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The West's global HE hegemony - Nothing lasts forever

Since World War II international higher education has been led by English-speaking countries, especially the United States. The near hegemony of the Atlantic countries in the university sector has exceeded their role in the trading and financial economies. But nothing lasts forever.

When we look at the higher education world, we can see three main trends: the relentless expansion of educational participation across the globe; the spread of indigenous capacity in science and technology to many countries; and the emergence of more higher education systems with autonomous clout.

The worldwide landscape is also being remade by systemic global developments.

For example, the first is the extension and intensification of communications. As well as complex data transfer and project sharing, low cost synchronised cross-border meetings in real time are now commonplace. This facilitates all other international functions.

Second, as will already be apparent from what has been said, the evolution of a one-world science system based on English language publishing and absorbing previously separated research conversations. This is associated with the rapid increase in cross-border research authorship, from 16% of all journal papers worldwide in 2001 to 25% of all papers in 2011.

Third, and momentously, are global comparisons and rankings. Fourth, almost as momentously, MOOCs, or massive open online courses. Fifth, the spread of all forms of cross-border partnership, including twinning and joint degrees.

Sixth, the continual expansion in student mobility at every level from first degree to doctorate, facilitated by credit recognition, partial degree standardisation, and quality assurance mechanisms. And seventh, the rise of the regional factor in higher education, not just in Europe but elsewhere - partly in response to Anglo-American hegemony.

This is a formidable list of global systemic developments.

Comparisons and rankings shaping systems

Global comparison and ranking are shaping educational systems at national level according to single global standards and models.

The process of homogenisation is not complete - important national differences remain, so that reform packages are hybrids of global model and local culture. But increasingly, governments and higher education institutions across the world find themselves responding in similar ways. There is now a new set of informal rules that are too potent to ignore.

Consider the impact on policy and practice in pre-tertiary schooling, of the OECD's PISA assessments of the educational achievement of 15-year olds. The Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, is now the principal performance indicator for school-level education bureaucrats and ministers.

Not all countries are focused on lifting their PISA scores. Many are though. There is intense international interest in, and borrowing from, systems such as Finland, Korea and Shanghai that have done well in PISA.

The equivalent in higher education is global university rankings.

Global rankings were a minor news item when the first Shanghai Jiao Tong University top 500 league table was issued in 2003. They are now installed on the front page in many countries.

Research persistently shows that despite the shortcomings of this form of cross-border comparison, rankings are highly influential with families and students in decisions about international education.

They also affect the esteem (and often the revenue) given to universities by governments, industry and philanthropy, and shape patterns in the cross-border movements of academic faculty.

As noted, global rankings inexorably push governments and universities alike towards the model of the comprehensive Anglo-American science university that makes up the ranking template. They drive mergers designed to secure reputation and critical mass, and drive offshore recruitment to lift citation rates.

University ranking has become perhaps the chief performance indicator for ministers of higher education, and university leaders.


More than one third of all American higher education students were enrolled in at least one online programme prior to MOOCs - but MOOCs are something else.

MOOC programmes began two and a half years ago. Through Coursera and Udacity at Stanford, and edX run by MIT and Harvard, MOOC offerings and enrolments have grown extraordinarily rapidly.

They have taken off because they are high quality programmes from global brand universities that feature leading world experts, students' work is assessed, and students who complete the programme successfully receive certification at its end.

MOOCS also provide scope for social networking between students. As a free platform with user navigated content and networks they are attuned to the web, unlike other online prototypes that replicate the bricks and mortar university in virtual form.

As free programmes from prestigious universities, they are an attractive alternative to any programme in any mode that charges tuition fees. MOOC programmes are already recognised by leading universities, although the extent of recognition among employers is as yet unclear.

MOOCS might substitute for existing international education on a large scale. It is more certain that MOOC programmes will continue to roll out alongside conventional delivery in existing higher education institutions.

Either way, they promise to radically reduce the average cost of teaching, lower the number of academic faculty in many countries, and weaken the position of universities that are prestigious at national level but left in the shade by the global giants.

MOOCs also promise to increase the power and authority of the leading United States universities on a global scale.

Global mobility

Meanwhile, the more long term growth in global mobility continues - from 1.1 million students in 1980 and 1.3 million in 1990 to 2.1 million in 2000 and 4.3 million in 2011.

Demand is fuelled by the worldwide growth of the middle-class, especially in China and India.

The number of middle-class people in Asia - people living on US$100 or more a day - is expected to rise from 600 million in 2010 to more than three billion in 2030. It will multiply five times in 20 years.

Middle-class families want tertiary education for their children. Regardless of the quality of home institutions, in a globalising world some will always see advantages in education abroad.


What are the strategic implications of such changes? There are two main ones.

Firstly, the days of neo-imperial domination of higher education are drawing to a close, if they have not finished already.

In Western Europe and to some extent in Eastern and Southern Europe, the Bologna process and the European Research Area have stimulated widespread modernisation and the advance of research capacity.

In East Asia, the combined strength of both student numbers and journal paper output will surpass that of Europe and the United Kingdom. Already in 2011, post-Confucian East Asia and Singapore spent US$448 billion on research and development, considerably more than Europe-UK with US$345 billion and not far short of North America with US$453 billion.

A growing proportion of the world's scientific knowledge is coming from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. In many respects these systems are already our equals in higher education.

Self-belief is a fine thing, but in the West we need to set aside those notions of cultural superiority that are still deeply ingrained.

We need to respect and understand European and East Asian higher education. We need to learn the main languages of East Asia, which will remain in use in universities, so as to learn about our East Asian colleagues just as they have successfully learned about us.

We need to learn about the histories and cultures of the region. The approach to the role of government, to state-university relations in higher education, and to educational culture in the family, is distinctive and will be increasingly influential worldwide.

It is not generally realised that per capita wealth in post-Confucian Asia, except in China, is already on a par with that of Western Europe. In China there are great regional disparities. Per capita GNI - gross national income - in Shanghai, the Beijing region and parts of eastern China is already at half the level prevailing in the UK and Western Europe.

Educational rise of post-Confucian Asia

In terms of basic preparation for tertiary education, 15-year-old students in the post-Confucian systems are not just equal to but much stronger than their Western counterparts in reading as well as in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

The post-Confucian systems are all moving towards high participation status or, like Taiwan and South Korea, are already there. China is expected to achieve a tertiary education ratio of 40% by 2020.

East Asian universities do not yet lead the world top 200. However, the investments of the last two decades are beginning to bear fruit in the entry into the world top 500 of an increasing number of universities from China, Taiwan and South Korea.

Mainland China had eight universities in the Academic Ranking of World Universities' top 500 in 2005. Less than a decade later, in 2013, it had 28 such universities. The two top Singapore universities, the National University of Singapore and Nanyang, are at Western European levels in research performance, not that far below Cambridge.

In China, in addition to the large comprehensive universities such as Tsinghua, Peking University and Zhejiang, an impressive layer of smaller science and technology-focused universities has emerged, such as Nankai and the University of Science and Technology of China, which is the university of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Secondly, countries like the UK need to take their rhetoric about student-centred education seriously and apply it to international students, taking on board the issues and problems they face. Too often, international education providers expect international students to adjust to them. However, good relationships are mutually sensitive.

* Simon Marginson is professor of international higher education based at the Institute of Education in London. This is an edited extract from his speech to the International Higher Education Forum 2014 held at the UK's Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on 20 March.
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