A renewed HE vision needs a focus on quality and inclusion

Unending speculation about the future reigns today as individuals forecast events, seize opportunities and mitigate risks in a world of increasing uncertainty. However, understanding the pivotal factors driving changes is crucial and can empower us to proactively prepare for what lies ahead.

UNESCO’s report, Reimagining Our Futures Together: A New Social Contract for Education, and the roadmap released at the World Higher Education Conference in 2022 provide insights to elaborate on major drivers. So, what are they?

Demographic changes

Current demographic trends are subject to considerable variation from country to country.

While some countries face a continuous rise in university-age student cohorts, others are experiencing declining student populations due to ageing societies.

These dynamics will have a substantial impact on the future landscape of higher education.

Successful policies and practices have led to significant expansion of higher education systems globally. This has dramatically increased access in many countries, signifying massification of and universal access to higher education.

Amidst increasing student demand, some systems will continue to expand, while others will contract due to declining domestic demand caused by low fertility rates and the diversification of tertiary education. Over time, more systems will face the task of adapting to these challenging demographic trends.

According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics data, Japan and South Korea reached the universal access to higher education stage with Gross Enrolment Ratios (GER) of 60.3% and 95.6%, respectively, in 2021.

However, with limited potential for further GER increases and declining domestic student populations, they appear to have too many higher education places if their systems are not to be supported by a significant influx of international students.

This situation can also be observed in many European systems.

Against this backdrop, Korean and Japanese universities have recently ramped up their efforts to recruit more international students. As part of these endeavours, many Japanese universities have established Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) centres in Bangkok, highlighting their commitment to expanding outreach and collaboration in the region.

While promoting the internationalisation of higher education requires a comprehensive and all-encompassing approach, the focus has primarily shifted to addressing the cross-border mobility of students. This has become a pressing concern for many countries grappling with the issue of oversupply of their higher education places.

To bridge the gaps in quality and access while preserving diversity and indigenous knowledge across various countries and regions, there will be an increased focus on enhancing the cross-border mobility of students, professionals, institutes and programmes. This will facilitate the global, regional and international flow of high-quality content and pedagogy, fostering greater connectivity and exchange among countries.

Including a more significant number of mature and adult students in higher education will serve as an additional source of learners to counterbalance the decline in traditional domestic student numbers. This trend will be particularly notable as the lifelong learning perspective becomes more widely adopted.

Quality and relevance

The importance of quality and relevance in higher education continues to be high, shaping both the present and the future. Therefore, it is understandable that various external and internal quality assurance frameworks and mechanisms have been developed to ensure that higher education institutions meet the expectations of all stakeholders.

However, apparent paradigm shifts are occurring in our concerns regarding quality and relevance in higher education which will profoundly impact its future development.

First, quality assessment in higher education has shifted its focus from inputs to outputs and processes. Consequently, learning outcomes and the strategies employed to attain them have emerged as the primary indicators when it comes to quality assessment. National qualifications frameworks (NQFs), with level descriptors, provide comprehensive frameworks for defining these learning outcomes.

Secondly, stakeholder engagement is pivotal to enhancing the quality and relevance of higher education programmes. However, existing efforts and mechanisms must be improved if they are to foster meaningful and effective dialogue between supply and demand sides. Future endeavours require innovative approaches to engaging all actors and stakeholders more effectively in programme development and implementation.

Thirdly, the rise of flexible learning pathways has necessitated a heightened focus on quality assurance for non-traditional modalities like online and blended learning. This includes monitoring and nurturing programmes offered by emerging learning providers empowered by technology across diverse venues and locations, reflecting our ever-expanding learning spaces.

Fourth, academic infrastructure, including NQFs, subject-specific, professional and occupational quality standards, programme development templates and credit bank systems can support the operationalisation of flexible learning pathways for higher education. Implementing these measures strengthens the alignment between external and internal quality assurance in a more sustainable and balanced way.

In the future, higher education regulators, providers and stakeholders will share more aligned priorities and agendas to ensure the quality of higher education programmes. They must collaborate to establish inclusive higher education ecosystems that are open, transparent, democratic and participatory, fostering increased quality and relevance in higher education provision.

Reaching out

In addition to emphasising quality, UNESCO advocates equity and inclusiveness as crucial overarching principles. This means reaching out to traditionally disadvantaged populations. Notably, however, the means for identifying disadvantaged populations may vary across countries, including when it comes to sex, gender orientation, ethnic or social origin, language, nationality, economic condition or ability.

Defining disadvantaged populations involves closely considering multiple and variable criteria. Gender equality should underpin our efforts. In some countries, however, economic and ethnic factors take precedence, while in others, social and legal status, physical and mental ability and other considerations may play a significant role in defining disadvantaged populations.

While the expansion of higher education systems may reduce the significance of issues of access for disadvantaged populations, the remaining few who are left behind become a crucial test of equity and inclusiveness. Policymakers should consider implementing targeted policies to incentivise institutions and learning providers to address such inclusion gaps.

Once survival has been assured, higher education institutions and providers will intensify their social responsibility efforts through affirmative action in student recruitment and outreach activities to benefit underprivileged populations; in other words, ensuring equity will become an inherent component of the daily operations of higher education institutions and providers.

Equity and inclusiveness should extend beyond mere numerical representation and include the active participation of students from disadvantaged populations in disciplines like STEM education, higher technical and vocational programmes and more. Equity and inclusiveness should also address the various levels and modes of education available to disadvantaged learners, enabling us to identify gaps and devise appropriate solutions.

In the future, advanced monitoring mechanisms, for instance, focused on equity or social mobility, will be implemented so that particular situations across various countries and regions can be evaluated swiftly. The emphasis on equity and inclusiveness will be vital and will dynamically adjust to evolving definitions of disadvantaged populations worldwide.

Technological advancement

Over the years, educational tools and equipment have undergone rapid advancements, progressing from traditional chalkboards to the inclusion of TV and radio and then computer-assisted teaching and learning. And now, we are in the fourth industrial revolution with new information and communication technologies revolutionising teaching, learning, research and social engagement, as well as the governance and management of higher education systems and institutions.

In keeping with these trends, digital skills and capacities will be integrated into all competency frameworks, thereby informing the development and implementation of various levels and types of learning programmes, both for teachers and students. This integration aims to cultivate digitally native learners who are capable of tackling the new challenges that characterise the digital era.

New artificial intelligence technology, such as ChatGPT and others, will profoundly impact teaching, transforming many relationships within the learning process. This shift includes redefining the role of teachers from mere knowledge transmitters to increasingly becoming learning facilitators. Additionally, technology will improve access to various learning resources, evaluation tools and outreach initiatives, further expanding learning opportunities.

Technology has diversified learning spaces, extending them well beyond bricks-and-mortar campuses by creating virtual classrooms and online programmes. This innovation enables the rise of flexible learning pathways that empower learners to access education anywhere, at any time and at any speed, with increasingly personalised or bespoke content.

Technology-enabled learning supply chains empower individual learners to create customised learning programmes. Learners today can engage with various learning providers, deposit and accumulate learning credits in education credit banks and claim micro-credentials and full qualifications once specific criteria are met.

A fresh approach

The future of higher education is influenced, of course, by numerous factors. This article has highlighted a critical few, representing shared opportunities and risks for many countries. Such vital factors hold considerable significance as we anticipate revitalised visions and new strategies for the future of higher education.

At any rate, we must proactively prepare for a shrinking traditional higher education system, mainly due to variable demographic trends. This calls for a fresh approach that prioritises quality, relevance, equity and inclusion, supported by technological advancement.

Let us join forces to embark on a journey of re-engineering the future of higher education. By leveraging evidence-based research and foresights, we can establish a forward-looking higher education system that effectively serves our communities and societies at large.

Libing Wang is director (ad interim) of the UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office in Bangkok, Thailand. This is a lightly adapted version of a keynote speech delivered at the ASEAN-Korea Rector’s Forum on the Future of Education, held on 20 June 2023 in Gumi, Republic of Korea.