South catching up with North as student destination

While international student mobility continues to flow North, emerging countries in the global South are fast becoming major players, says Professor Hans de Wit, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States. It will not be long before China bypasses top student destination nations like Australia and the United Kingdom.

De Wit was outlining key trends in global higher education, at the first international symposium of the Higher Education Forum for Africa, Asia and Latin America – HEFAALA – held in Durban, South Africa, from 19-20 August under the theme “Continental realities, international imperatives”.

He identified eight major trends: massification; privatisation; diversification; internationalisation; the academic profession; academic freedom; reputation, rankings and excellence; and access and equity.


Internationalisation, said De Wit, was of increased importance in the global North and South.

While it was still mobility-driven, cross-border delivery – including of programmes, projects and institutions – had become more important.

“Already one-third of international students in the United Kingdom and Australia are not studying in those countries but on branch campuses and through transnational education and other means,” said De Wit. Online and distance courses are also playing an important role.

There are now close to five million students studying abroad, and student mobility is still strongly South to North. However, emerging economies are fast becoming an alternative in the fierce global competition for students and scholars.

Some international recruitment drives in the South are government-backed. For instance, China – which is the world’s top international student sending country – has targeted attracting 500,000 international students by 2020 and is destined to become the world’s top student destination after the United States. China is a major recipient of students from Africa.

“So there is increasing global competition for international students taking place, with not the classical divide between those who are sending and those who are receiving, and between emerging and developed countries. It has become really a much more global competition.”

“There is also increasing competition for academics. There is a shortage of high quality talent and so we recruit many more scholars from around the world and compete for them with all kinds of interesting offers, not only salaries but also facilities,” De Wit continued.

“And we see movements taking place that have never happened before. We see scholars from Europe going the Middle East because they get offered much better conditions. In the past academics would go to the US, now they go to China and other places because there are many more opportunities than in their own countries.”

There was also growing demand and recognition for ‘internationalisation at home’, but it still lacked a strategic approach. The reality was that only a very small percentage of scholars and students had the opportunity or even the desire to go abroad:

“We have to internationalise the curriculum, the competencies, the learning outcomes to be able to equip students for the knowledge society we live in," De Wit argued.

While changing North-South flows of student and academic mobility is a key trend in global higher education, De Wit said, North-South partnerships remained strongly unequal.


Massification continued to be a key global trend, said De Wit, with student demand high in emerging and developing countries and supply challenges still a concern, in particular in public higher education. The inability of public systems to meet student demand explains why private higher education in the global South is stepping in to compensate.

In the North, for demographic reasons, supply of tertiary places is higher than demand and institutions are trying to compensate for not having enough local students. “International students and scholars need to fill the demand there, and they are coming from the South.”

“This is clear in the United States, where many small private higher education institutions, and also increasingly, large public universities are coming under pressure to fill places – it impacts on their survival,” De Wit pointed out.

There is a “very strong and aggressive approach to recruiting students, especially from Asia but also from Africa and the Middle East”. Many institutions are using commercial operations for recruitment.

This is resulting in brain drain issues, he continued. “So massification is a challenge not only in emerging countries, but opposite in the developed world.”


In the South, privatisation takes the form of a growing number of private providers, both for-profit – including cross-border delivery by providers in the North – and not-for-profit, for instance faith-based institutions.

Both in the North and South, public funding for higher education is decreasing and this is being compensated by private provision and private funding, especially in the form of tuition fees.

In the North, said De Wit, for-profit higher education is not sustainable, but the industry around it – “outsourcing as a consequence of lack of public funding” – is rapidly expanding. For-profit multinationals have shifted their focus to the global South.

Private funding, in particular tuition fee and student loan systems, have encountered growing resistance from tuition-free higher education movements in both the North and South.


Over time, diverse higher education systems have been proven highly effective, for instance those in the United States, Germany and the Netherlands.

The importance of diversification has only recently been recognised in the South. Teaching and professional higher education has been left mainly to private sector institutions, which have focused on a limited number of professions and are frequently low quality.

“We need much more diversity to really make higher education work, with different types of universities,” said De Wit.

His Center for International Higher Education is conducting a study on the diversification of higher education systems across world, to better understand how diversification works and what lessons can be learned from functioning and non-functioning higher education systems.

“Germany and the Netherlands have always had very diverse systems. In rankings we only see research universities, but they are based on a very strong foundation of teaching universities. In the Netherlands 70% of institutions are not research universities, and that has always been the strength of the system.”

The academic profession

The academic profession faces challenges everywhere, De Wit told the symposium, with increasing dependence on non-tenured staff and less qualified academics.

In the South, most academics still lack doctoral qualifications and are mainly focused on teaching, are poorly paid and respected and are often forced to take additional jobs – including a combination of public and private teaching outside of their university.

Academic freedom

Academic freedom is an important basis for quality higher education, teaching and research, said De Wit. “But academic freedom in many countries is under pressure, in particular in emerging and developing countries.

“This will hinder the development of quality higher education in the global South.”

Reputation and rankings

National, regional and global university rankings are driving the agendas of institutional leaders and national governments more than ever, De Wit argued.

“Many governments, in particular in the North but increasingly also in the South, create excellence programmes and investment schemes to become more globally competitive, have world-class universities and move higher in the rankings.”

Little is yet known about the impacts of such schemes, “but in particular in developing countries, there is a risk that this will be at the expense of basic quality.

“Rankings are here to stay, but governments and institutional leaders should not let themselves be guided by indicators defined by those who make those rankings – rather, by investing in a diverse and broad higher education system.”

Access and equity

“There are as many similarities as differences between higher education in the global North and South,” De Wit continued.

“One of the main challenges for higher education is to create a balanced system of access and equity.” Everywhere, equity is a serious challenge and the divide between those families that can or cannot afford and have access to quality higher education is growing.

“Tuition-free higher education as an isolated policy is not only an illusion but has also proven not to guarantee equity,” he said. “It is not a sustainable solution to access and equity, and in countries such as Scotland, Chile and in Scandinavian nations, it has been shown that tuition-free higher education benefits wealthy families the most.”


Like the world around it, higher education is in turmoil. “We cannot isolate what is happening in higher education from what is happening around us,” said De Wit.

“We see populism emerging, and all kinds of tensions in the political sense.” These include religious tensions, growing inequality in society, increasingly inward-looking societies, political and economic challenges, and corruption and fraud.

“All those issues are affecting higher education, and we cannot ignore the fact that there is also increasing corruption, fraud and lack of ethics in higher education.”

A major challenge for higher education is to balance access and equity, which is a growing problem in both the global North and South, De Wit concluded. On the positive side, there are signals of improved quality in higher education in emerging and developing countries.