Looking forward to 2016

2015 was an intense year for higher education. What were some of the key issues that dominated the higher education agenda? How much are they related to other global developments? And will they continue to drive the agenda in 2016?

The following developments, in my view, have been rather dominant over the past twelve months:
  • • A broad call for lower tuition fees or for tuition-free higher education;
  • • The increasing number of all kinds of rankings;
  • • The role given to higher education in the new Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, or rather the lack of one;
  • • The increase of study abroad credits and degrees;
  • • And as a supplement to this, the call for other forms of internationalisation, in particular internationalisation of the curriculum, employability and global citizenship;
  • • And the impact of global instability, terrorism and the refugee crisis on higher education.
Tuition-free higher education

The call for lower tuition fees, or even tuition-free higher education, is not new. It started years ago in different contexts, such as Austria and all German Länder, which reintroduced tuition-free higher education; Scotland, which holds on to its tuition-free policy, unlike the rest of the United Kingdom; and the massive protests in favour of tuition-free higher education in Chile and related promises by the new government.

But this past year that movement has evolved rapidly with, for instance, student protests in London; a call from President Barack Obama for tuition-free community college education in the US; massive protests by students in South Africa against plans to increase tuition fees; and the recent passing of a new law in Chile on tuition-free higher education.

As is often the case with this kind of movement, it is not always clear what exactly the demands are, what they seek to accomplish, how to interpret them and how to assess the impact of such demands and their unintended consequences.

There is no such thing as 'free higher education' (which is sometimes confused with 'tuition-free higher education'). It is undoubtedly easier to maintain a policy of tuition-free higher education than to reintroduce it. And it is more common to increase tuition fees than to decrease them.

Isolating tuition policy from the general funding mechanisms of education and from the system of student grants and loans is dangerous. Experiences in several countries, for instance, in Brazil over the years, but also recently in Scotland, have shown that tuition-free public higher education can actually increase inequality of access instead of broadening access as intended.

This is particularly the case where there is a strong division between tuition-free public higher education based on selective access and tuition-based private higher education, such as in Brazil. For this reason, a demand for 'tuition-free higher education' does not make much sense. In such cases, there needs to be a broader policy to increase the affordability of higher education for medium and lower income groups.

The debate on tuition-free higher education has not come to an end, but is certain to continue in 2016 and longer.

What is still to be ranked in higher education?

Rankings continue to dominate higher education. It seems that not a week passes without some kind of new ranking appearing in the media. The rankings are either system-, institution-, subject- or theme-based, and global, regional or national.

A lot of them can be categorised as trivial, for instance, there is one about the most student-friendly cities. As in previous years, Paris was selected as number one, which, ironically, was announced just after the terrorist attacks in November in which international students were among those killed.

One can only wonder what new rankings will appear in 2016.

There is more discussion than ever about their indicators, methodology and reliability, but their impact is increasing, and it is unlikely this will change in 2016. The rankings are a manifestation of the increased competitiveness in higher education, where regions, nations, cities and institutions compete for the best research centres, scholars and students and for more funding and citations.

Higher education and Sustainable Development Goals

Among all this competition, the social role of higher education seems to get lost: the contribution of higher education to preparing graduates and to delivering research which aims to improve the quality of the society we live in. In that context, several scholars have pointed to the lack of reference to higher education in the new Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, as defined by the United Nations.

Others point out that all the goals can only be realised with a strong contribution from higher education and for that reason they claim that it is important to put the SDGs at the forefront of the higher education agenda for the future. The SDGs and the role of higher education will be debated more in 2016.

Study abroad numbers continue to rise

The number of students studying abroad, both for credits and for degrees, increased again substantially in 2015. We will soon reach five million and there are predictions that in 2025 that number will go up to at least eight million. Although these figures are impressive, this growth is still equal to the general 2% increase in student numbers around the world.

As for degree mobility, the dominant sending countries are still the same: China, India and South Korea, although new senders have appeared on the horizon, such as Nigeria. The main recipient countries are also still the same: the US, the UK, Germany, Australia and France, but their market share is under threat due to increasing competition from other countries, including China.

Most degree-seeking students are funding their study abroad through private sources. National scholarship schemes also play an important role, but in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Brazil it became clear in 2015 that funding schemes are unstable due to political (Saudi Arabia) and economic (Brazil) circumstances. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, correctly warns that a further growth in student mobility is not guaranteed.

The curve of credit mobility, which had remained flat for several years, is on the rise again, as more students in the US and in Europe are studying abroad as part of their home degree, a trend that is still rather small elsewhere.

At the same time, the average length of the study abroad period has shortened further in 2015. According to the Open Doors report by the Institute of International Education, as many as two-thirds of US students go for a period shorter than eight weeks.

Internationalisation for all

The increase of study abroad opportunities is still being driven by the long-term or short-term political and economic purposes of governments and institutions of higher education.

In itself there is nothing wrong with the call for more study abroad, both for credits and degrees. But what has become clear is that the impact of these forms of mobility will remain minor: in the first place, because only a minority of students will benefit from these types of mobility and, in the second place, because their integration and interaction with local students stays minimal despite institutions’ best efforts.

It is for that reason that there was an even greater call in 2015 than before to shift the focus of internationalisation towards a policy that embraces all students and staff.

This is expressed clearly in the updated definition of internationalisation in the 2015 study Internationalisation of Higher Education, commissioned by the European Parliament, as “the intentional process of integrating an international, intercultural or global dimension into the purpose, functions and delivery of post-secondary education, in order to enhance the quality of education and research for all students and staff, and to make a meaningful contribution to society”.

This definition, as I stated in a University World News article, reflects the increased awareness that internationalisation has to become more inclusive and less elitist by not focusing predominantly on mobility, but more on the curriculum and learning outcomes.

The response of higher education to the refugee crisis

Another development, which has manifested itself in 2015 in higher education and will continue to do so in 2016, is the impact of global political instability, terrorism and the related refugee crisis.

As Philip Altbach and I discussed in University World News, the initial response of higher education to these developments was rather minor and slow, but over the past months many initiatives have emerged in response to the massive inflow of refugees from conflict-stricken regions around the world, in particular the Middle East.

Higher education can and should play an important role in providing alternative solutions to terrorism on the one hand and isolationist policies on the other hand. The many initiatives taken around the world to respond to global tensions, terrorism and the massive refugee crisis are positive and important gestures.

Widening access to higher education is the best way to respond to the refugee crisis and the best answer to the current global instability, for the refugees but also for local students and staff who will find themselves in a more diverse learning environment.

May 2016 provide an open higher education climate that makes that possible.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, US. Email:


Hans de Wit writes, "In that context, several scholars have pointed to the lack of reference to higher education in the new Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, as defined by the United Nations."

I disagree. In fact, tertiary education is included explicitly for the first time within SDG 4 (education) target 4.3. By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.

The UN/DESA put out a paper that shows linkages between the different goals, and higher education is included with a relevant role to play in meeting some of the other 16 goals.

Taya Louise on the University World News Facebook page