What will higher education be like in 2040?

Higher education systems and institutions are very different now compared to 20 or 40 years ago. Worldwide, higher education has experienced several changes that can be summed up as processes of internationalisation, globalisation, commodification and massification.

Consider for a moment the fact that the number of students enrolled in tertiary education now exceeds 200 million globally, compared to 47 million in 1980. Enrolments are projected to exceed 660 million by 2040. This would represent 10% of the world’s population aged 15–79 by 2040, compared to 4% in 2012.

Major developments around the world, in economic and social spheres, have the potential to exert an enormous impact on future global flows of individuals and ideas. Understanding and preparing for a range of new scenarios is paramount for higher education institutions across the globe.

Over the next few decades, higher education will continue on a path of unparalleled transformation, invariably at different speeds depending on the ecosystem in which it operates. There are a number of forces at play, from technology to urbanisation, and how they evolve in the coming years will determine the nature of higher education globally, its mode of delivery and the rules of engagement among stakeholders.

Megatrends influencing society and economies

In the next 25 to 50 years, the megatrends that will influence higher education globally will be attributable to a combination of effects from past events and the responses from states, civil society and market forces, as well as institutions themselves, in managing these changes.

Some countries have not found adequate or sustainable solutions to replacing ageing and declining populations, and these demographic developments are likely to have lasting effects on productivity, social mobility and wider social dynamics.

Individual empowerment is more dispersed, and, as a result, the world's growing middle classes are exerting greater influence on the way decisions are made in the political and business sectors. Political and business decisions are often subject to the demands of consumers.

The impact of new technologies is rapidly changing the quality of life for millions of people, especially in rural and remote areas and among indigenous communities. The adoption of new tools and devices is altering long-held social norms and conventions.

Dimensions of space and time are conflated – one might say, beyond recognition – as the transformative effects of globalisation unfold progressively before our eyes. The effects of globalisation on education are a work in progress, in part because higher education is inter-related globally and dependent on the political will of governments.

Governments’ spending on tertiary education (as a proportion of all spending in education) is declining. For example, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, countries averaged 75% spending in 2000 compared to 69% in 2011.

In turn, students’ financial contribution to their own education is rapidly increasing as the argument of the private benefits of acquiring a degree gains momentum.

Governments’ spending on research and development is shifting to more funding being directed to applied (as opposed to pure) research. In turn, ‘big science’ projects are progressively being funded by industry and subjected to the global objectives of enterprises.

Increasingly, more countries are pursuing bilateral and multilateral trade and cooperation agreements (for example, the Trans-Pacific Partnership), and moving away from consensus-driven institutions, such as the World Trade Organization and the United Nations.

In some instances, the role of governments in setting and pursuing public agendas is being eroded by weakening trust in institutions (higher education included). By contrast, multinational companies are playing a more prominent role in the decision-making processes of national governments.

Increasing political and military tensions in different world regions are invariably having an influence on the future outlook, a development that brings salience to the discussion of scarcity of resources and the debated effects of climate change.

What do these trends mean for higher education?

In looking forward to the next few decades, there are a number of critical elements to consider that will influence international education.

Higher education participation rates will continue to rise, particularly in emerging and developing countries. By 2040, most countries will have a participation rate that will exceed 60%, meaning that demand for previously unmet domestic higher education will be met for countries such as China, India, Brazil and Indonesia.

The appetite for study abroad is likely to continue, albeit at lower growth rates compared to the boom years (late 1990s to mid-2000s).

Short-term exchanges (such as the Erasmus programme under the auspices of the European Commission or the ASEAN International Mobility for Students) are likely to be strengthened as governments, funders, enterprises and students realise the gains by students from such experiences (for example, soft skills).

New corridors of study abroad activity are likely to emerge, and these will be more in a two-way mode (for instance, US students of Mexican origin studying in Mexico and vice versa; German-Polish cross-border mobility); in part, these developments will be driven by the increased role of diaspora populations in opening new channels of economic and knowledge activity.

Many countries that aspired to become educational hubs for international students will have either succeeded or entirely bailed out.

Dominant countries of international education are likely to remain competitive. These dominant countries are likely to face greater competition from China, Russia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Education is globally connected, like many other service-oriented industries. What occurs in one jurisdiction resonates elsewhere. By 2040, higher education will be more greatly integrated with related industries (such as media, telecommunications and professional services). The implication is that knowledge production will be controlled by fewer players compared to the present, and this will influence students’ destination choices when it comes to international mobility.

Increasingly, scientific endeavours (including ‘big science’ projects) will be driven more by international cross-industry collaboration. The implication is that this probable concentration of research will influence prospective doctoral students’ destination choices and the research capacity for many institutions.

The global footprint of institutions and systems is likely to become greater in scope and complexity in relation to strategic partnerships (for example, the Monash–Warwick Alliance; INSEAD’s multiple partnerships with Wharton, Tsinghua, Columbia and MIT).

The MOOC-isation of higher education will have settled, in that the disruption it caused in the education-services industry will have been embraced and alliances of partners across several industries will have been established. In the long term, MOOCs will enhance the quality of the educational experience and will be seen as an additional learning resource.

Accreditation and recognition of qualifications will be standardised and probably homogenised among those countries with trade-in-services agreements. This move is likely to boost international student mobility. Invariably, the pricing of a programme as well as the institution’s branding and reputation will continue to influence students’ final destination decisions.

Private provision and personal contributions to education will become prevalent globally. Boundaries between public and private providers will become more blurred given government cuts and increased private contribution. The gap between large, elite, for-profit, quasi-public universities and the rest will be considerably wider. This may trigger mergers and is likely to influence where international students choose to study.

Doom or boom?

There are many who argue that the world of higher education is in flux. The number of students who enrol in higher education, including those who study abroad, will continue to increase in years to come, unless there is a major conflict or financial meltdown that disrupts people’s ability to move across borders.

Depending on global dynamics, the projected rate of growth to the year 2040 in the number of internationally mobile students enrolled in higher education could be anywhere from 9.1 million (low growth) to 12.3 million (medium growth) to 15.7 million (high growth).

For many, a university education abroad will continue to be a popular path for settling permanently in the host country. These countries may reap significant benefits from this skilled immigrant population, particularly when they do not have to invest in primary or secondary education for this cohort.

Shifts in student mobility

After analysing international trade data and the global flow of international students for some years, there has been a geographical shift in the pattern of student mobility.

According to UNESCO’s data in 2000, 25% of the internationally mobile students in tertiary education throughout the world came from East Asia and the Pacific; the proportion increased to 33% by 2012. Fast forward to 2040, and the proportion of internationally mobile students from this region could be between 43% and 47% of total outbound mobility.

By 2040, the newly emerging countries that could bolster growth into the second half of the 21st century will be establishing protocols to exert greater influence and drive over the world’s agenda. Whether these are in South and West Asia, Central Asia or Central Europe, a new order of internationalism in education may be unfolding in 50 years’ time. Countries such as Egypt, Iran, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Cuba, Colombia and Chile may project a different rhythm.

China and India currently have an unmet tertiary-education demand of about 30 million young people each, enough to keep the international education industry alive for some years. Once that capacity is met, somewhere around 2025, international student mobility may reach a game-changing moment (assuming all other factors in this complex equation basically remain as they are). For the top destination countries, replacing a market like China, Brazil or any other 'big’ sending country would be a challenge.

More than two generations of students from East Asia and the Pacific have pursued studies abroad. One may assume that there are some entrenched expectations that those from Asian countries will wish to pursue higher education abroad; for others, the education on offer domestically may suffice, as it appears to for the majority of students in Australia, the US or the UK, who seem content with only a brief overseas interlude.

Increasingly, there are a greater number of internationally mobile students from South and West Asia – 7% in 2000 compared to 10% in 2012 – and these could rise to 14% or 15% by 2040. Central and Eastern Europe are poised to follow this trend, while Latin America’s outbound mobility will probably lag behind that of the Arab States as well as Sub-Saharan Africa.

Major shifts occurring globally will have profound implications for the way higher education is planned, funded, delivered and quality-assured across the globe. It is paramount that those involved in international education stay abreast of future developments and become more proactive in adjusting their internationalisation strategies as circumstances require.

The loss of a market like China, India or Brazil by 2040 will not be replaced by a single market, but rather several. Therefore, over the long term, institutional recruitment strategies need to be cognisant of past and current trends, and also be equipped with contingency plans to deal with unexpected events or developments (such as the 1997 Asian financial crisis that had a negative impact on institutions in countries hosting international students from Asia).

For institutions and governments, the key message is that having effective and well articulated strategic partnerships and established collaboration agreements across all areas, in addition to addressing national priorities and agreed-upon policy objectives, will be essential.

The cross-border mobility of students, academics, skills and ideas will depend on the way institutions, governments and other stakeholders define and develop these partnerships and agreements. These efforts will also influence institutions’ global standing.

Angel Calderon is principal advisor in the planning and research consultancy at RMIT University, Australia. This is an edited version of his essay, "Exploring the future global flows of knowledge and mobility: Implications for international education", published by the European Association for International Education, or EAIE, as a preamble to its annual conference in Glasgow, from 15-18 September. Note: The projections that accompany this essay are estimates prepared by the author.