Call for universities to tackle global challenges

More than 400 British and international higher education delegates took over the first floor of the Olympia conference centre in West London for the fourth annual International Higher Education Forum on 1 March.

After a warm-up debate the night before when speakers from Egypt, Ireland, Switzerland and the United States discussed the impact for universities of a possible United Kingdom withdrawal from the European Union, the Forum proper opened with a high-powered panel discussion on where international higher education is going.

The strongest contribution came from Dr Allan E Goodman, the American president and chief executive of the Institute of International Education.

He warned of three big challenges ahead, starting with scarcity of university places.

He said the 15,000 institutions of higher education listed in the world were not enough to meet the growing demand from their own countries; from the increasing number of students wanting to study abroad; or to meet the needs of refugees and others whose higher education had been disrupted.

One in four of eligible young people in China cannot find a seat in a university in China, while in Brazil there are 60 qualified applicants for every place in a public university, he said.

His second major concern was what he described as “rising sectarianism”.

He said: “It is not just religious, but we probably have more civil sectarian conflict than at any time. And this is producing sharp rhetoric and debates in many countries, including my own, about who belongs and who should belong and who should have access.”

This, Goodman said was producing “educational nationalism”.

He said: “Not every ministry of higher education is delighted to welcome foreigners or international students.”

In contrast, 12 countries have avowed policies of doubling their numbers of international students as an exercise of foreign policy and to demonstrate the relevance, power and value of their education system over others.

Goodman’s third major worry was what was happening to refugees and other displaced people.

There are now so many in the world that if they formed a country, they would have a population of nearly 60 million, which is bigger than South Africa's and just shy of Italy's.

Taking Syria as an example, Goodman said: “When the Syrian civil war started, 25% of Syrian young men were in higher education. We think today more than 200,000 Syrians have been displaced from higher education.

“Refugee camps build tents and not universities,” he said. “For me the big challenge of our existing higher education is what are we going to do about those refugee numbers and what do we do about providing access to those who have had their education interrupted?”

Breakout sessions

The Forum then divided into breakout sessions, covering everything from universities and international innovation to how universities can buck the trend of falling numbers of Indian students in the UK.

The talking drew to a close, much as it had begun in the warm-up session the evening before, with a tub-thumping call to arms from Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, who warned of the dangers to UK and international higher education of a British exit from the European Union, particularly to research funding and collaboration.

* Several reports were released to coincide with the Forum, including The UK’s Competitive Advantage from the UK Higher Education International Unit. This claimed that Britain “is the most recommended major English-speaking higher education destination in the world by international students”.