sector will be an important aspect of diversification. It will continue to expand in many nations, because public institutions will not keep up with student demand.

Some private institutions might emerge as semi-elite or elite research universities, but care must be taken to ensure that private, especially for-profit, institutions maintain standards and serve society, write Altbach, Reisberg and Rumbley. "New technologies and new providers have only just begun to diversify opportunities. This trend will most certainly continue."

Privatisation and funding

Public higher education has begun to 'privatise' and this will continue. Neo-liberal attitudes, limited public funding, increasing costs and the needs to meet expanded social expectations and build better management systems, among other things, will oblige public institutions to generate income from other sources including research, consulting and university-industry partnerships. This will impact on the nature of institutions.

"Tuition and other fees charged to students will increase and become more ubiquitous worldwide," says the report. "One of the many challenges ahead will be to ascertain that cost does not become a barrier to access when students have the intellectual capacity to study but not the private financial means."

New technologies

The profound impacts of information and communications technology on higher education worldwide are already being seen in, for instance, the rapid communication of knowledge and expansion of distance education, and electronic publication of journals and books. Teaching and learning will be transformed within universities and through distance education.

ICTs will probably not dramatically improve access, as people with limited resources in developing nations are likely to remain distant from necessary infrastructure and equipment for some time.

Concern for quality

Quality assurance will continue to be a high priority. The trend, driven by international mobility of students and scholars, is towards internationally-referenced standards and mutual recognition. "The Bologna process is guiding Europe toward shared benchmarks and standards that will make it possible to compare qualifications awarded in all participating countries." But aspects of measuring and monitoring quality remain problematic, write Altbach, Reisberg and Rumbley, and a mechanism needs to be found for certifying and integrating national quality assurance schemes on an international level.

Struggle for the soul of higher education

The 'commercialisation' of higher education has placed strain on its social mission. "The debate concerning the primary mission and priorities of higher education will continue," the report says. Countries will be challenged to balance local needs and priorities with standards, practices and expectations articulated at the international level."

Management and leadership

As higher education has become larger and more central to society and individuals, there has been a growing need for professional management and leadership. Training, think tanks and policy forums are emerging, and institutions and systems are collecting data about themselves for use in policy-making and improvement. "The higher education enterprise is simply too large, complex and central to be managed without data and professionalism."


What has become increasingly apparent, the report concludes, is that higher education trends are inter-related. "Trying to examine these trends separately is similar to trying to pull an individual string from a knotted mass - tugging one brings along several others."
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters

Email address *
First name *
Last name *
Post code / Zip code *
Country *
Organisation / institution *
Job title *
Please send me UWN’s Global Edition      Africa Edition     Both
I receive my email on my mobile phone
I have read the Terms & Conditions *