Higher education report charts rise of the Global South

The inexorable shift of higher education’s centre of gravity from the Global North to the Global South is dramatically illustrated by research described in a definitive world report being launched this month by Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA). “The Global South is changing higher education,” says HESA President Alex Usher.

The research reveals that global higher education has grown enormously since 2006, but there are few trends that are truly global, with distinctions between and within regions. The key change has been in the ‘gravitational pulls’.

While the number of higher education institutions barely changed in the Global North, staying at around 20,000 from 2006 to 2018, in the Global South the number nearly doubled from a little over 40,000 to nearly 70,000, to reach a global institutional total of 90,000.

“Most of that is India,” which is a big higher education story, Usher told University World News. Its institutional and student numbers have been growing far faster than anywhere else.

This article is part of a series on HE Access and Financing published by University World News in partnership with Higher Education Strategy Associates. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

World student numbers have now passed 200 million. But the number of students in the Global North peaked in 2011 and has been going down since, to around 58.3 million in 2018. Meanwhile, the number of students in the Global South has almost doubled, from some 78 million in 2006 to 150 million in 2018.

The report, World Higher Education: Institutions, students and funding, flows from a major research project and is an ambitious attempt to provide consistent transnational data by regrouping existing data into comparable types. The result is a new global database that HESA believes is broader and more detailed than any previously produced, and an almanac to be produced annually with quarterly reports analysing the data.

A second major finding is that there have been increases in funding across the world over most of the period covered by the research – from 2005-06, when internet-based records begin in many countries, to 2018.

But therein lurks another difference: when Global North governments hike funding, it is for a stable body of students and added money goes towards quality, equity and research. In the Global South, the money mostly goes to increased capacity and access.

“So the number of dollars per student is going up in the North, but going down in the South,” says Usher. “This means that the quality gap between the two is growing.”

The rationale, the research and the report

The report launch on 31 March will be accompanied by a webinar, hosted by University World News and HESA, titled “How Higher Education Enrolment is Changing Worldwide: The triumphs, the challenges and the growing funding gap between regions”.

The webinar will be moderated by University World News Editor in Chief Brendan O’Malley and the speakers include Usher along with Simon Marginson, professor of higher education at the University of Oxford, and Francisco Marmolejo, a renowned higher education expert and higher education president at the Qatar Foundation.

Usher says the aim of the exercise is to produce consistent transnational information about an important global sector that is extremely difficult to quantify. Countries organise their higher education systems very differently – in terms of types of providers, credentials and methods of financing – “which makes the alignment and interpretation of data difficult”.

“This work starts with higher education providers, the basis on which all educational data is collected, and regroups them into comparable types. It counts these providers, it counts their students, and it examines the sources of funding for both. The result is a new database, far broader and far more detailed than any ever previously produced,” says the World Higher Education report.

At minimum, Usher says, the report marries the depth of the OECD’s annual Education at a Glance, which covers a more limited range of countries, with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics’ educational database, which is global in reach but less detailed. “Much of the information in this work has never before been gathered on a wide transnational basis.

“For the first iteration, we wanted to put out as complete a version of the data set as we could in a report, just so people could start to get a more detailed picture of global patterns of higher education.”

The work is based on two key insights. The first is that it is not necessary to examine statistics from all the world’s 200 or so territories in order to understand what is happening in higher education globally.

The report points out that about half of the world’s students are in China, India, the United States, the Russian Federation and Brazil, and the top 40 or so countries have over 85% of global enrolments.

HESA examines trends in 56 countries, which it believes account for over 90% of total global enrolments and over 95% of global scientific output. (See the list of countries below.) There is data on each of the 56 countries in a series of national appendices.

The second key insight is that most countries produce a great deal more data on higher education than they report to international institutions. While not easy, “with persistence it is possible to present largely complete global summaries on a much wider variety of issues, as well as provide much more nuanced comparisons of countries”, says the report.

HESA started by identifying every system with more than 500,000 students – except for Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where data was insufficient – and then added smaller systems that were interesting or to balance numbers, such as in Sub-Saharan Africa.

There are categories of higher education institutions – comprehensive universities, specialised universities, university colleges, hybrids (vocationally oriented institutions) and short-cycle institutions, such as US community colleges. Two other categories are semi-higher education institutions and secondary schools that provide some higher education among their offerings.

Aggregate trends in higher education

World student numbers have now passed 200 million, and they study in some 90,000 institutions, according to HESA.

Higher education growth has been extraordinary, but also highly uneven: “In some countries, enrolments are growing explosively, while in a significant number of countries in the Global North, enrolments have actually declined,” says the report. And overall, growth has slowed.

The number of institutions worldwide has increased by 51% since 2006. This was almost entirely due to a 78% increase in the number of providers in the Global South.

Total student enrolment across the 56 countries was 208.6 million in 2018, a rise of 52% since 2006. Again, growth has been in the Global South, where student numbers grew by 91%, from 78.6 million to 150.2 million. “In the Global North, total enrolment peaked in 2011 and has since fallen by about 7% to 58.3 million, or slightly below where it was in 2006.” Even in the Global South, growth has latterly declined.

“As a result of these trends, the Global South has gone from accounting for little over half of world enrolments in 2006, to approaching three-quarters in 2018. In other words, global higher education is no longer dominated by wealthy countries, and the centre of gravity of global academia has decisively shifted towards Asia,” according to the report.

Usher says it is important to understand how many countries are entering an era of mass higher education. In many of them, a corner will be turned at some point, with people increasingly questioning the kind of knowledge, graduates and research that universities produce.

“The longer-term implication of this is that we’re going to have a much more multipolar scientific world.” Higher education has already seen the rise of China.

During the research period, the world gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education rose from 28% to 42%, with the fastest growth seen from 2010 to 2014 – again driven by the Global South, where GER nearly doubled from just under 20% to around 36%.

In the Global North, GER was rising until 2011. Subsequently, it fell for several years – “likely for the first-time since World War II” – before starting to rise again and reaching 79% in 2018, the report says.

Some trends by types of providers

The average size of institutions globally has remained quite steady since 2006 at around 2,300 students. Universities in the North tend be larger than in the South, but since 2011 there has been modest convergence as the average size of institutions in the Global North declined to 2,830 while in Global South institutions increased average enrolments to 2,219.

Total student enrolments fell from 2006 to 2018 in 11 countries, all of which, except Thailand, were in the Global North. “A handful of countries – Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran and Sweden – actually increased their GERs even as total enrolments fell, meaning that participation increases partly mitigated the effects of demographic change,” the report says.

“Meanwhile, enrolments fell in South Korea, Thailand, the United States and New Zealand even as their populations aged 20-24 grew, meaning that declines resulted entirely from reductions in the GER.”

HESA found that most students globally (105 million) are in comprehensive universities, followed by short-cycle institutions and then university colleges (32.1 million), which have been the fastest growing provider type.

“Comprehensive universities and short-cycle higher education institutions are especially predominant in the Global North, reflecting largely the model of the US, whereas in the Global South the structures of Indian and Chinese higher education dictate that significant shares of students are in university colleges and specialised universities,” says the report.

Of the around 90,000 institutions in the 56 countries, the largest group is university colleges, which accounted for 47% of all institutions in 2018. The great majority are in India. There were 16,388 short-cycle institutions, 13,027 specialised universities, 9,726 comprehensive universities and 7,666 hybrids.

Public and private higher education

Usher told University World News that HESA was proud of its research into private higher education, which will help to fill a considerable information gap.

“Whereas public providers are generally larger and more stable, private providers can offer some flexibility as they can open and close, or increase and decrease enrolments, with greater ease. This flexibility is arguably more valuable in the Global South, where higher education systems are still developing and can change dramatically in size from year to year.”

There are many more private than public institutions and the gap is growing. In the Global South in 2018 there were 48,370 private providers, up 134% since 2006, against 19,406 public institutions – an increase of just 12%. There has been slight growth in providers in the Global North, reaching 10,826 private and 9,761 public institutions in 2018.

HESA found that public higher education accounted for 70% of global enrolments in 2018 – 146.3 million students – though its share has been declining. “This slow shift is entirely due to the rising importance of private provision in the Global South,” the report says. There were 62.1 million students attending private providers in 2018 globally.

In 2018 there were 103.3 million students at public providers in the Global South, while just 46.9 million studied at private providers. In the Global North, 43 million students attended public providers and 15.1 million private providers.

Public higher education institutions are far larger on average than private institutions. In the Global North, enrolments at public universities averaged 4,303 in 2018, while enrolments at private institutions were just 1,371 students. In the Global South, average enrolment in public institutions was 5,264 students against a low 954 average in private providers in 2018.

Public spending on higher education

Public spending on higher education rose significantly from 2006 to 2018, to reach nearly US$1 trillion, says HESA. Most of the growth occurred in the Global South, and most happened before 2013. Yet, spending per student has grown more in the Global North.

“The data confirm that despite remarkable advances in the Global South in recent years, the higher education resource advantages of the Global North are very much intact,” says the report.

Globally, total public higher education spending increased in real US dollar purchasing power parity (PPP) in every year covered by the study.

The total reached US$992.4 billion in 2018, up from US$615.5 billion in 2006 – an average growth rate of 4%. Most growth happened up to 2010, however, at an average rate of 6.8% per year. “Since 2010, growth has averaged only 2.7% per year,” says the report.

The Global North accounts for most public spending on higher education but “its share has fallen dramatically, from 69% in 2006 to just 56% in 2018”, says the report. “Average annual growth in the intervening years was three times higher in the Global South (7.1%) than in the North (2.4%). Still, both super-regions have experienced growth slowdowns in recent years.”

Looking at public funding per student alters the picture. In the Global North, total public spending per student was around US$9,500 in 2018, compared to just under US$3,000 in the Global South. Moreover, public spending per student grew faster in the North than the South.

“Globally, total public spending per student is actually down since 2010, largely due to the rising share of students in the Global South.”

Lower-income countries have been emphasising economies of scale to raise access to higher education, the report says. In the Global North massification has been achieved, and changes in spending over time are driven more by inflationary pressures and “steps to enhance system performance at the margin”.

HESA also explored direct funding to public institutions by institution type. At the broadest level, says Usher, the key take-away “is that the growth in public expenditures is not quite mirrored at the institutional level, and that patterns of growth differ significantly from one type of institution to another”.

The report says that in 2013, government transfers to public universities in the Global South surpassed transfers to public universities in the Global North for the first time.

Global funding to public universities equalled US$654.3 billion in 2018, up 48% since 2006, with US$341 billion being spent in the Global South and US$313.3 billion in the Global North. “The Global South accounted for 81.5% of growth over this period.”

Government transfers to public short-cycle providers amounted to US$100.1 billion in 2018, and transfers to public hybrids amounted to US$27.6 billion.

The year 2010 was a turning point in public funding to public universities worldwide – in the Global North, government funding peaked and began to fall back, while in the Global South average annual growth plummeted from 12% in 2006 to 2% in 2018.

Among many other things, the research has enabled HESA to create an interesting basic database on private higher education funding, says Usher. “There has been a huge gap in our ability to look at world expenditures on higher education.”

Also interesting is the research into tuition fees and student financial aid. It surprised Usher to find that student financial aid is largely going down around the world. There are countries where aid is going up generally. “But the loan systems are actually shrinking around the world – that is really different from 10 to 20 years ago.”

Regional classifications of countries

Global North

CANZAUS: Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

Advanced Asia: Hong Kong, Israel, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

Western Europe: Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Former East Bloc: Kazakhstan, Poland, Romania, Russia and Ukraine.
(Total: 25)

Global South

Latin America: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru.

East Asia: China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

MENA: Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

South Asia: Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania.
(Total: 31)