Foresight 2030: A ‘big picture’ view of international HE

“Get to the balcony,” wrote the American leadership guru Ron Heifetz in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers. Heifetz’s point was that by moving from the dance floor to the balcony, leaders are better able to see the larger patterns and help guide their organisations into the future.

As we emerge from the pandemic, it is increasingly important for higher education leaders around the world to take a moment to step back from dealing with the day-to-day crises that have been driving our lives and to look at the big picture.

This idea of looking from the balcony is what motivated the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT) to assemble an international advisory board, of which we are members, to develop Foresight 2030: The role of academic internationalisation in the next decade.

No ability to predict the future

To be perfectly clear, we do not have the ability to predict the future. Had this document been written five years ago, it is unlikely that we would have predicted the disruptions caused by a global pandemic.

That said, a draft of the document written at the beginning of 2022 did predict the outbreak of conflict in Ukraine and that it would intensify the refugee crisis in Eastern Europe and disrupt education and research collaborations with Russia. Sometimes, the immediate future is easier to predict.

We were tasked with providing “leaders and policy-makers in the Swedish academic ecosystem with a broad review of current and future trends that may affect the international competitiveness of Swedish higher education” and “guidance on how ... to better position the nation’s ... institutions to be competitive”.

The advisory board worked for two years identifying data, developing high-risk scenarios such as the potential that there will be less international activity in the future, and consulting with academic, political, and business leaders in Sweden.

The report covers a range of issues. Higher education plays an increasingly important role in preserving democracies and democratic ideals. At the same time, it is imperative that we continue to promote science diplomacy and other forms of academic collaborations that can build ties between democratic and non-democratic nations.

Geopolitical relations

In those efforts, higher education institutions, and their representatives must act responsibly and realise that, while they may not be formal actors of the state, the world often perceives them that way. Whether an institution sets up an overseas embassy (for example, a branch campus), or develops a multi-national research collaboration, that work and the associated actions influence larger geopolitical relations.

Global demography is also shifting. It is predicted that the population of Asia, long a major exporter of students abroad as well as the locus of the largest investment in domestic higher education capacity, will be declining, and already is in countries such as South Korea.

At the same time, the population of Africa is expected to explode and, along with it, demand for higher education and research. This will draw greater attention to the African continent. Many institutions may be looking to replace the decline in international students with those from Africa.

However, any engagement in Africa should be driven by African countries’ articulated needs, and ideally, regulated by policies put in place by African nations (nationally, regionally or Africa-wide) to create collaborative, mutually beneficial partnerships on their terms.

Threats to higher education

One high risk scenario the report explores is the rising threat to science and the scientific process. In some countries this has already resulted in existential threats to higher education institutions, particularly where we have seen sudden shifts towards more autocratic or theocratic rule.

Even in the United States, there are efforts by some state legislatures to curtail academic freedom and dictate curricular redesign in line with populist sentiments. These same trends are not happening in Sweden, at least not yet, but they have to be accounted for when looking at international engagements.

We’ll admit that there are few things, if any, that readers will find surprising. Yet, while the document has been well received in Sweden, there will no doubt be critics who quickly point out that we may have missed an important trend, or not acknowledged a certain aspect of internationalisation.

A stage for further discussion

They may be right in their criticisms, but we would argue that such critiques miss the bigger picture. Our goal was not to be comprehensive; our goal was to set a stage on which such discussion can take place and evolve.

Such discussions should be happening more frequently. The Foresight 2030 comes at a period of great instability in the global context. On one hand, we are all emerging from the isolation and immobility fostered by the pandemic.

On the other hand, geopolitical tensions are destabilising in a way not seen in 30 years as Russia looks to retake what it views as its empire and China actively seeks to be a “balance” to what it sees as a US-led, Western-centric world.

Amid all of this, globalisation is being challenged by nationalism and the pursuit of truth seems to be more about perceptions than reality. If history tells us anything, it is likely that the increased polarisation of geopolitics will first destabilise current international education activities and relationships and then accelerate new ones.

More nations would do well to try to get to the balcony – not to predict the future, but to survey the big picture and have honest conversations about what is coming in order to be intentional about the role of higher education moving forward.

Professor Jason E Lane is the dean of the College of Education, Health and Society at Miami University and co-founder of the Cross-Border Education Research Team, which studies transnational and international education. Dr Nelson Torto is the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Communications, Knowledge and Technology in Botswana, and the former executive director of the African Academy of Sciences. Professor Bertil Andersson is the former president of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.