Going Global 2015: Challenges facing the world’s largest HE systems

Nine of the largest higher education systems in the world will convene at the Going Global conference in London this year to debate the impact of the greatest global massification of higher education ever experienced.

India, China, Brazil, Nigeria, Russia, Pakistan, Indonesia, the United States and the United Kingdom together enrol more than half of the world’s higher education students. They are facing unprecedented challenges – how they evolve in the coming decade will have enormous implications for all of us.

Going Global is the largest open conference for leaders to debate and discuss the future of higher education. Each year it attracts more than 1,000 university vice-chancellors and college principals from more than 80 countries.

Going Global 2015 will explore the creative connections that are established through bringing together diverse cultures, people and ideas, and how these connections can act as major catalysts for innovation. This makes it the perfect stage to debate the challenges, issues and opportunities being experienced across these large system countries and explore the uncharted territory lying ahead.

These challenges are big and urgent. Over the past year, through a series of dialogues which will culminate at Going Global in London, key issues have emerged: rapid expansion, quality and equity.

Rapid expansion globally

Although economic growth slowed down during the global financial crisis, the worldwide expansion of higher education this century has continued undisturbed: global enrolment increased from 100 million in 2000 to 177.6 million in 2010.

While developed countries have universalised access to higher education, middle-income countries are in the process of massifying higher education and the sector is fast expanding in low-income countries. A major share of the recent expansion of the system is accounted for by the large-system countries.

The private sector is booming in many large-system countries. Reforms are reducing state control in higher education, making institutions self-reliant and reinforcing market processes.

The rate of privatisation is astonishing. In countries such as India more than three-fifths of enrolment is in private higher education institutions. In Brazil it is more than three-quarters. Indonesia and Nigeria have rapidly growing private sectors. Public higher education institutions in these countries are increasingly reliant on cost-recovery measures and income generating activities.

Hidden tale of inequality

But this story of expansion hides a worrying tale of inequality. Even in the countries where higher education is massified, equity in access continues to be a major problem. Some large-system countries such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan take affirmative action and use a quota system to support enrolment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

As much of the expansion of higher education is being driven by the private sector, economic accessibility is becoming an important concern. Disparities between social groups and geographies are challenging these large systems and many young people are getting left behind.

Significant strides are being made in female participation, with most large-system countries moving towards gender equality in enrolment. In fact, the gender parity index is more than one in countries with massified and universal higher education.

However gender inequalities remain significant in countries where the gross enrolment ratio is low. High female enrolment rates are not being reflected in research careers or leadership positions in higher education – the glass ceiling remains solidly intact.

The expansion of the sector and multiplicity of providers have intensified discussions on the quality of higher education. Although many countries have established external quality-assurance agencies, accreditation procedures and internal quality-assurance mechanisms at the institutional level, those undergoing massive growth are finding it difficult to assess and maintain quality, particularly in the private sector.

Financing concerns

The financing of an expanding system of higher education is an important and immediate concern in all developing countries and high on the agenda of large-system countries. Many that used to rely on public funding have steadily moved towards market-oriented strategies to finance higher education.

Cost reduction, cost recovery and income-generating activities have become common in many public universities. Student loans have become a reliable common mode of financing higher education in many countries.

Although many universities rely on market processes, many of them still follow a traditional public-service model of governance and management. Some countries, mostly Anglophone, have established buffer organisations to mediate between the institutions of higher education and the respective ministry. In other countries, the government intervenes directly in university affairs. However, in large systems, there is a general trend towards more autonomy, including China.

Education-skills mismatch

Graduate unemployment is a serious issue in most large-system countries. Although the economic crisis may be a reason for an increase in unemployment among university graduates in the United Kingdom and United States, the major concern in other countries is that universities are not producing graduates with the relevant skills to be readily employed in the production sectors.

Internationalisation is highly uneven, but the picture is changing rapidly. Among the large-system countries, the United States and United Kingdom are the most internationalised in higher education. Meanwhile, the big sending countries, notably India and China, have plans to rapidly increase their share of the international student market.

At Going Global 2015, a new report will be launched outlining the learning and insights gained over the past year from a series of international discussions, debates and knowledge sharing between these nine countries, including detailed policy papers prepared by scholars and policy-makers from each country on the challenges of their national higher education systems.

What are the implications of the transformation of these large systems for international higher education? Take part in the debate on 1-2 June in London at Going Global 2015.

Professor NV Varghese is director, and Dr Jinusha Panigrahi is assistant professor, at the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education, NUEPA, New Delhi, India. Lynne Heslop is senior education adviser at the British Council India.

The series of dialogues on large higher education systems is an initiative between the nine participating countries, convened by the British Council and the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education, New Delhi.