Global universities unprepared for sea change ahead

An overwhelming majority of the participants responding to a live poll during the webinar on the megatrends shaping the future of global higher education agreed that universities face transformative changes in the next decade – but only 12% believe higher education institutions are prepared for the sea change that lies ahead.

The polls were taken during the 60-minute webinar – for which 830 people registered to take part – which was organised by StudyPortals on 24 January. University World News was the media partner.

The webinar coincided with the publication of a new report Envisioning Pathways to 2030: Megatrends shaping the future of global higher education and international student mobility by Rahul Choudaha, executive vice-president of global engagement, research and intelligence at StudyPortals, and Edwin van Rest, CEO and co-founder of StudyPortals – the platform which provides information on 150,000 programmes from institutions in over 120 countries for students planning to study abroad.

The report spells out eight megatrends – the external forces transforming global higher education:
  • • Aging world: finding new opportunities of education and employment;

  • • Labour market shifts: increasing automation to affect global workforce;

  • • Skills mismatch: gap between what employers demand vs what education provides;

  • • Rapid urbanisation: shift towards cities in search of jobs and career advancement;

  • • Stricter immigration policies: more barriers for mobility to high-income destinations;

  • • Economic shifts: dependence on emerging markets for economic growth;

  • • Capacity imbalance: demand in emerging economies vs supply in developed economies;

  • • Budget pressures: higher education is facing decline in public funding.
The report also highlights the growing imbalance between lower- and middle-income countries, which will see demand for higher education from the traditional college-age population grow larger relative to the supply of institutions; while high-income countries will face stagnant enrolment unless they expand their pool to include the non-traditional domestic population (aged over 24) through lifelong, online, or blended learning and increasingly reach out to underserved students abroad through transnational education and international student recruitment.

Dr Rahul Choudaha moderated the webinar and introduced the other panellists: Dr David Finegold, president of Chatham University in the United States; Dr Fernando León García, president of CETYS University System, Mexico; and Dr Wendy Purcell, a professor at Harvard University in the US and former president and vice-chancellor at Plymouth University in the United Kingdom.

Universities expect transformative changes

Before getting the discussion underway, Choudaha asked the webinar participants, most of whom were from the United States and European Union, whether they thought higher education institutions would experience transformative changes in the next decade as compared to the previous decade?

Just under half (49%) strongly agreed, with a further 45% agreeing. Only 2% strongly disagreed with the statement. It was the first of a series of polls held during the webinar to gauge opinion about international higher education stakeholders.

Choudaha then asked the panellists what megatrends would make the biggest impact on the future of higher education?

Finegold highlighted immigration policies and nationalism along with automation – robotics and artificial intelligence – and added climate change to Envisioning Pathways to 2030’s list of eight megatrends.

He said: “Global warming is going to exacerbate some of the tension we are seeing – such as the refugee crisis, particularly for emerging markets in Africa and Southeast Asia… That, together with the anxiety of the traditional working and middle classes in the West because many of the traditional jobs will be replaced or changed by automation and this may further some of the nationalistic tensions we are seeing.”

Finegold also saw more need to provide students with “an entrepreneurial approach to life” whether that be innovating within firms or building their own enterprises in the “gig” economy.

Purcell said movement to cities and social mobility – with an extra billion middle-class predicted by 2030 worldwide – would have a huge impact on global higher education.

She believed lifetime education would become a key trend to tackle the skills mismatch between what employers say they want and what higher education delivers.

“In the US we see 15% of young graduates are unemployed, but 40% of them are underemployed! And yet the US economy has nearly two million graduate-level job vacancies,” Purcell pointed out.

She also introduced ‘trust’, a theme she returned to throughout the webinar, saying: “We have lost trust from so many institutions – from politics to the media – that we need to think about our universities and especially for the first-generation students. They really need to have wise counsel and trusted sources of counsel.”

From a Mexican perspective, León García said the two trends having the most impact on developing countries would be quality and participation rates – “whether through their own efforts or cross-border partnerships, transnational education or new models for capacity-building”.

He also emphasised the need to distinguish between skills and employability – which can be short-term – with longer-term needs for lifelong learning and flexibility.

Tougher competition

Choudaha then turned to the potential for enrolment growth, despite the challenges in high-income OECD countries, but warned that much of that was tied to affordability and that traditional English-speaking countries, which have attracted large numbers of international students, would face tougher competition in the future.

He described the traditional English-speaking countries for student mobility, such as the United Kingdom, United States and Australia, as the “defenders” and suggested they were not fully prepared for the challenges ahead.

“The challenges include competition from emerging programmes in Asia and Europe and the world-class university ambitions and much stronger focus on attracting talent to these regions,” Choudaha said.

Then, there were the adapters – existing institutions which want to take their programmes to a new audience through online, blended learning and transnational education.

“They are taking their programmes to the students instead of trying to bring the students to them through traditional mobility.

“There are also the innovators – programmes being redesigned and redelivered through lifelong learning – which are expanding the audience from a traditional college-going population,” said Choudaha.

Institutions not prepared for megatrends

He asked the webinar audience whether they agreed with the statement that the defender countries and their higher education institutions were adequately prepared for the transformative impact of the megatrends in the next decade?

A huge majority of respondents to the instant poll (68%) disagreed that institutions were adequately prepared, with a further 20% saying they strongly disagree with the statement. Only 1% strongly agreed that institutions were prepared for the changes ahead, with a further 11% agreeing with the statement.

So how can institutions prepare for the changes ahead? Choudaha asked the panel.

Purcell said her research shows that higher education institutions are becoming more differentiated, with universities and colleges making strategic decisions to become more distinctive in their academic mission so student choice is informed with real clarity about what that institution is offering.

She classified institutions into four types – global, community, networked and market-facing, but pointedly added: “Maybe as well as thinking of institutional archetypes we should also think about student archetypes and actually profile students according to their learning needs and help them realise their true potential.”

León García foresaw a new emphasis on universities becoming locally grounded, but also globally connected and using technology to enhance these two linkages.

Despite rising nationalism ‘mobility will go up’

“Even with the continued rise of nationalism mobility rates will go up, but there will be change in the nature of studying abroad… we will see more value-added short-term experiences enhanced by technology. While the popularity of the US and UK will remain high, China and other alternatives will advance further,” he predicted.

Finegold foresaw big changes ahead on the employment front, saying: “A lot of the jobs that people came out of university with that were seen as the most high wage and secure are already being disrupted and threatened.”

He cited lawyers and journalism as two areas already hit by automation and pointed to the huge decline in law school applicants and those applying for journalism and suggested medicine could be next.

But some occupations were more bulletproof, including those that were more the preserve of community colleges or the ‘polytechnic technician mode’, which are the hardest to automate.

“I don’t see electricians, plumbers and many of these occupations, which can earn a very good living, going away any time soon,” said Finegold.

He also warned that change happens very quickly as was happening with student mobility to the US, with the country sending out “different national messages” and seeing a decline in international applications to the benefit of countries like Canada.

Finegold predicted continued growth in China. “They have seen so much talent coming to the US for education.

“Instead of spending US$50,000 to study at a grad school in the US, China will make it free or very low cost to bring talent to China,” he said.

As to whether face-to-face teaching was going to become an unaffordable luxury for many, Purcell said universities needed to focus on both face-to-face and online and suggested: “We need to reinvent the Oxbridge tutorial but in a socially inclusive way. Human exchange is precious for wisdom sharing.”

‘Improve trust in society’

Purcell also returned to an earlier theme and said higher education must do more to “improve trust in society”.

“There should be a real focus on telling the truth and real clarity about what the student experience will be and where the support is.

“Providing access is fantastic, but we have to support those individuals properly to make sure they are realising their potential. Access without that support is not sufficient…. We need truth, trust and transparency in both education and research.”

The webinar closed with panel members giving their advice to higher education institutions for 2030.

Finegold suggested that the winners would be those best at building partnerships and they should strive to make themselves “a preferred partner” in this rapidly changing world.

León García said universities should be faithful to their mission and they should “make internationalisation integral to your institution not marginal”.

Purcell said: “Let’s adopt the mindset of seeing disruption as a source of opportunity and innovation, but staying true to our values and mission.”

To receive a recording of the video of the webinar and download the report, Envisioning Pathways to 2030: Megatrends shaping the future of global higher education and international student mobility please register here.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for Norwegian, Czech and UK universities.