Why global higher education must be democratised

In the broadest sense of the word, democratisation is the application of democratic principles and the process of transitioning to a system based on such principles. Thus, the principles of democracy can be applied to any structure or system, not strictly governmental or political systems. The core universal principles of democracy include freedom, responsibility and the equality and protection of universal human rights.

Individual freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin known as personal agency – the extent to which agency is allowed to develop is the degree to which self-determination is afforded to people. A human right is a birthright that every human being is entitled to by virtue of being human – the extent to which rights are protected determines the degree to which justice is afforded to people.

Thus, self-determination and justice serve as the two cornerstones of any democratic system. To secure these rights, democratic systems institute policies and rules.

Higher education serves multiple purposes

Within the context of higher education, democratisation is the process of making higher education, through a diversification of institutional types and missions, available to anyone who wishes to avail themselves of the services it has to offer. Presumably, higher education is accessed by people for different reasons – therefore, higher education serves different purposes to meet a variety of needs.

In addition, democratised higher education systems will look different from one nation to another because each system has emerged out of a unique political, economic, socio-cultural and historical context.

However, if there can be said to be one shared purpose of higher education that is common to all such national systems, it would be the common aim to produce learning.

Higher education as a global system

Globalisation is the ongoing ubiquitous process of interconnectedness and interdependence of people, institutions, societies and nations as a result of increasing worldwide integration and interaction of political, economic, social, technological and ecological systems.

For instance, the United Nations is a global quasi-political organisation and the Word Trade Organization is a global quasi-economic trade organisation and, some would argue, English is a global social language and the Internet is a global communication system. In like manner, higher education has also become a globally interconnected system in many ways.

Globalisation also serves as both an overarching framework and an explanatory concept for better understanding the world we live in and how or why certain phenomena develop. The more globalised the world becomes the more likely it is that what happens in one part of the world will have an impact on other parts of the world.

Globalisation continues to be fuelled by international politics, international trade, international travel, international communication and international higher education.

Internationalisation is the adaptive strategic response of people, institutions, societies and nations to the process of globalisation. Internationalisation is therefore the process of developing goods and services (for instance, higher education offerings) and adapting those goods and services to local contexts (for example, language and culture). Within the context of higher education, this naturally involves developing a strategic plan about how to design and implement international educational offerings.

Trends in global higher education

In the book, Democratizing Higher Education, John P Anchan and I show that the supply of higher education continues to expand rapidly in response to the growing demand for it. The increasing demand for higher education is a worldwide phenomenon and high participation rates in higher education have become the norm in most countries.

For instance, three-quarters of young adults in OECD – Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – countries will participate in higher education (academic programmes or occupational programmes) in their lifetimes and many OECD countries have now reached universal participation rates, as defined by the US academic Martin Trow.

Globalisation has been the main force fuelling the internationalisation of higher education. More than half of international students come from Asia (mainly from China, India and South Korea) and 75% of international students study in OECD countries (mainly in the USA, Canada, UK, France, Germany and Australia). Among international students, about 48% study in Europe, 21% in North America and 18% in Asia.

However, the traditional national leaders in international higher education are losing share (for example, the USA share dropped from 23% in 2000 to 16% in 2012). Oceania, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean are emerging as major destination areas for international students.

Increased demand for higher education is occurring across all demographic sectors of society. There is growing diversity in the make-up of student populations and growing diversification in the types and number of higher education institutions. There is an increasing shift towards reduced public financing and increasing pressure for higher education institutions to respond to the needs and problems of society.

Strengthening democracy

In light of the above research findings, the following core questions have emerged: How can we make higher education available to all who want to participate in it? How can higher education provide more meaningful opportunities for lifelong learning? How can higher education help prepare students to live and work in an increasingly globalised world?

Higher education systems need to create more flexible structures in order to open up lifelong learning opportunities to all segments of society. Given the increasing rate of globalisation and internationalisation, it should be clear by now that a policy of universal inclusion is needed to more fully democratise higher education around the world, and concomitantly, to strengthen democracies around the world.

Patrick Blessinger is the founder and executive director of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association and an adjunct associate professor of education at St John’s University in New York City, USA. He is co-editor with John P Anchan of Democratizing Higher Education: International comparative perspectives.