HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Massification

March 03

Mega-Trends in International Higher Education – A Summary

Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at some of the big changes going on in higher education globally.  To wit:

  • Higher education student numbers are continuing to rise around the world. This massification in many countries is being accompanied by stratification.  Getting a “distinctive” degree at a prestige university remains hard; going abroad remains a good way of getting it.  So increases in international student numbers are likely to continue, ceteris paribus.
  • Institutions in developing countries are unlikely to increase their global prestige level any time soon. Climbing the ladder costs money most developing-world governments don’t have, and in any case, the definition of prestige is changing in ways that make it difficult for universities in developing countries to follow.
  • Demographic forces have been a significant part of the rise in global student numbers; however, for the next decade or so, these trends will not be quite so favourable (though by 2030 they should be trending positive again).
  • Similarly, the end of the commodity super-cycle means a lot of countries that were getting rich off the rise of countries like China are no longer getting richer, in developed-country currency terms, anyway (and even India is not doing well by this measure). This means at least some potential international students are looking for cheaper alternatives.

So what does all this mean?  How do we sum up these trends?

First of all, we need to stop all this nonsense talk about international higher education being a “bubble”.  It’s not.  The fundamentals of demand – rising numbers of students wanting a prestige degree – are strong, as are developed universities’ market position as a purveyors of prestige degrees.

There are two things which could undermine this.  Demographic headwinds might mean that universities would need to do more to increase the percentage of students studying abroad in order to keep up the trends (rather than simply relying on the overall trends in increased participation).  Clearly, recent economic setbacks and currency slides in a number of countries make it more difficult to do this, at least if you’re an institution in one of the countries where the currency remains strong.  If, like Canada, you’re not, then this is a chance to steal a march on countries who either have strong currencies (the US) or who through some sort of policy lobotomy have decided they don’t want international students (the UK).  In any case, international student numbers have held up for the last few years in the face of these headwinds: the real test is what happens if economic growth starts to stall in China.

The other potential game-changer is one I alluded to a couple of times last year (see here and here); which is whether or not sending-country governments start to deliberately shut off the taps, deny students exit visas, and begin discriminating against graduates of foreign universities in the labour market.  A year ago, that might have sounded crazy; today, such moves are by no means unthinkable in Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia or Erdogan’s Turkey.  Others may follow.

In short, there is risk today in the world of international student mobility.  But it is political rather than economic.  All we can do is keep plugging away and hope that the global situation does not get worse.

In the meantime, the OTTSYD be taking a break for reading week, and will return to our regular schedule on March 13.

February 03

Four Megatrends in International Higher Education: Massification

A few months ago I was asked to give a presentation about my thoughts on the “big trends” affecting international education. I thought it might be worth setting some of these thoughts to paper (so to speak), and so, every Friday for the next few weeks I’ll be looking one major trend in internationalization, and exploring its impact on Canadian PSE.

The first and most important mega-trend is the fact that all over the world, participation in higher education is going through the roof. Mostly, that’s due to growth in Asia which now hosts 56% of the world’s students, but substantial growth has been the norm around the world since 2000.  In Asia, student numbers have nearly tripled in that period (up 184%), but they also more than doubled (albeit from lower bases) in Latin America (123%) and Africa (114%), and even in North America numbers increased by 50%. Only in Europe, where several major countries have begun seeing real drops in enrolment thanks to changing demographics (most notably the Russian Federation), has the enrolment gain been small – a mere 20%.

Tertiary Enrolments by Continent, 1999-2014:

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Source: Unesco Institute of Statistics

Now, what does this have to do with the future of international higher education?  Well, back in the day, international students were seen as “overflow” – that is, students forced abroad because there were not enough educational opportunities in their own countries. Therefore, many people thought that the massification of higher education in Asia (and particularly China) would over the long run mean a decrease in internationalization because they would have more options to choose from at home.

Clearly the last decade and a half has put that idea to bed. Global enrolments have shot up, but international enrolments have risen even faster. But as all these national systems of higher education are undergoing massification, they are also undergoing stratification. That is to say: as higher education systems get larger, the positional advantage obtained simply from attending higher education declines, and the positional advantage to attending a specific, prestigious institution rises. And while higher education places are rising quickly around the world, the number of spaces in prestigious institutions is staying relatively steady in most countries (India, which is expanding its IIT system, is a partial exception). Take China for example; over the last 20 years, the number of new undergraduate students being admitted to Chinese universities has increased from about one and a half million to six million per year. In that same time, the intake of the country’s nine most prestigious universities  (the so-called “C-9”) has increased barely at all (it currently stands at something like 50,000 per year).

Now if you’re a student in a country where there’s a very tight bottleneck at the top of the prestige ladder, what do you do if you don’t quite make it to the top? Do you settle for a second-best university in your own country?  Or do you look for a second-best university in another country, preferably one where people speak English, and preferably one which has a little bit of cachet of its own? Assuming money is not a barrier (though it often is) the answer is a no-brainer: go abroad.

So when we look ahead to the future, as we think about what might affect student flows around the world, what we need to watch is not the rise of university or college places in places like China and India, but rather the ratio of prestige spaces to total spaces. As long as that ratio keeps falling – and there’s no evidence at the moment that this process will reverse itself anytime soon – expect the demand for international education to remain high.

May 05

Massification Causes Stratification

Once upon a time, higher education was small.  Really small.  Only a very few people could enter it, and the value of a degree was enormous.  Not just in terms of skills/knowledge acquired, or the credential, but also social status.  If you’re a fan of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, just look at the leap in social status and life chances that Elena experiences when she makes it to the Scuola Normale in Pisa (which, by the way, I’ve not quite figured out – why didn’t her teachers route her to the Università degli Studi di Napoli?).  It alters her life in ways far beyond what university access does today.

Now at some point – the exact timing varies by country – governments decided that higher education needed to “massify”.  Partly, this was to meet the needs of an increasingly knowledge-based economy, and the services that go with it (better health care and education), but in part it was also to “democratize” higher education, and make it less exclusive.

And that’s where things get tricky.  Massification can widen access to knowledge, skills and credentials.  But it cannot widen access to status.  Status is a game of “who are the cool kids” where membership must, by definition, be exclusive.  Government policy cannot make the cool kids let people into to club.  If it tries, the cool kids will change the rules of the game (read Andrew Potter & Joseph Heath’s The Rebel Sell for more on this).  

Two things happens in virtually every country where massification occurs. The first is a concomitant increase in graduate education.  Partly, that can be justified in the same terms as the expansion of undergraduate education – producing more specialists, more people able to teach others, etc.  But often it’s simply an arms race.  You have a degree?  Bully for you – I have two.

The second is stratification within higher education.  As governments (or non-profit private institutions in some countries) expanded the number of institutions to meet rising demand, institutions didn’t all obtain the same level of prestige.  So another way the “cool kids” game plays out is that you start to see an increasing concentration of prestige at a very few schools: Todai & Kyoto in Japan; Peking, Tsinghua and Fudan in China; Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US.  It’s now no longer if you go, it’s where you go  (if you want any nauseating details on that from the US, I highly recommend Lauren Rivera’s Pedigree). You’d better believe that rich parents then do what they can to make sure it’s their kid and not someone else’s who makes into those institutions.

In Canada, we don’t see this quite as much as in other countries because of a peculiarity of our higher ed system.  We don’t have national exams, and we don’t use SATs, which reduces some of the push towards exclusivity.  We also are peculiar in the sense that our top institutions are simply gargantuan.  The top three institutions in the US accept maybe 0.1% of the incoming undergraduate class; the top three institutions in Canada accept about 10% of the incoming undergraduate population (thanks to Joe Heath and his In Due Course blog for this observation).  It simply isn’t as special to be at a top institution.  But it’s worth remembering what an outlier that makes us on the international field.

In much of the developed world what we worry about is not so much access to college or undergraduate studies; we’ve more or less got that under control though obviously there’s room for improvement.  Now we’re starting to fixate on where people go: are we creating one group of (mainly rich) students going to elite, prestigious universities and another group of (mainly poorer) students going to less elite schools?

Ensuring every student goes to an equally prestigious school is an impossible task.  Government can increase access to education, skills and knowledge; it cannot increase access to prestige.  Prestige, like “cool,” is a fixed-sum thing: you have it in part to the extent that I do not.  If that weren’t true, then your mom could be cool, for God’s sake.  And as long as access to these top schools is “merit-based” and “merit” is defined as good grades, it’s difficult to imagine ways to stop wealthier families from monopolizing positions in these schools because they are better able to pass on various academic advantages to their children.  As John Rawls said, it’s only ever possible to deal with inequality imperfectly, as long as families exist.

(There actually was one government that tried to deal with this head on. The military government of Chun-Doo Hwan in South Korea  shut down the Hagwons (cram schools) in order to try to make the university entrance system fairer to poorer students.  This tactic did not survive the country’s transition to democracy.)

There is a partial answer to this problem, and that is lotteries.  Instead of allowing the minimum admissions criteria to be bid up in a competitive manner (e.g only the top 30 applicants get a place), set a minimum threshold which maybe 200 students could meet, and distribute the places by lottery.  The Dutch do this for limited-enrolment programs and it seems to work out alright. It’s difficult to imagine Harvard doing it, but one can dream.  Because it’s hard to imagine making a serious dent in stratification without more radical measures than the ones we’re currently using.