20 September 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
Advanced Search
View Printable Version
The rise of the global university

In 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reported that 4.3 million students were enrolled in tertiary education outside of their home country, more than double the 2.1 million students who studied abroad in 2000, with the major host countries continuing to be the United States, Great Britain and Australia.

While one cannot, and should not, forecast the future with certainty, it is safe to predict that the current major players in the student mobility scheme are likely to change in the future as new study abroad destinations emerge as a result of government educational and economic policies.

According to a June 2014 report in The Australian, Canada, China, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and the Philippines all plan to attract more international students to their countries in future.

The Australian also reported that China has set a target of enrolling 350,000 international students from Africa and other parts of Asia for both long-term and short-term programmes.

Technology and a generation of students brought up in a world of technological devices will determine not only future educational delivery methods, but will also bring new players into the market.

The increasing availability of telephone and Internet connections will unite students worldwide. Online education will make higher education courses available to students who may never seek a full-time undergraduate degree, but who want to learn from some of the best professors in the world.

Current student mobility

Every year millions of undergraduate and graduate international students leave the boundaries of their countries to study abroad. Some of the programmes are simple exchanges for a semester or one year. Others are full-time undergraduate and degree programmes.

I want to focus here on the mobility patterns of students from China, India and the African continent.


Unquestionably, one of the most significant worldwide developments of the past 30 years has been the economic growth of China that has helped lift more than 400 million Chinese out of poverty.

The impact on higher education has been substantial. More than 60% of Chinese high school graduates enrol in higher education, an increase from the 20% enrolled in colleges and universities in the 1980s. China graduates an estimated seven million college students a year.

More than 800,000 mainland Chinese have studied abroad either on degree programmes, study abroad semesters or short-term summer programmes. By some estimates, by 2020 China will have 20 million potential university students.

The Chinese government provides scholarships for students to study in China. In 2010-11, 15,000 American students studied on short-term programmes in China and an additional 11,000 studied in China for a full degree. The US Department of State’s 100,000 Strong Initiative also supports American study in China.


In terms of the future potential for international students, India’s population of 1.6 billion will surpass China’s by 2028.

Indians represent the third largest population of college students after China and the US. There are over 500 universities in India yet the central government estimates that the country will need to open 1,000 more universities to accommodate future college students.

By 2015, India will have nine million potential university students. Last year nearly 200,000 Indian students studied abroad. This represents the second largest source of globally mobile students.

According to Dr Rahul Choudaha, chief knowledge officer and senior director of strategic development at World Education Services, this trend is likely to continue as an increasing number of affluent Indian parents have the ability to fund their children’s international education.

The Indian government, in addition to spending substantial sums on improving Indian institutions of higher education, is reaching around the globe to establish collaborative ventures.

Cooperation with Africa, through the creation of the India-Africa Forum, seeks to create closer educational ties with countries on the continent. There are more than 50,000 African students studying in India, primarily from Ghana and Nigeria.

Ghana will house the India-Africa Institute of Information Technology and will offer courses in software development in collaboration with Education Consultants India.

India plans to deliver tele-education to African students in 53 countries through a satellite and fibrotic network. This initiative hopes to link 10,000 African students to some of India’s best universities by 2015.


Consider the following:

  • There are one billion people in Africa, representing 15% of the world’s population.
  • 70% of the population has cell phones.
  • Six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies between 2001 and 2010 were in Africa.
  • Marriott plans to open 50 hotels in Africa by 2020.
  • IBM opened its 12th research lab in Nairobi in 2012.
  • Google is the single biggest private influence in Africa, helping governments digitise information and make it freely available.

Writing in University World News on 15 August, Wagdy Sawahel reported that the African Virtual University, in partnership with the African Development Bank, was launching 29 distance and e-learning centres in 21 African countries.

The centres will work across borders and languages with the goal of helping African countries overcome the geographical, technological, political and financial obstacles that often prevent African students from enrolling in higher education.

Online Africa is developing faster than off-line Africa. Undersea cables reaching Africa via the Atlantic and Indian oceans, plus innovative mobile phone providers, have raised internet speeds and slashed prices.

As economies and societal changes improve, students from Africa will increasingly travel to study abroad. However, the biggest market for African students may well be the online courses and MOOCs – massive open online courses – offered by colleges and universities throughout the world, allowing African students who cannot afford to study abroad to take courses in their home countries.

Trends impacting on international higher education

Worldwide technological tsunami

There will probably be no greater impact on worldwide higher education than the full integration of technology into educational delivery methods. The internet has rendered geography irrelevant and digital options are changing the way higher education is consumed.

The numbers are staggering and change daily, but it is safe to state that there are millions of college students worldwide taking online or MOOC courses. The jury is still out on the potential and sustainability of delivering courses online. The business models are changing.

But the major MOOC providers, like Udacity, Coursera and edX in the US, FutureLearn in the UK and Iversity in Germany, believe that MOOCs have the potential to reach two billion potential learners to ‘democratise’ higher education and build global communities.

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel’s course on justice had 20 million views in China and Professor Wang Defeng, of Fudan University in Shanghai, taught more than 1,100 students in his class, “Introduction to Philosophy”.

Demand for alternative methods of delivering higher education in the future is expected to outstrip demand for traditional methods by 6% before 2020.

Employment challenges

In 2008, the world’s economy entered a major downturn with shrinking economies and increasing unemployment rates. In many countries around the world youth unemployment continues to be a major problem.

Let’s examine unemployment statistics from a few countries:

  • According to the OECD, the global unemployment rate for college graduates was 5% in 2011. (Non-college graduates had an unemployment rate of 13%.)
  • According to the Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, 50% or three million of the 2013 Chinese college graduates were unemployed.
  • In India, one in three graduates is unemployed.
  • In South Korea, the number of ‘economically inactive’ graduates exceeded three million for the first time last year.

Increasingly, college students and their parents are asking college officials about the return on their financial investment in college. Worldwide unemployment could be a game changer for many countries and for colleges and universities in those countries.


Despite the challenges and changes, future trends in international higher education will continue to witness an increase in internationally mobile students.

I maintain that the single most transformative trend in international higher education will be the insertion of technology into how education is delivered in the future. More students will study ‘abroad’, but they may do so from their house, never leaving their home country.

Technology will encourage the rise of global universities and along with today’s global student, will determine the educational delivery methods of the future.

Telecommunication options will become standard collegiate practice, with students taking some classes at home, some on campus and some in employee settings.

The balance between in-country enrolments and offshore enrolments will shift in the direction of offshore.

As long as a middle-class continues to grow across the globe, especially in the developing world, demand for post-secondary education will continue to outpace supply.

Most countries will continue to seek and enrol international students as a way to build intellectual capital and remain competitive in a globalising world. Strategic alliances will change current international recruitment practices.

No one country will dominate the international student market as there will be no such thing as a ‘typical’ international student. Students will migrate to international destinations based on several factors, including price, visa eligibility, job opportunities and the perceived return on the educational investment.

While neither statistics nor futurists can predict the future with precise accuracy, I believe the current and future trends listed in this article merit consideration and review.

* Marguerite J Dennis has been a higher education administrator for more than 40 years, first at St John’s University in New York; then at Georgetown University in Washington, DC; and at Suffolk University in Boston. Dennis’ expertise includes assisting colleges and universities in the United States and around the world to create sustainable enrolment and retention management programmes and designing strategic international recruitment plans. She helped found branch campuses of Suffolk University in Dakar, Senegal and Madrid, Spain.
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 *