How do globalisation forces affect higher education systems?

Growing scepticism of internationalisation can be heard in public and political debates on trade, open borders, migration and refugees and also on higher education.

Xenophobia and discrimination against foreign students has long been reported in countries such as Australia, South Africa and Russia. But more recently in the United Kingdom (in relation to Brexit) and in the Netherlands, parties at the extremes of the political spectrum are launching critical questions in parliament on the costs and benefits of international students and worrying about reduced opportunities and access for domestic students (‘Domestic students first’).

Similar political pressure has been observed in Denmark and Germany.

Scepticism of internationalisation can also be heard inside academia and its seeds can be traced back over the past few years.

Critical voices rail against internationalisation as an elite cosmopolitan project; against the use of English as a second or foreign language for teaching and learning; against global rankings and the resulting reputation race with its annual tables of losers and winners; against the recruitment of international students for institutional income; and other forms of ‘academic capitalism’.

Global flows and shifting imbalances

When we look at the global flows of students and academics in recent years, we can see the largest flows are from Asia to the United States and the second-largest from Asia to Europe. Within Europe, flows are increasing from south to the north in the wake of the financial crisis. Smaller flows concern traditional patterns of south-north and some west-west mobility.

More recently some west-east flows are emerging, partly related to the return of the diaspora to India and China. Most recently great uncertainties occurred regarding the flows to the UK and US, while at the same time this may make China more successful in attracting talent, which it is certainly trying to do.

Flows of people are indicative of the flows of funding. Global mobility of researchers demonstrates important imbalances across countries and regions. Experts underline in general the vulnerability of countries overly dependent on immigration for their R&D capacity.

Critical questions have been raised as to whether this reduces job opportunities for US researchers and in 2015 the US Council on Foreign Relations published a report on “Balancing China”, asking whether the US should continue to help build the competitive advantage of its main competitor, China, by training so many Chinese graduate students. Under the new US presidency a change of policy directions seem to occur.

Global imbalances are also reflected in international student mobility, which has more than doubled over the past decade to over four million today and these flows have always been clearly in favour of the OECD countries. This brain gain is especially acute at the most advanced levels; 24% of PhD students are international on average across OECD countries, against an average of 9% in all levels.

The bulk of doctoral education is provided by relatively few institutions globally, notably in the US and the UK which account for more than 50% of all international doctoral students.

The competition is particularly focused on STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – since these skills are considered critical for innovation, technological progress, industrial performance and thus economic growth. The US alone accounts for nearly half of all international PhDs in these STEM fields.

International students represent more than 40% of PhD enrolment in the UK, Switzerland and the Netherlands (with again strong concentrations in STEM). Two of these countries are facing serious uncertainties with respect to academic mobility and European Union funding as a result of the 2014 referendum on immigration in Switzerland and the 2016 referendum on EU membership in the UK (Brexit).

In the Netherlands several parties were seeking a quorum for initiating this type of referendum. Hence the warning mentioned before regarding the vulnerability, which seems to apply in particular to these very successful and very open systems.

Meanwhile, the reach of the dynamic and internationally competitive funding mechanisms such as the European Research Council is increasingly global. The production of scientific knowledge is shifting to the international level; the proportion of publications involving international collaboration has nearly doubled since 1996, reaching close to 20% in 2013.

China’s growth is greatly contributing to the increase in the number of researchers worldwide. China is clearly re-balancing global inequality in higher education. However, it is doing so in a very particular, narrow way focused on STEM, engineering and computer sciences in particular.

China’s progress in humanities and social sciences is much less compelling. And research quality and impact are still lagging behind, as seen by the fact that China has a much smaller volume in terms of citations received from abroad than would be expected from its overall publication volume. This is probably why China is seeking more cooperation.

Yet the balance with the West may change with China’s One Belt, One Road (or New Silk Road) project. It is certainly time to view China as no longer just a follower in global higher education. The New Silk Road will carry more than consumer goods. As in previous historical periods, people, ideas and knowledge will travel along with mutual influence. But how and under what conditions?

Will China’s values impact the way knowledge is developed and disseminated globally, will it influence global (or Western) ethical standards for research integrity and academic freedom? Do we actually understand these Chinese values at all?

A new challenge for internationalisation is emerging: to enrich our vision and understanding of the world, to widen our focus from being predominantly or even exclusively Western, and to open it towards a new history of the world.

Globalisation, inequality and higher education

But while economic and social inequality has decreased at global level, mostly due to the growth of Asian economies, notably China, it has increased within certain countries and regions. These patterns are to quite an extent reflected in higher education and research.

UNESCO states that global imbalances are decreasing as the north-south divide in research and innovation is narrowing, with a large number of countries moving towards knowledge economies and cooperation increasing between the regions. However, public financial support for higher education is under pressure in many countries.

Moreover, the meritocratic role of higher education is waning in Anglo-American societies with neoliberal policies that became significantly more unequal in terms of income from labour and notably from capital.

The importance of (higher) education in explaining income differences in such societies is diminishing and family background and social connections may matter more, especially in societies that are already approaching the upper limit of educational participation.

The notion of a tertiary education premium is also being called into question as graduates’ average debt is rising fast in these countries, substantial proportions of graduates take non-graduate jobs, and an increasing proportion of jobs, irrespective of their status, are threatened by technological progress, robotisation and the application of artificial intelligence.

Inclusive internationalisation

Thus, while global inequalities in higher education tend to decrease, its meritocratic role is being called into question. The resulting pressure on the sector is two-faceted: enhanced competition at global level and a growing critique of local commitment and delivery.

Many universities are currently being challenged by local stakeholders regarding this (im)balance between global prestige and local commitment. Despite expansion of tertiary education opportunities, too many universities remain best at serving elites, nationally and globally.

The current anti-globalisation sentiments urge us to take even more responsibility for addressing the growing inequality between the winners and losers of globalisation. This is not accomplished by treating internationalisation and diversity as two separate themes or policy areas, as has been the case in higher education in recent decades. Internationalisation needs to be inclusive, that is, embrace diversity in all its dimensions.

Obviously, higher education cannot be blamed for all evil – as much as globalisation cannot be blamed for everything bad in higher education. The relationship is dialectic: all universities are exposed to globalisation, partly as objects, victims even, but also, especially research universities, as subjects or key agents of globalisation.

What is the interplay between the international, national and institutional forces in the shaping and establishment of national policies for higher education and how does this affect these policies and the higher education system more generally?

Such questions received particular attention in the European context, because of the establishment of supra- and inter-governmental initiatives, such as the Bologna Process and the Lisbon Strategy.

There is a complex interplay between globalisation and internationalisation and the multiple ways in which higher education institutions are involved in both. The challenge this represents for the study of higher education systems as conceptually positioned within national state boundaries has become increasingly clear.

As more scholars started to question the national-based closed conceptual model of higher education systems, they found that the nationally-bound concept of a higher education system was indeed found to be too limited as a base for research.

Open systems represent challenges with regard to issues such as accountability and the concept of a world-class system, which is expected to support a combination of world-class excellence and effective internal system-level diversity in order to cater for a range of different stakeholder interests.

But do we effectively understand how globalisation forces affect higher education systems? What steering mechanisms would allow these two seemingly conflicting aims of global excellence and national relevance within an open system to combine? How do traditional and perhaps new types of internationalisations fit in?

These are big questions. Yet, they need to be faced since there is no real alternative; higher education’s mission in both research and teaching requires a global perspective. How else can universities educate students as global citizens and contribute to solving global challenges through their research if they were to be kept within the boundaries of a (closed) national higher education system?

Professor Marijk van der Wende is the dean of graduate studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. This is an edited version of a Centre for Global Higher Education or CGHE working paper. CGHE is based at UCL Institute of Education, United Kingdom.