Fast pace of higher education enrolment growth predicted to slow

A combination of demographic and economic changes will resize the global higher education landscape by 2020, according to a new report by the British Council.

The largest higher education systems are likely to be China with some 37 million students, India with 28 million, the US with 20 million and Brazil with nine million.

However higher education, currently one of the fastest growing sectors globally, is predicted to experience a significant slowdown in the rate of growth in enrolments in the coming decades.

This is according to the report The Shape of Things to Come: Higher education global trends and emerging opportunities to 2020, drawn up for the British Council by Oxford Economics. It is to be published officially next month, but a preview was released ahead of the British Council’s “Going Global” conference being held in London from 13-15 March.

The study forecasts enrolments to grow by 21 million students by 2020 – a huge rise in overall numbers and an average growth rate of 1.4% per year across 50 selected countries that account for almost 90% of higher education enrolments globally.

But this represents a considerable slowdown compared to the 5% a year global enrolment growth typical of the previous two decades, and record enrolment growth of almost 6% between 2002 and 2009.

Tertiary enrolments have grown by 160% globally since 1990, or by some 170 million new students.

This slowing in growth “should be expected with the sector maturing or slowing in some markets, and demographic trends no longer as favourable as a result of declining birth rates over the last 20 to 30 years,” says the report.

China and India

China, India, the US and Brazil are forecast to account for more than half of tertiary sector enrolments of the 50 countries studied, while Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey and Nigeria will become increasingly important players in the global higher education sector, the report predicts.

China and India dominated global growth in higher education enrolments between 2002 and 2009, accounting for 26 million of the overall increase of 55 million in student numbers during that period.

But the pace of growth in these two countries could fall in the future. Their predicted additional enrolments between now and 2020 is likely to be around 12 million.

Growth in enrolments in China are predicted to fall from a 17 million increase to five million, according to the report’s projections. India’s tertiary enrolment growth overall is forecast to outpace China’s during the period.

“This does not take into account the political ambitions and aspirations of these countries,” said Janet Illieva, the British Council’s head of research, who will be presenting some of the research findings at the “Going Global” conference this week.

“If India manages to double participation rates in the next five years, this will be a phenomenal increase,” she said, referring to Indian government plans to increase gross enrolments from 17% of the cohort now to around 30% in the next decade.

Economic growth fuels enrolments

Over the last 20 years, growth in global higher education enrolments and internationally mobile students has closely followed world trade growth and has far outpaced world economic growth.

“What is changing is GDP (economic wealth), and economic growth which has a very significant impact on tertiary enrolment,” Illieva told University World News.

A country’s average wealth is seen as a clear driver of future tertiary education demand. “Not only is the relationship positive and statistically significant, but perhaps more importantly, at low GDP per capita levels, gross tertiary enrolment ratios tend to increase quickly for relatively small increases in GDP per capita,” the report says.

Around half the 50 countries studied currently have GDP per capita levels below US$10,000 a year. “Provided these economies grow strongly over the next decade, as many are forecast to, there is significant scope for their tertiary enrolment ratios to increase.”

But despite strong economic growth, many of the shortlisted economies are forecast to still have GDP per capita (adjusted for purchasing power parity) below US$10,000 in 2020 – including Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nigeria, India, Morocco, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

This is likely to constrain how quickly these countries close the gap in enrolment rates compared to advanced economies. But it also means continued rises in enrolment ratios and strong growth in tertiary education demand beyond 2020.

“Where income is below US$10,000 a year, a proportional increase in income results in a much higher rise in the rate of enrolments than you would expect,” said Illieva.

Following China and India, other emerging economies with predicted significant enrolment growth over the next decade will include Brazil which could add 2.6 million students, Indonesia projected to increase enrolments by 2.4 million, Nigeria with an increase of 1.4 million and the Philippines, Bangladesh and Turkey with increases of around 700,000.


A crucial break on such rises is demographics.

“We looked at where the youth population is likely to come from by 2020. This can be predicted because many of these children are already born,” Illieva said. “The youth population is an indication of how quickly tertiary education is likely to expand for the country.”

Demographically India, China, US and Indonesia will account for over half of the world’s population aged 18-22 by 2020. A further quarter will come from Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Philippines, Mexico, Egypt and Vietnam.

Russia, Iran and South Korea’s respective global market shares are forecast to fall mainly for demographic reasons.

But drops in the number of 18-22 year olds coming through the system could mean increased participation rates as university places become available for a larger proportion of the population.

“Based on demographic and macroeconomic factors, China, Colombia and Brazil should start closing the gap in tertiary education enrolments on advanced economies,” the study predicts.