Falling student enrolment is a key trend in Global North

Following decades of growth, dropping student enrolment has become a major trend in higher education in the Global North. Demographic decline has combined with factors such as the global financial crisis and sliding gross enrolment ratios to shrink tertiary education sectors and threaten the viability of universities and colleges in several countries, says a new world report.

“The regions where enrolment declines are truly dramatic are Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where you see declines in the ballpark of 30% across a host of jurisdictions,” said Jonathan Williams, vice president at Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA), which produced the report.

Within overarching enrolment trends, there has been considerable variation. “There has been growth in some countries – such as Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands – and steep decline in others, such as Romania and Russia.”

One finding that was “definitely a surprise” was that after 2011, 15 out of 56 countries studied (see the list of Global North countries below) had student number declines of 5% or greater.

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.

The HESA research found continuing high levels of funding for higher education globally. This translates into increased quality in the Global North, Williams said, although in the past decade many universities and colleges – public but especially private – have been squeezed by flatlining enrolments and funding.

Comprehensive global research led Williams and HESA President Alex Usher to co-author the report, World Higher Education: Institutions, students and funding, which will be launched on 31 March 2022 at a webinar hosted by HESA and University World News.

The webinar is titled “How Higher Education Enrolment is Changing Worldwide: The triumphs, the challenges and the growing funding gap between regions”.

The speakers include Alex Usher, along with Simon Marginson, a higher education professor at the University of Oxford, and Francisco Marmolejo, higher education president at the Qatar Foundation. (You can register to participate here).

International students fill enrolment gaps

The HESA research found that in some countries international students have filled gaps opened up in higher education by demographic shifts. For example, Russia’s push to grow international student numbers has been driven by soft power reasons but also a need to fill seats left empty by decreasing numbers of young people.

Professor Philip G Altbach, distinguished fellow in the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States, said the impact of the Ukraine war on Russia’s efforts to internationalise higher education “will be dramatic in the medium and long run – damaging quality”.

“Russia has one of the highest access rates in the world and also a declining population, thus enrolment declines are inevitable. These declines were in part made up for by international students from the former Soviet Union. It is not clear if these students will be interested to study in Russia in the coming period,” Altbach told University World News.

Turning points

While there is a lot of information about higher education in the Global North – the focus of this article – the World Higher Education report provides comprehensive data for the Global South too. University World News will look at the Global South next week.

HESA divided the 25 researched countries of the Global North into four regions: 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; and Former Eastern Bloc: Kazakhstan, Poland, Romania, Russia and Ukraine.

Williams said the period of research – 2005-06 to 2018 – can be divided into two periods of considerable difference, the first from 2006 to 2011 and the second from 2011 to 2018. While there had been student enrolment and other growth in the first period, for instance, most of the enrolment declines in countries happened after 2011.

“So there is a quite dramatic turning point,” said Williams.

According to Philip Altbach: “It is not surprising that enrolments in the ‘Global North’ have levelled off – this is due to the fact that many of these countries have achieved close to ‘universal access’, and due to demographic trends. There have also [subsequently] been modest enrolment declines due to COVID – these seem to be at least to some extent recovering.”

Funding per student continued rising throughout the research period. One reason is the drive for quality, especially in the Global North, said Williams. “Another is efforts to make further enrolment gains, and improvements in student success, which can be expensive.” After 2011, the trajectory of ever-increasing spending on higher education tapered off.

The answer to the question, ‘What is a higher education institution?’, is shifting in the Global North “in ways that are pretty interesting”, Williams continued. Some of it reflects shifts in the distribution of enrolments between countries that have different kinds of institutions. “But some of it also reflects shifts in the kinds of institutions that are in operation in these different jurisdictions.”

In parts of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Advanced Asia there has been a move away from the specialised universities that have predominated in the past. In Western Europe, you see a degree of expansion of (vocationally oriented) ‘hybrid’ institutions. These trends have not been much covered.

The report also reveals diversity in the vocational higher education and college sector that is “under-appreciated and quite interesting”, Williams said. Institutions such as schools, as well as companies and other organisations, provide a significant share of higher education.

Shifting enrolments in the Global North

The HESA research shows that global higher education has grown enormously since 2006, both in terms of student numbers, which have now passed 200 million, and institutional numbers, which now count almost 90,000 universities and colleges.

But growth has been highly uneven and has been slowing significantly. While global enrolments have not yet peaked, it is possible to envisage a point when they will.

Student enrolments in Western Europe and the CANZAUS region have grown somewhat, while in Advanced Asian countries they have remained relatively constant and in the Former Eastern Bloc they have dropped substantially, the report says.

“CANZAUS experienced the most dramatic growth in enrolment in the late [20]00s, but after 2011, enrolments flatlined or even fell because of developments in the United States.

“Western Europe saw highly uneven patterns between countries – growth exceeded 30% over the full period in Switzerland, Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands, while enrolments actually fell somewhat in the United Kingdom and Finland.”

Advanced Asia shows similar unevenness, with overall declines driven by the three larger countries – Japan, South Korea and Taiwan – while the smaller countries each experienced growth in excess of 18%.

Professor Joshua Ka-ho Mok, vice-president at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, explained to University World News why Taiwan and Hong Kong had faced declines in students. First, they both expanded higher education, especially private colleges and universities.

“However, changing demography with the low birth rate has failed to provide sufficient numbers of students for the massified system.

“In addition, some students from Hong Kong and Taiwan, South Korea as well, may choose to study overseas. The massified higher education systems in East Asia – in the Global North – hence face the challenge of getting sufficient numbers of students,” Mok said.

“Government planning is crucial to match higher education enrolment with changing labour market needs. However, the rapid change in the broad political-economy context would have made it difficult for small regions like Hong Kong and Taiwan to manage their systems. In the end, some private colleges may be forced to close down.”

According to HESA, every country in the Former Eastern Bloc experienced double-digit enrolment declines, all but Kazakhstan in excess of 30%. “Overall, enrolments across this sub-region fell from 17 million in 2008 to 11 million in 2018,” the report states.

Gross enrolment rates, which measure total enrolment as a percentage of the population in the higher education age group, are consistently highest in CANZAUS countries and lowest in Western Europe.

“Rates rose in both Western Europe and the Former Eastern Bloc from 2006 to 2018, while in Advanced Asia and the CANZAUS countries they fell somewhat after 2011 – but recovered slightly in the latter after 2016,” the report says.

“This finding implies that demographics have been the primary driver of enrolment declines in the Former Eastern Bloc.”

In terms of changes in enrolment rates from 2006 to 2018, five countries experienced very significant increases of over 20 percentage points: Ireland, Australia, Germany and Hong Kong, while five others experienced outright declines: Kazakhstan, Romania, the United Kingdom, Finland and Ukraine.

In the United States, which the report points out is now the world’s third largest higher education system after China and India, “enrolments rose modestly in the years to 2011, but subsequently declined by 6%, from 21 million to 19.8 million”.

Institutions – Numbers and sizes

Meanwhile, the number of higher education institutions grew overall in Western Europe and barely in CANZAUS, with the greatest increases in Switzerland (up 92%), Italy (up 61%) and Australia (up 48%).

The countries with the biggest reductions in numbers of institutions were Poland, Taiwan and Hong Kong, where counts dropped by 29%, 20% and 19% respectively, says the report. The only other countries that saw increases were Russia, Singapore and South Korea.

The report notes that five countries reduced their institutional numbers by 4% or more from 2011 to 2018 while increasing enrolments by at least 11%: Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Chile, Ireland and Morocco.

“Among the other declining countries, demographics and participation patterns both contributed, but demographics were relatively more important in Romania, Ukraine, Poland, the UK and Italy, and participation was more important in Finland and Taiwan.”

While the total number of institutions in the Global North did not change much, there were shifts in composition. The number of specialised universities and university colleges fell slightly while comprehensive universities and (vocationally oriented) hybrids increased.

“The number of comprehensive universities peaked in 2013 at 5,139, and subsequently fell by 6%.” The number of short-cycle institutions, such as US community colleges, held steady.

“In terms of student enrolments, comprehensive universities are by far the most important higher education providers in the Global North, accounting for almost two-thirds of all students in 2018,” says the report. “Their enrolments rose by 10% from 2006 to 2011, but declined by 5% thereafter, falling to 38.9 million in 2018.”

Comprehensive universities are much larger than the other types of institutions, with an average of 8,142 students in 2018. “Merging specialised universities into comprehensive universities is seen as offering economies of scale, benefits for rankings, and potential advantages from greater inter-disciplinary collaboration,” notes the report.

Public and private higher education

Altbach told University World News: “One of the really big under-appreciated stories in global higher education in the past half century is the tremendous expansion of private higher education, which now accounts for a majority of enrolments in many countries, especially in the Global South.”

Private institution numbers have fluctuated. In the Global North, particularly CANZAUS, the count of private institutions increased by 21% in the years to 2013, before falling back 13% to 2018. “A similar pattern occurred in the Former Eastern Bloc, as institution counts initially rose by 13% to a peak of 1,800 in 2013, before falling back 25% by 2018.”

The number of private higher education institutions rose more consistently in Western Europe after 2007 – up by 36% to 2,448 over the 12-year period – while declining in Advanced Asia.

“Advanced Asia has the smallest public sector, with only 30% of students enrolled in public higher education institutions. CANZAUS has the next most privatised systems with only 77% public enrolments, predominantly due to substantial private higher education in the US.

“In the Former Eastern Bloc, the public sector increased its share of enrolments from 81% to 85%, as the private sector bore the greater share of demographically driven enrolment declines, while in Western Europe the importance of public higher education is highest even though the sector’s share of total enrolments has fallen from 93% in 2006 to 88% in 2018.”

The three largest countries in Advanced Asia were the only ones in the Global North to have majority private enrolments in 2018. Conversely, Singapore reported 97% public enrolments.

Public spending on higher education

Globally, total public higher education spending increased in real dollar purchasing power parity every year, reaching US$992.4 billion in 2018, up from US$615.5 billion in 2006, corresponding to an average annual growth rate of 4%, says HESA. But most growth was before 2010 – after that growth averaged only 2.7% per year.

The CANZAUS region accounts for around half of total public spending in the Global North, and spending has grown there the most, by around 3% a year. Western Europe consumes 30% of public higher education spending in the Global North, but spending has grown the least at just 1.8% on average a year.

“Advanced Asia and the Former Eastern Bloc are roughly comparable both in terms of total public spending and overall growth (2.7% and 2.3%, respectively). However, spending in the Former Eastern Bloc has been quite volatile, and indeed has seen an overall fall of 16.2% since its peak in 2014 – which coincides with the start of the war in Ukraine,” says the report.

CANZAUS also has among the highest per student expenditures: US$12,025 in 2018 compared to US$11,807 in Western Europe, US$5,863 in Advanced Asia and US$4,489 in the Former Eastern Bloc.

These differences, the report stresses, need to be contextualised by variations in the extent of public provision. Total spending per student at public institutions, which includes private spending, looks quite different, with Advanced Asia “shifting upwards significantly”.

In terms of countries, says the report, “the greatest three spenders in 2018 by far were Switzerland (US$35,500) and Singapore (US$26,526), followed by a string of northern continental European countries and Hong Kong”.

The HESA research revealed “dramatic differences” in public spending on higher education as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). “The highest spending government in the Global North (Switzerland) dedicated five times more of its country’s wealth to higher education than the lowest spending country in 2018 (Japan).”

The most significant changes were discernible in Switzerland and South Korea where spending increased relative to GDP by 0.4%, and in Ireland and Ukraine where, respectively, spending fell relative to GDP by 0.4% and 0.5%.

Future of HE in the Global North?

What does the HESA research suggest about the future of higher education in the Global North?

Quality may be improving, with student numbers declining and dollars per student growing, said Williams. But a drop in student numbers does not always make it possible to reduce costs – “it does not mean you can lay off a professor” – and it is hard to measure how much of the per student increase is from sectoral inflation.

For now, Williams said, it looks like universities in the Global North will continue with the hard – and to some extent costly – work flowing from gains in participation, supporting the success of their increasingly diverse students.

A number of countries may already have gone through a demographic decline and will see upswings. “Kazakhstan, for instance, has had a dramatic drop and is now projecting a dramatic increase in its youth population.” The point is, demographics are not fixed.

It is hoped that the next version of the report will add a couple more years of data, to provide an up-to-date picture of a pre-COVID world. After that, “2020 is likely to be kind of topsy turvy. It will be fascinating to see. But I don’t think it will tell us a whole lot about the future because we don’t know what changes are going to stick and which will be ephemeral.”

Professor Lynn C Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, said: “In the United States, there has been a transition away from the ideal of higher education as a public good toward viewing it as a private commodity – tuition in exchange for jobs. Yet, America’s historic mission of educating for democracy is more critical than ever in the face of rising authoritarianism.

“There is an opportunity for colleges and universities around the world to reimagine and reinvigorate higher education through global partnerships that prepare all students for success in work, citizenship and life.”

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 Eastern Bloc: Kazakhstan, Poland, Romania, Russia and Ukraine.

(Total: 25)