The shape of global higher education – New report

How do different countries view international higher education? The Shape of Global Higher Education: International comparisons with Europe, a new report from the British Council launched at Going Global 2019, compares national support for international engagement in higher education across 20 countries in Europe and the Americas.

The three pillars of international higher education – international student mobility, international research collaboration and transnational education – are interconnected and create synergies and complementary benefits for the parties involved.

The study highlights the importance of national policy support for international engagement.

Across the countries studied, international student mobility attracted most support, which was measured by the ease of obtaining student visas, post-study work opportunities and scholarships. The stronger the support for international students, the greater the inbound student mobility flows.

The research also established a strong positive relationship between inbound international student mobility flows and the proportion of internationally produced research output (as a proportion of the total research output from the country).

Globally, international students tend to be concentrated at the research level of study. One explanation for this relationship is the networks and research links international PhD students bring to their host country. Conversely, respective research graduates maintain relationships with their host institution in their subsequent research career.

Many of the countries with mature higher education systems have talent-focused policies which aim to attract global researchers and students.

Impact on research

There is also a strong positive relationship between inbound student mobility and quality of research – an established research culture relies on competition for the best students. This echoes the findings from previous bibliometric research which has shown that the more international the research is the higher its impact will be.

The Shape of Global Higher Education shows that countries with a supportive policy framework for research produce high impact research in terms of field-weighted citation impact, which exceeds the global average. This means that the research produced in these countries generates citations above the global average for citations.

Furthermore, time series data on research outputs across the 20 countries shows that the most significant increases in research output were in research produced through international cooperation. In all instances, this was at the expense of nationally produced research and single authorship.

Strong international HE policies counter nationalist trends

The study suggests that, in comparison with countries in the Americas, European countries have stronger national policy frameworks which support international higher education. This is particularly evident with regard to quality assurance, degree recognition and openness and mobility.

It is clear that European countries benefit immensely from the existence of the European Higher Education Area and the various European Union funding schemes aimed at promoting mobility and research collaboration.

Also, over the past three years, European countries have improved their national policies and developed internationalisation strategies at a national level. This suggests that national policies for higher education in European countries are moving against the growing trend, evident across Europe and in other parts of the world, of nationalism and immigration control.

Beyond national policies for international higher education, at the institutional level, it is clear that universities in Europe and the Americas are going against the trend of nationalism. This is partly explained by the natural tendency of academic institutions and academics to collaborate and interact internationally.

However, the key driver of this development is that universities, even in non-Western countries, assume a global approach towards reaching students, recruiting academics and establishing research collaboration. This is exemplified by the increase in international research collaboration and the emergence of new countries as destinations for international students.

The role of transnational education

Up to now, donor countries’ aid programmes have focused mainly on supporting capacity development with regard to research and much less on teaching. A more balanced approach which supports both teaching and research capacity could produce valuable improvements in key areas like equitable access to quality higher education.

Thus, we identify transnational education as a priority area for international education aid for both sending and receiving countries.

With advancements in technology and the wider adoption of digital technology by the general population, tech-based transnational education could be used to address several UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially those related to widening access (SDG 4), reducing inequality (SDG 10) and improving gender equality (SDG 5).

The importance of multilateral partnerships for international higher education will continue to grow. National governments are likely to be supportive of such programmes because of their potential to contribute to capacity building and internationalisation of home institutions.

As such, national funding will most probably prioritise programmes aiming at institutional development and which are less focused on individual staff. These developments will contribute to the emergence of a more inclusive and diverse higher education.

Janet Ilieva, Vangelis Tsiligiris and Pat Killingley are co-authors of the British Council’s report Shape of Global Higher Education: International comparisons with Europe, which is available here. Janet Ilieva is the founder and director of Education Insight. Vangelis Tsiligiris is principal lecturer at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom, and Pat Killingley is a higher education consultant.