Higher education – The key to greater freedom

This is a crucial time for the United Kingdom, Europe and higher education, in an extraordinary landscape in the Atlantic countries and Western Europe that no one saw coming a year ago. Matters are different in East Asia and Southeast Asia and Latin America, where education and science are rising; and in South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, which have more severe problems. But the big changes in this region affect politics, economics and cross-border flows elsewhere.

And higher education and research are directly implicated. Higher education, science, experts, mobile foreigners, mobile locals: all are on the alt-right blacklist.

Remarkably, the toxic, unresolvable debate between global mobility and national mono-culture has not only paused the evolution of Europe, it is now more potent than the goal of economic prosperity, which a year ago ruled policy in the UK and the United States. We have long struggled with the domination of higher education policy by solely economic indicators. We now have a larger problem.

Ending free movement in Europe is now a higher priority for the UK government than either economic enrichment, or attracting global talent. The UK’s two most successful global sectors are financial services, and higher education and research. Different though they are, each is likely to be collateral damage of blood and soil nationalist politics.

Suddenly, higher education and research are negatively positioned in both the UK and the US. University cities in the Midlands and the North that voted ‘Remain’ sit amid strong ‘Leave’ majorities in the smaller towns and rural areas for whom global connectedness is not working. And a rogue alt-right US administration target both US universities and climate science. It is more dangerous in the US.

It all forces us to reconsider not just higher education, but our understandings of globalisation, society and politics. Even of determination in social science.

Ongoing transformation

The change in Anglo-America-Europe intersects with a higher education sector already undergoing transformation. Three great tendencies have reshaped the sector in the last generation: massification, globalisation and marketisation.

Across the world these tendencies impact the sector in varied ways.

Marketisation has transformed the English-speaking higher education systems, Russia and much of East Europe and India. It has had less impact in Western Europe and much of Latin America, has partly reversed in Poland and has been contained in China and East Asia.

Global convergence and integration have built a world system of knowledge based on networked universities, a fundamental and decisive change, and there is a continuing secular expansion in mobility, despite increasing opposition to migration in some countries. But cross-border engagement is articulated through national settings. The impact of the global varies markedly by country, in higher education and most other spheres.

Of the three tendencies, it is massification, linked to urbanisation and a growing middle class, that is truly universal. In the last two decades, the world gross tertiary education enrolment ratio jumped from 17% to 34%. More than 50 countries enrol half of each school leaver age cohort.

Only in the US and UK are student numbers falling. Perhaps this is because in these highly stratified systems, in societies becoming more unequal, the social value of participation in bottom-tier institutions is being emptied out, while private costs are rising. But overall, worldwide, the story is continuing and rapid enrolment growth.

So here’s the new paradox of high participation in higher education. On one hand, higher education has never been more central to economic, social and cultural life, never reached more people, never been more inclusive. On the other hand, it is painted as a rootless elite conspiracy.

When UK politician and ‘Leave’ supporter Michael Gove said “people have had had enough of experts”, that resonated with many who had never entered a university. When UK Prime Minister Theresa May said “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”, we felt the hurt. As if people must choose between singular identities, national or global, and it is unnatural to be both.

Building human capacity

I don’t think we yet fully understand why higher education is now so central, and higher education and globalisation so closely intertwined. Perhaps our inherited social science tools are inadequate to the task.

Human capital theory embodies an important insight into the way that higher education builds human capacity and potential, yet only part of that is captured by measures of productivity based in the market value of graduate labour. Theories of credential signalling and positional competition also provide only part of the story. And all are essentially proxies – how higher education does it remains a black box.

The economist Amartya Sen comes closer, with his focus on capability. Studies of teaching and learning that identify the effects of immersion in complex knowledge also point the way. The key, I think, and herein lies the lasting democratic potential of the sector, is higher education’s role in fostering student agency.

Higher education changes people. It builds capacity and confidence so that graduates are less trapped by their personal circumstances. And as Sen notes, building agency has an associational dimension, as well as an individual dimension. Higher learning fosters collective social agency and global agency. The Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities has called this year for a conference on “World-Class University: A global common good, and national contribution”.

Let me give you an illustration. Recently the OECD published Perspectives on Global Development 2017: International migration in a shifting world. It contains a table comparing the cross-border mobility of people with, and without, university degrees.

Among those without university degrees, the tendency to move across borders is correlated to income. As you might expect, as income rises, people have more scope for mobility. The capacity for mobility is associated with economic advantage and it furthers those individual advantages. The wealthy benefit most from globalisation. End of story.

No, it isn’t. Among those with university degrees – and current participation rates suggest this will soon be one fifth of all people in the world – the pattern is different. First, at a given level of income, those with degrees are much more mobile than those without degrees. In other words, higher education helps to democratise mobility – though only provided you can get to higher education in the first place!

Second, for those with degrees, as income rises, once a modest threshold of income is reached, there is little change in potential mobility. My conclusion is that higher education not only helps graduates achieve greater personal agency, it actually reduces the effects of economic determination in their lives.

Education in itself brings graduates greater freedom. An effect not captured in graduate salaries and employment rates, but profoundly important. This is what I meant about rethinking our core assumptions.

Alt-right targets

This conjunction of higher education, mobility and agency freedom also helps to explain why educated persons and experts, and mobile and cosmopolitan persons, are joint targets of the alt-right.

Though economic inequality and social closure have provided fertile conditions for the backlash, the political polarisations engineered by the UK Independence Party and by Donald Trump in the US do not turn on income or class. There are poor and wealthy on both sides of the divide. Those political polarisations turn on culture and higher education is part of the cultural mix.

We gain some sense of this from the voting patterns in the June referendum on Brexit and the November American election. A word of caution. Binary voting calls up heterogeneous voting blocs. By no means all Brexit supporters were persuaded by alt-right arguments. Some were left of centre, including many in Labour Party branches.

In the US Trump drew the votes of many lifelong Republicans who support the party of Abraham Lincoln. The polarisation also partly differed between the US and UK with ethnicity (‘race’) and gender playing a larger role in the US. But the momentum of both Brexit and Trump was driven by the alt-right, inescapably, and there was convergence in the arguments, particularly on migration, national identity and the negative referencing of ‘experts’.

The best overall predictors of how people voted were (1) whether they lived in large cities, where they voted ‘Remain’ and Clinton, or small towns and rural areas, where they strongly supported ‘Leave’ and Trump; and (2) whether they had a degree. Degree holders concentrate in cities.

In the UK, just 26% of degree holders voted ‘Leave’, but 78% of people without qualifications. Young people, the most educated generation in UK history, overwhelmingly voted ‘Remain’.

In the US, Trump celebrated the ‘uneducated’ and secured a sharp swing among those who had never attended college. Clinton secured more than half the vote from only one group of white voters: college-educated women.

Identity politics

It is ironic, isn’t it? Once higher participation in higher education, and also climate science, become more central, they can be used to polarise an electorate on the basis of identity. You can’t divide an electorate this way when only 5% of people go to university.

But while mass higher education is more politically vulnerable, there is a positive side. Because higher education changes people; because graduates have a greater capacity to manage difference, change and complexity, and are more comfortable with mobility and plural cultures; the continuing spread of higher education cuts the ground from under the alt-right.

That is provided that higher education is sufficiently equitable to continue to attract first-generation students, and sufficiently attuned to the communities in which universities and colleges are nested.

In countries where market forces have let rip, we need to moderate stratification, strengthen the quality and standing of mass institutions, and focus on public goods as well as private benefits of higher education. Undue emphasis on private goods, and on selective higher education institutions inaccessible to the average family, means higher education is more readily isolated.

But if higher education institutions adopt an inclusive approach, not just in access but in mission, they can do much to reconcile the local and global and rebuild social solidarity in fractured societies.

Professor Simon Marginson is director of the Centre for Global Higher Education or CGHE, based at the UCL Institute of Education in the UK, and leads CGHE’s global higher education engagement research programme. This is an abridged version of his opening speech to the Centre for Global Higher Education’s annual conference on 1 March.