The shape of higher education to come

More and more countries are striving to secure a bigger share of the international student market. But while the market is attractive and growing, it is also “very competitive, highly risk-prone and not only the only growth area in higher education – far from it”, said Richard Yelland, head of the policy advice and administrative division of the OECD.

Speaking on Thursday at the second QS-MAPLE conference, held in Durban, South Africa, Yelland warned that while an international student presence “enriches the domestic offering and leads to a better experience for all students”, countries should exercise caution in growing their global share.

Higher education is a growth industry in many ways, he said in a presentation titled “Higher Education: Some thoughts on its past, present and future”, and in the immediate future issues around affordability, productivity and relevance would be at the forefront as the sector swung from the supply to the demand side.

General trends

Yelland painted a picture of a rapidly transforming world, and the implications of changes for higher education.

While there is population stability in OECD countries, he said, the United Nations predicts that by 2050 the global population will have trebled from three billion in 1950 to nine billion, with the growth concentrated in developing and emerging countries. The world is also moving from a bottom-heavy to a top-heavy age structure, especially developed countries.

“The stability of the population in the developed regions masks other factors. Birth rate is often below replacement rate and the reasons populations have not declined are increased immigration and longer life expectancy,” said Yelland.

“Both these developments have implications for education policy and the latter [longer life expectancy] has a strong impact on higher education, leading on the one hand to a greater emphasis on adult and continuing education, and on the other to a growing willingness – or necessity – to look elsewhere for students.”

Economic shift is another key trend, said Yelland. Goldman Sachs has predicted that China’s gross domestic product will overtake America’s in 2027. Others think this might happen by 2020 and by 2050 it could be double the size and India might have caught up.

The proportion of populations that have attained a post-school qualification has been rising, though not evenly. Qualification growth started in OECD countries, which now have an average of around 35% of 25- to 34-year-olds with a tertiary qualification.

“But there has also been spectacular growth in some emerging countries, with South Korea the most outstanding example,” said Yelland. Some 68% of 25- to 34-year-old Koreans have a tertiary qualification.

“Most of the graduates in OECD countries are women,” he added. “What we are now wondering – and this is a big policy concern in many countries – is: Where are the boys?"

In the past three decades, the global talent pool had doubled and there are now some 81 million 25- to 34-year-olds with a tertiary level education.

Globally, there are major differences in how higher education is provided and varying levels of investment. In some nations, higher education is paid from the public purse “and is described as free, though of course it is not”. In others, it is largely paid for by students.

“The question of who should invest in higher education and what they should expect for their money, lies at the heart of policy and of ranking and evaluation.”

Of around 32 countries surveyed by the OECD, America has the biggest share of GDP spent on higher education – more than 3% – and the biggest proportion is private spending. It is followed by Canada with more than 2.5% of GDP committed to higher education, most of it public spending, and South Korea with around 2.4%, mostly privately-funded.

“We can look at this information in a different way – the variations in the ways countries assist students to finance their studies.” Countries can be grouped into four categories.

One group is OECD countries, where higher education is almost entirely publicly financed and at quite a high level – mostly in Scandinavia. In a second group there are high student fees but also well developed grant and scholarship systems – the US, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands. A third group (eg Japan) has extensive cost sharing, with student support somewhat less developed.

The fourth group is the most worrying, with relatively low financial barriers to entry but also relatively low state subsidies – for instance, Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Mexico, Spain and Switzerland.

“Some of them in the global higher education competition are having to think about their higher education investment,” said Yelland.

“There is no obvious correlation between who pays and the quality or fairness of provision. But what is clear is that where there is insufficient investment in higher education, then neither effectiveness nor equity are well-served.”

Yelland said there had been long-term growth in the number of international students, from around 800,000 in 1975 to 3.3 million globally in 2008. “That number will double.”

“With China’s population and economic performance, in five years many more of those students will be Chinese. There are already 200,000 international students in China, and the National Plan wants 500,000 by 2020.” Singapore, Japan and others also have high ambitions for international students.

In terms of proportions of international students in tertiary enrolment, Australia is top of the OECD, with more than 20% of all students being foreign, followed by Austria, the UK, Switzerland and New Zealand.

Technology is another global trend impacting on higher education.

“The potential of technology and the way it is changing the way we think, is something we’re only just beginning to grasp,” said Yellend. “And we’re only starting to get to grips with its potential to change the way higher education is delivered.”

The world for which students are being prepared is also transforming, along with demands for skills. “Research shows that the balance of skills required for the world of work is changing dramatically. It is the non-routine interactive and the non-routine analytic jobs that are growing, particularly in countries like the US, and this trend is accelerating.”

Where are we going?

Yelland said one area in higher education that would change in the coming decades was the evaluation of institutions and programmes “and the worth that is attached to things they do”. One of the effects of massification was a much more heterogeneous experience and more diverse expectations.

“There has been huge progress in quality assurance, but institutional quality remains largely unknown. Proxies for quality exist but none are perfect.”

There would also be demands in future for greater transparency in higher education. Yelland said university rankings met a strong demand for information on what students could expect to get for their investment in higher education.

“We can argue about methodology and complain about the effects of rankings. But the reason why we have to deal with incomplete rankings is because we have failed collectively as a sector to be transparent about what we do and what it is worth.

Clearly, there was bias in rankings towards research excellence and impact. For many universities this was a valid measure of their value to the world. “But for many others, if they are setting out to be in the world’s top 100 they are doomed to failure – there can only be 100 – and this can have a distorting effect on policy.”

Yelland spoke about the OECD’s work in assessing learning outcomes. “There has been a move towards defining the qualities that students can be expected to know and do as a result of higher education. But there is no international assessment of higher education outcomes – what students can actually do.”

The Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) will test what students know and can do on graduation.

“There have been decades of quantitative growth and there is consensus on the need to improve quality,” said Yelland. But there is an information gap and AHELO is intended to provide a a balanced view of quality in terms of learning outcomes.

“We are looking for a genuine test of diversity.” AHELO is in its testing implementation phase, seeing if students in various countries are prepared to answer questions and if this produces meaningful information.

Keywords for the future

A first set of keywords for the future, Yelland said, was accountability and autonomy, with the need to strike a balance in higher education between institutions and society. The tension between accountability and autonomy was nothing new. “But this needs to be a source of creative tension, not a battleground. The key is to have effective and strategic management.”

From the perspective of society, usually represented by government, a second set of keywords was quality, equity and efficiency. “The art of system steering is to achieve all three of them simultaneously. Some systems are good at this, some not.”

Keywords for the immediate future were affordability, productivity and relevance. “This is about higher education swinging from the supply to the demand side. Interest in university rankings is a sign of that.

“Higher education matters. It has become too important to be left to the providers, if you like,” Yelland argued.

Affordability was clearly an issue for governments and students, who pay for higher education. Productivity was important, though “not a word uttered at higher education conferences”. Relevance was important at a time when too many people were unable to obtain or retain work, and when economic growth needed to be relaunched.

“Higher education is a growth industry. There will be more, exciting transformations. The global dimension is important and we are going to see more and more sophisticated use of technology, more private sector, new clients and new products.

“This is a wonderful sector to be in and one on which the future of economies and societies will to a great extent depend.”