No room for complacency in emerging market HE

A high-powered Emerging Markets Symposium turned its focus on post-secondary education in these nations crucial to the world’s future. There was remarkable consensus, including weariness with rankings and concerns about standards and the suitability of Western university models. The importance of mobility, innovation and blended learning solutions became clear. There is no room for complacency at any level – anywhere.

The Emerging Markets Symposium is an initiative of Green Templeton College at the University of Oxford. Every year, the organisers invite a small group to discuss – and make recommendations on – a critical area of policy affecting emerging markets.

The very existence of the symposium indicates the importance of these markets, not only to their own populations but indeed to sustain and enable future global growth.

While discussions of emerging markets tend to be dominated by economic and financial movements, there is recognition that deep social change is taking place in these countries. A keystone within these, of course, is education, and post-secondary education in particular raises a host of fascinating and vital questions.

This year’s topic therefore was tertiary education and participants included academic leaders from universities around the world, several former education ministers from emerging market countries, economists, and a host of others with a specialist interest in the subject – chaired by a former prime minister of one emerging nation.

From giving attention to global trends in higher education, sessions focused on determinants of demand, broadening access, roles, values and functions, structural issues and, finally, curriculum issues.

Jamil Salmi, the World Bank’s just-retired tertiary education coordinator, started with a masterful presentation on global trends and emphasised the dramatic impact of technology – not only in affecting modes of delivery but enabling further reach.

He painted a graphic picture of a student able to pick from a palette of courses at a wide variety of institutions across the world. He also gave a salutary glimpse of what academics’ choices would entail in the future.

The potential of open education resources to both ‘emerged’ and ‘emerging’ markets is obvious as the cost of higher education – using the present ‘traditional’ model – grows beyond our ability to afford it.

He reminded participants that the boundaries between residential and distance, part-time and full-time, public and private (for profit) are increasingly indistinct and indeed irrelevant. Access to technology and indeed good connectivity (broadband) has become an educational imperative if emerging markets are to achieve their potential.

As a natural effect of high growth, there is extensive evidence that people in emerging market countries are expressing tangible aspirations for social mobility, which in turn creates new patterns of demand for tertiary education. Hence the almost exponential increase in these markets and the market share of for-profit providers, the latter being very large indeed.

And there was a foreseeable consensus on tertiary education policy’s bottom line: it should promote positive social change and be a catalyst for progress in the midst of rapidly changing societies, whose demographics – and particularly age, gender, mobility and urbanisation – were predictably dwelled upon.

The role of universities

What role for universities within this landscape?

The symposium entailed several days of existential enquiry for university professionals whose roles were being doubly questioned – not only from the standpoint of a shifting economic geography, prompting questions such as the future global role of, say, Chinese or Indian universities, but also within the tertiary education sector as a whole.

While our discussions were often biased towards university-centric questioning, participants were sharply reminded that the broader tertiary education landscape was crucial to success of the whole.

Our final policy recommendations indeed encompassed ‘higher education’ at public and private universities, colleges, technical institutes, community colleges, research institutes, executive education programmes, distance learning institutions and specialised institutions for vocational training, as well as adult education and lifetime learning institutes.

We endorsed the importance of a holistic and integrated policy framework in each country that would promote access to, and progression through, the education system.

With such a diverse range of participants from such a diversity of countries, it was cheering – even remarkable – that there was such a consensus of views.

There was a widely shared weariness, though not wholly consensus, towards the culture of university rankings, which could be perceived as a measure of emerging market universities’ aspirations, but also poses the question of whether the resources poured into the ‘race’ to creating world-class universities would do to serve the magnitude of the skills training required.

By contrast, there was also much discussion about erosion of standards – or perhaps an erosion of expectations – in the delivery of university degrees, and the much-publicised case of the University of Phoenix’s online degrees was a regularly used point of reference.

In addition to those dual concerns, the suitability of Western, high-income countries’ university models were questioned as to whether they provided for the scale and nature of the demand in many emerging market countries.

Such demand included the vital necessity of teacher training given the importance of the primary and secondary education system in any market. On a related point, some participants pointed to the limited success of UK and US universities in establishing campuses in the emerging markets.

Our recommendations included, for instance, general points about co-payment as a guiding principle for universities and other institutions to price their services, or the need for governments to develop robust frameworks for publicly funded research in line with their other planning priorities.

The importance of mobility and innovation was a central theme.

One point dwelled upon, for example, was the need to promote the relaxation of visa policies for all involved – teachers, researchers, students and other professionals – in tertiary education, and the need in fact to enshrine the international mobility of the sector in international norms, on the model of the World Health Organisation’s guidelines for health workers.

Recommendations were also made in favour of ‘joined-up policy’, following the tenet that every government department is, in effect, a department of education.

A third example was our recommendations' emphasis on promoting innovation, with tangible policies to this end such as ensuring good quality broadband and access to personal computers at little cost.

It strikes one that the potential of blended learning solutions cuts across many of the concerns and recommendations raised, and will necessarily hold an important role in the growth of tertiary education in emerging markets.

It is also a space where universities can innovate, devise learning models and create learning communities, and embed themselves within increasingly technological, networked, borderless societies.

There seemed little doubt that universities need to be much more responsive in their research, in their curricula and in their modes of teaching and learning to changes in technology, communication and the organisation of the workplace while giving regard to the needs of labour markets, the economy, employers and the nation as a whole.

Under pressure from new models of tertiary education coming from new places, there was an understanding that it is crucial that universities rise to the challenges posed at the symposium.

There was also an understanding that there is no room for complacency at any level – anywhere.

* Brenda Gourley is a chartered accountant who became South Africa’s first woman vice-chancellor and served as vice-chancellor of Britain’s Open University from 2002 to 2009. She is currently on the board of numerous organisations and is a higher education consultant.