What do the next 10 years hold for global higher education?

In 2006, an international group of Fulbright New Century Scholars came together to discuss the challenges facing higher education – from massification of higher education and the transformation of higher education from a public good to a private good to the knowledge economy and the impact of new technologies.

Fifteen years on, those challenges are still with us and we are also facing the fallout from COVID-19. It is an opportune moment to look at them again.

Massification has advanced on a larger scale, which is especially visible in very large countries such as China and India. In the countries where mass systems of higher education were already established by the end of the 20th century, massification driven by the social aspirations of the population has now reached the 50% mark, the level of high participation.

This has shaped the organisation and governance of national systems.

Coupled with marketisation, the growth of higher education systems has led to increasing stratification and differentiation.

This affects entire systems: in the form of institutional stratification from low prestige colleges to top elite institutions, and from universities of applied sciences to research universities, which in turn means stratification of the academic profession, the student body, graduate degrees and the value placed on research.

Stratification in the academic profession goes further, within institutions, especially top ones: between permanent and contingent faculty, or faculty on short-term contracts, and among disciplines and departments.

The knowledge economy and the larger incorporation of information technologies into daily life have also advanced over recent years. The tension between ongoing massification and the importance of higher education for the knowledge economy has resulted in more marketisation and stratification in higher education.

This combination of marketisation and stratification has increasingly led to the transformation of higher education from a public to a private good, as was noted 15 years ago.

Attitudes to internationalisation

An important change in recent years is the attitude towards globalisation and internationalisation.

At the beginning of the century, it was anticipated that neoliberal globalisation would increase global circulation of talent and international cooperation, and would also weaken state and national borders.

Two decades later we find that while international student mobility has become an important part of higher education, as well as international collaborative research, the role of the state has not decreased and that the attitudes of national governments and the general public towards internationalisation have become controversial.

The increasing barriers to gaining international student visas in the United States and United Kingdom are one example of these trends. The relocation of the Central European University from Budapest to Vienna is another. Now the deteriorating relationship between the US and China has put at risk international collaboration in higher education and research.

We also noted that internationalisation has become more market-, revenue- and reputation-driven and, in its rather exclusive focus on student mobility, rather elitist and exclusive.

The new and most serious challenge is the global pandemic of COVID-19. It does and will affect all dimensions of society and the economy and we are still to see its consequences for higher education in the medium and long term.

Already the inequalities in access to digital technologies and online learning are apparent, which will further affect social disparities for the generation involved, both at the national and global levels. Students are already affected by the absence of laboratory hours, other practical activities and internships.

The economic collapse certainly reduces employment prospects of higher education graduates. The decline of international student mobility, with uncertainty about the mode of instruction and the healthcare situation in receiving countries, will result in a decrease in intercultural education, and will also put at risk the funding of those higher education institutions which depend on international student fees.

The common good

On the other hand, the pandemic, like other crises, might open up new opportunities, for better or worse. It emphasises the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of our world and the importance of understanding what is beneficial for the common good of all society as well as the need to shift the focus on exclusive market- and reputation-driven internationalisation to a more inclusive focus on global learning for all.

While the public/private good dichotomy has received more academic consideration, it is probably the right time to explore the practical implications of the concept of the common good in higher education.

A number of fundamental issues in higher education are revealed by the pandemic – such as the purposes of higher education; the relationship between higher education and the world of work and the other domains of life; the role of higher education in the well-being of society; and the role of higher education in making a greener and more just world.

This is a good time to devise new and better ways to organise higher education and society.

The next decade

A new book edited by the three of us and including 14 of the 30 Fulbright New Century Scholars of 15 years ago, Higher Education in the Next Decade, looks at the academic profession, gender inequality, governance and the role of universities in society, issues of access to higher education, the public and private mix in higher education and the international dimensions of higher education.

Authors from across the globe address these issues from different thematic and geographic perspectives.

When it comes to the academic profession, the book investigates the external assessment of research productivity, the growing proportion of contingent faculty and gender inequality.

Performance measurement was among the challenges indicated 15 years ago, but at present big data and more widely established accountability systems enable larger control over faculty performance and thus behaviour.

Nelly Stromquist argues that performance measurement systems run by external companies shift academic evaluation away from the academic community. An imposed culture of competitiveness, and the resulting lack of support of permanent faculty for their colleagues on short-term contracts, divides the academic profession internally and undermines academic identity.

The increasing trend of academics to become new professionals with narrow self-interests, who are externally controlled, weakens academic values, academic agency and the pursuit of the common good, which is at the core of higher education.

Progress in the treatment of women in higher education has certainly been made over recent years, but even in the European countries gender equality is not achieved yet, as is considered by both Carol Colatrella and Kirsten Gomard’s chapter and Heather Eggins and Elisabeth Lillie’s chapter.

The section on accessibility and inequality in higher education addresses some advancement made in this area over recent years. Michael Bastedo argues that holistic admissions, as an instrument that evaluates the variety of attributes of the candidate in the context of the opportunities available to them, is an approach followed by only a few countries, namely the US and Hong Kong.

In other cases, such as the contextualised admissions in the UK, such an approach covers only academic credentials taken in the context of opportunities.

Elizabeth Balbachevsky explores the viability of vocational versus higher education routes, and the risk that developing countries, by overlooking the value of the vocational track in policies on widening participation, create more barriers for educational opportunities.

Gaële Goastellec focuses on the crucial role of citizenship for students and faculty from a historical perspective. Reitumetse Mabokela demonstrates some achievements and future challenges for ethnic and gender equity in post-apartheid South Africa.

When it comes to governance and the role of higher education in society, Patrick Clancy shows that transnational policies provided by the European Union and OECD led to policy convergence across European countries, but did not result in similar outcomes being shaped by the pace and the pattern of governance policies.

Two challenges are ahead: further differentiation of policies and the lack of working alternatives to the neoliberal governance models with their negative impact, in particular on research productivity.

The chapter by Anna Smolentseva suggests how high participation in stratified higher education might lead to a binary cultural divide in societies, by creating large higher educated groups who do not enjoy higher income or higher status. We need to rethink the purposes of higher education and the relationships between higher education and the world of work.

Sarah Guri-Rosenblit highlights further challenges of the harmonisation of national higher education systems with their increasing differentiation.

The challenges of balancing ambitions to be world class in research output, while also serving local needs by contributing to redressing the inequalities and injustices of the past are examined by Chika Trevor Sehoole and Olaide Agbaje. The authors posit the notion of universities as engaged institutions holding a transformative role in society.

Finally, we look at funding issues, including the shift from public to private funding and the increasing concentration of resources and selectivity of funding, and the challenges of internationalisation.

Pedro Teixeira provides a global overview of the funding trends, with two possible future scenarios. One is the reinforcement of stratification and social inequalities; the other is mitigation of those trends where persistent social inequity changes funding policies.

The chapter by Sunwoong Kim and Rie Mori focuses on the scale of the student indebtedness in the US resulting from the demand-side policies of widening participation and on the policy challenges needed to deal with it.

Hans de Wit and Philip Altbach argue that the increasing globalisation of the past decade, combined with the demands of the knowledge economy, have enabled a more strategic approach to internationalisation to be developed in higher education.

They note that today many of the traditional values associated with cooperation are under threat; and the focus is now shifting to one that emphasises global learning for all.

They offer a number of positive steps that can be taken to strengthen and support the ongoing importance of the internationalisation of higher education within the world order.

International collaboration

The New Century Scholars Program offered an innovative, global dimension to Senator Fulbright’s central idea of furthering mutual international understanding and offering collaborative study opportunities.

Not only have the collaborative research groups continued to publish on their original themes, they have developed new joint interests, and still, to this day, are working together globally and online, discussing new ideas, and publishing into the future.

It would be impossible to summarise all the contributions here, but we want to provide a snapshot from the wide range of research present in this book, which is volume 50 of the book series ‘Global Perspectives on Higher Education’ from the Boston College Center for International Higher Education and published by Brill.

At a time of flux, when the balance of geopolitical forces is changing, such a phenomenon as the high level of collaborative activity that can still be achieved is a positive sign of what can be done.

Higher education’s challenges will persist, and will change under such pressures as climate change, viral infections and the shifts of world power. These are matters for further discussion and research.

Social science might view this period as a time of opportunity to make an impact on emerging society. There is no doubt that the role of higher education and of research will continue to be of vital importance.

Heather Eggins is a fellow commoner at Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge, visiting professor at the University of Sussex, and a member of court at the University of Northampton, United Kingdom. E-mail: Anna Smolentseva is a senior researcher at the Institute of Education, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia, and a PhD student at the department of sociology, University of Cambridge, UK. E-mail: Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow at the Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States. E-mail: Higher Education in the Next Decade: Global Challenges, Future Prospects is edited by Heather Eggins, Anna Smolentseva and Hans de Wit and is volume 50 of the Global Perspectives on Higher Education series, published by Brill/Sense, Leiden, ISSN 2214-0859.