The sheer scale and mobility of higher education, its continued growth as student populations soar in emerging nations, the world's transforming demography and unpredictability, and a sector grappling with change in the face of an avalanche of innovation while struggling to prove its worth, were highlighted at the "Going Global" conference in Miami last week - suggesting interesting times ahead for higher education.
"The words 'resilience' and 'complexity' sum up the challenges for the higher education sector if it is to continue to play a meaningful role. Of the 33 institutions that survive to our times from the 16th century, 29 are universities," said Professor Rebecca Hughes, the British Council's director of international higher education, during the closing plenary.
Universities survive, she explained, because societies need them. "They change with the times, but they remain unwavering in their core purpose of providing intellectual leadership and serving their local and international communities."
The British Council's "Going Global" conference, held from 29 April to 1 May in Miami - the first time this international education event has been held in the Americas - had the theme "Inclusion, Innovation and Impact".
It attracted more than 1,000 delegates from over 70 countries including 125 university leaders or their deputies and government ministers. There were 56 sessions and more than 300 speakers, and nine pieces of new research were presented.
Change and challenges
British Council research found that while there were 'megatrends' such as transforming demographics that could help forecast higher education developments in countries and regions, factors such as political change and government policies created unpredictability.
One example was the United Kingdom government's immigration clampdown, which appears to have slowed international student enrolments. Another is rapid reform of education in Hong Kong, which resulted in soaring demand for sub-degree level study.
Howard Newby, vice-chancellor of the UK's University of Liverpool, said most governments had "bought into the knowledge economy argument", which meant massifying higher education while also improving quality and reducing the cost to the tax-payer.
"That is the dilemma of modern higher education - when a country gets caught in that forcefield, a lot depends on local politics."
The extent of demographic change was highlighted by Professor Hans Rosling, one of Time's 100 Most Influential People 2012 and co-founder and chair of the Gapminder Foundation, in an opening plenary speech.
He pointed out that by the end of this century 80% of the world's population would live in Africa and Asia, while only 10% would be in the West.
Higher education faced a massive challenge as the proportion of young people grew - "the world has reached 'peak child'" - along with the need for education. This demanded reconsideration of the world order.
Sir Martin Davidson, chief executive of the British Council, said three factors were driving change: "Urbanisation plus digital communications plus education is a combination that is as revolutionary as railways and the new industrial manufacturing techniques of the 19th Century."
"Suddenly your hard-won skills have value because you are within reach of jobs and potential customers on the other side of the world. But you are also in competition with the best talent in the world. The excellence of your local degree and your top-ranked local university will not be enough unless it also connects you to that global market."
A key challenge was to ensure equity and access to education and opportunities. "We cannot afford to leave anyone behind, whether individual countries or regions or groups within our own countries - from the inner cities of the UK to the rural areas of Mexico," he said.
Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, spoke of the United States seeing "an avalanche of transformational innovation on a scale not seen since the 1944 GI Bill", which she believed US higher education could cope with because of its great diversity and historic resilience.
Corbett said that given "rapidly expanding demand for raising skills and knowledge levels to address the serious issues of high levels of youth unemployment, we will not just survive in higher education, but we will be required to grow significantly.
"The question is more how higher education will grow and how it will be delivered."
According to Tim Bozik, president of Pearson: Higher Education: "The suggestion is that there will be multiple models in future such as elite, mass, niche or life-long learning and there will be a challenge to the structure of institutions from the power of technology to provide the scale to meet this growth."
Indeed, the conference was packed with challenges, that were in some ways different and in other ways similar across regions and countries.
Anna Eugenia Garduno Whitson of the OECD pointed to Latin America's problem of low enrolment and a 50% drop-out rate in higher education.
In Sub-Saharan Africa the pressing problem is access. A British Council report for the conference described pent-up demand for higher education as a "potential time-bomb".
Some 11 million young people are entering the job market annually, and they need to be equipped with high-level skills - but despite higher education enrolments more than doubling in the decade to 2010, participation levels among the population are still only at 7%.
Perhaps the greatest challenges of all are in India, which has a population higher than the whole of Africa. Ashok Thakur, Secretary of Higher Education in India's Ministry of Human Resource Development, said 40 million more university places were needed to meet demand.
"We can't afford to miss out on India's demographic dividend. But it's not just about numbers, it's about quality."
For individual universities, said Douglas Becker, chair and CEO of Laureate Education Inc, a challenge was for those placed between elite institutions that could afford to be inflexible and those that struggle to recruit and tend to be extremely flexible: institutions in the middle were neither protected by a brand nor were they flexible.
"There is a future role for universities that punch above their weight on flexibility and innovation."
The global debate over the employability of today's graduates, and on the need for more entrepreneurial graduates, continued at "Going Global".
Horacio Melo, former executive director of Start-up Chile, said the US Small Business Administration had estimated that small companies were responsible for 65% of global gross domestic product. But universities were not training students to be entrepreneurial thinkers.
They needed to offer more flexibility, and faster and more dynamic learning, "not the same subjects they were doing 10 or 15 years ago. The role of the university is to turn today's dreamers into tomorrow's do-ers," Melo said.
Jamshed Bharucha, president of the Cooper Union in New York, stressed the need for incentives for academics to get involved in entrepreneurial projects:
"Some of the faculty members who pound the table and say 'we are here to educate students, not to prepare them for business and for jobs', are there in a nano-second if there is a chance to be involved in an entrepreneurial project where there is some tangible financial gain."
His view was that the liberal arts argument that universities should not teach practical skills "because they quickly become obsolete" had gone too far. "Education should not just be about assimilating knowledge but also about doing things, creating things, acting in the world and creating things to solve problems."
Professor Wendy Purcell, vice-chancellor of Plymouth University in the UK, said institutions needed to catalyse entrepreneurial creativity among students. "Enterprise must not be an add-on but be embedded in the pillars of the organisation across teaching and research.
"We are launching graduates for careers spanning 50 to 60 years, graduates who are prepared for the global workplace and for jobs that don't even exist yet."
It was time for universities to change the way they teach, said Hannes Klopper, managing director and co-founder of Europe's online learning platform Iversity. "Universities have to think about how they incorporate non-formal learning into their degree programmes."
The much-discussed mismatch between graduate skills and economic needs extends to the PhD level - and this is increasingly important because, for instance, 80% of PhD graduates in Europe do not work in academia but other sectors of economies.
One of the reasons, at least in the developing world, is lack of high quality teaching. Another is the changing nature of the skills needed in a transforming, technological world.
Dr Claire McNulty, director of science for the British Council, pointed out that technology was changing the way researchers share and analyse information, and international collaboration was increasingly seen as good for research. Researchers today need a wider range of skills, and high on the list are communication and intercultural skills.
Is higher education worthy?
In a session that looked at the role of tertiary education post-2015 Francisco Marmolejo, lead tertiary education specialist for the World Bank, suggested that while the sector's role was growing in importance, this was not being well articulated to governments or the public.
"It is a very significant wake up call to those of us in the higher education community that we have been unable to make the case for why tertiary education is important. There is increased interest in higher education in governments and society.
"The success of the millennium goals in increasing access to elementary and high school education and demographics means many more young people will be knocking on our doors. We have a very important role to play in eradicating extreme poverty for the first time through higher education in a sustainable world," said Marmolejo.
On the other hand: "We are a very fragmented sector with not many champions, probably too many egos, not too many leaders, and unfortunately just a few followers and believers. That is a big problem and while we are debating other issues, the train is passing."
Professor Julius Weinberg, vice-chancellor of Kingston University in the UK, agreed: "Higher education institutions will not succeed in the 21st Century unless they can explain what they are doing to the general public and their young researchers can explain what they are doing to the wider world."
In his opening plenary, Hans Rosling provided a sobering view of the future world and of the higher education collective.
"There is something wrong with your world view, and it's the same as we find with the general public. I do not know how it has ended up like this, other than because these changes are so slow they never make it into the media, and they are too fast for text books."
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