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:


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.