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The State of Higher Education in the World Today

24 June

The State of Higher Education in the World Today
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Around the world higher education is being shaken by profound changes. Exploding enrollments over the last decade are putting severe financial strains on tertiary systems. At the same time, computers and the internet have allowed previously unimaginable forms of global knowledge transfer. Institutions are becoming increasingly competitive, vying for scarce resources at home and for the rapidly growing numbers of students studying outside their own countries. Universities, including a rapidly growing number of private universities, are making international partnerships, and opening academic programs and even branches in other countries as never before.

These trends were discussed at the 1998 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education. But they have all intensified over the last decade, bringing both new opportunities and challenges for participants attending the 2009 World Conference on Higher Education, which will take place at UNESCO’s Paris Headquarters from July 5-8.

The issues are often complex and the solutions fraught with controversy. When public systems are overwhelmed by galloping enrollments, how should the money be found to reverse overcrowding, to maintain or improve standards? Should higher education be considered a public good, essential for economic development and financed by public budgets? Or is it more a private good, allowing personal advancement, and able to thrive only if students are required to pay for it? Will access to higher studies depend on wealth rather than merit?

The shift to post-industrial economies has led to mass demand for higher education. Enrollments are increasing at breakneck speed. There were 152.5 million tertiary students worldwide in 2007, a roughly 50% increase compared to 2000.

Only a half-century ago, post-secondary studies were reserved for a small, mostly male elite in most countries. But today, participation rates of 40 or 50% of young people are often considered vital for economic growth. Globally, the percentage of university-aged young people enrolled in tertiary education increased from 19% in 2000 to 26% in 2007. Women now account for a slight majority of students and their predominance is expected to increase.

Yet the average rate masks stark regional differences. Participation was 71% in North America and Western Europe, 26% in the East Asia/Pacific region, 23% in the Arab States, 11% in South and West Asia and, despite rapid growth, only 6% in Africa. A child in sub-Saharan Africa today still has less chance of reaching the end of primary school than a European has of entering university.

Within countries some groups do not have equal access to higher studies either. Those with lower incomes or from remote regions, ethnic minorities, immigrants, and disabled persons may have lower participation rates. Some education authorities have sought to improve equity and inclusion with such measures as student loans, grants for low-income students, culturally targeted programs, and quotas for members of minority groups or lower casts.

Higher education is increasingly seen as an engine of economic development. But as student numbers expand, government tax revenues typically cannot keep pace with the rising costs of public systems. The result is often increasing austerity: overcrowded classes and lecture halls, outdated library collections, declining funds for research and a deterioration of facilities. The problem has been most crippling in sub-Saharan Africa, but is felt across the developing world and in countries in transition as well.

Public institutions, once largely dependent on state funding, have been forced to generate an increasing portion of their costs. The most common way has been with tuition fees, which have been introduced in a number of countries with formerly free or nearly free higher education (e.g., China in 1997, the United Kingdom in 1998, and Austria in 2001). Fees are being introduced across Europe, long the bastion of free higher education. In addition, a number of African countries have substantially raised student charges for dormitories, food, and other services.

Institutions have become more entrepreneurial. They do paid research for companies or administrations, and develop paying courses to meet the needs of local businesses. This is sometimes raising concerns. Too much emphasis on income generation can undermine traditional university activities. Courses and research in the humanities typically have no commercial applications. Campus theatre groups, journals, and noncommercial radio and television stations generally produce no income. But such activities make universities centers of intellectual life.

Public authorities are also increasingly replacing budgeted funding for research with competitive grants. All these developments are fostering competition, and growing differentiation among institutions. Many universities now pay close attention to their place in international rankings. The impact is especially evident in predominantly public systems where until recently universities were supposed to be all more or less equivalent.

Some institutions and some national systems are introducing more technical and professional programs. This is a crucial issue in developing economies, which need both more graduates trained in technical disciplines, and also professionals and leaders with general knowledge, creativity, and critical thinking. There is also a pressing need for research focused on local development needs.

Institutions, especially in the industrialized nations, are competing for the growing numbers of international students. More than 2.8 million students elected to study outside their own country in 2007. The largest number came from China (421,100), India (153,300), and the Republic of Korea (105,300). Their main destinations were the United States (595,900), the United Kingdom (351,500), and France (246,600).

Globalization is impacting tertiary education in other ways. The last decade has seen a veritable explosion of programs and institutions operating internationally. Several countries are developing themselves as international higher education hubs. (Qatar, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates are prime examples). Regional agreements are emerging to promote higher education cooperation and exchange. The Bologna Process, adopted in that Italian city in 1999, is harmonizing what were a myriad of distinct degree systems in over 40 European countries. Similar efforts are underway in Latin America, Africa, Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.

A major challenge is how to compare institutions and degrees from different countries. New national quality assurance mechanisms rely on peers, not government agencies. And the focus is now on outcomes – the skills and knowledge graduates have acquired – rather than inputs, like faculty qualifications and library collections. Education leaders have begun work on ways to compare evaluation results across borders.

A striking development has been the rapid expansion of private higher education. While private institutions have traditionally played an important role in East Asia and the United States, today they account for 30% of global enrollment. Private institutions have been central to the rapid expansion of enrollments in such countries as Brazil, Chile, and a number of African countries, where demand far outstrips the number of study places at state institutions.

Many for-profit private providers are raising concerns about quality assurance and the emergence of fraudulent diploma mills. The growth of distance education adds to the need for increased international cooperation, since the Internet allows such programs to cross borders effortlessly.

Tertiary enrollments are expected to continue expanding rapidly. Student populations will continue to diversify, counting more people already in the workforce, part time students, and those from other countries.

But while this expansion is widely welcomed, it is bringing serious challenges, especially in low-income developing countries. The need for an ever-expanding number of teachers will mean that their qualifications will tend to remain low. And authorities will be hard pressed to ensure that access is not just for the more affluent, but for all those who could benefit from further studies.

  • Author(s):UNESCOPRESS
  • Source:Article by Burton Bollag, Washington DC
  • 30-06-2009
Europe and North America Latin America and the Caribbean Africa Arab States Asia Pacific