The five big trends shaping higher education – background for MOOC #CFHE12

(This blog was originally posted through my day-job in May 2012 but I am re-posting it here as background to the #CFHE12 MOOC course)

Now and again it can be useful to lift your gaze from the latest news story, burning policy issue or regulatory change that is occupying your attention. If you set your focus to the widest possible angle, then you will start to see some of the bigger and longer-term changes to higher education take shape. In my opinion, there are five big factors changing the way we ought to think about HE: demography, globalisation, technology, sustainability and funding. These represent a complex and overlapping cluster of issues with the potential to have huge positive or negative impact on higher education. When considering them it is worth remembering that higher education is always both a product and a source of such change.

1. Shifts in demography and macro-economics

The single biggest change of our era is the global shift as formerly ‘developing’ nations start to equal and in some cases surpass their ‘developed’ brethren, not only in terms of demography but also in economic might. Rising numbers of young people, especially in the poorest nations, are helping to drive ever-higher school enrolment rates, creating a massive potential market for higher education. By 2020 it is estimated that India, China, the US and Indonesia will account for over 50% of the world’s 18-22 year old population. However many populations are set to age rapidly too, including Russia, Germany and China. Meanwhile India, the US and Brazil will maintain a steady growth in numbers among this key age group between now and 2020.

The university age (18-22 years) population by 2020

The university age (18-22 years) population over time

Demand for higher education has remained at a record high in recent years, both in the UK and internationally. The number of UK 25-64 year-olds who completed a first degree rose from 25% in 1999 to 37% in 2009, a growth rate of 4%. That compares well with the OECD average over the same period, which saw a rise from 21% to 30% at a growth rate of 3.7%. The final UK figures from UCAS for 2010 show 487,329 acceptances from 697,351 applicants, a 9% increase in applicants on 2009. Based on current patterns of graduation, it is estimated that an average of 46% of today’s women and 31% of today’s men in OECD countries will complete higher education at some point in their lives. Only 39% of women and 25% of men will do so before the age of 30, highlighting the growing proportion of mature students (with the UK probably bucking that trend under the new fee regime). Globally, the largest numbers of people currently enrolling in higher education are in Brazil, India, USA, Indonesia and China – with the latter seeing some of the fastest growth. This high demand for higher education comes from a variety of sources: students and their families see the potential private gains to their incomes, future opportunities and status; employers need a skilled and innovative workforce able to compete on a global stage; and Governments see the benefits to the economy, political stability and wider social returns.

However, the global average increase in HE enrolments is predicted to fall to 1.4% p.a. by 2020 compared to annual average growth of over 5% in the past two decades. This is due to many populations, such as China’s, passing their peak in terms of young people, as well as ‘maturing’ economies making enrolment gains less quickly after initially rapid increases. Although many nations are yet to reach their higher education potential, one might argue that the global peak may have already passed.

The key question for UK institutions as they look at this enormous potential global market is how big is the potential pool of students that might come to the UK to study? Growing capacity within developing countries, especially China, India, Brazil and Indonesia will mean that many students end up studying in their own countries. Globally the biggest number of students studying overseas will be from India, with UK providers expecting the highest growth in numbers to come from India (up 16%), Nigeria (42%), Malaysia (22%), Pakistan (26%), Saudi Arabia (15%) and Sri Lanka (18%). There is still plenty of scope for UK institutions to capitalise further on that growth, despite recent visa restrictions.

There is also potential for further growth in female enrolment which, although it exceeds that of men on a global basis, still remains largely untapped in many places. Approximately 60% of nations will miss the Millennium Development Goal of gender parity in primary and secondary education enrolment, a goal set for 2005 at both the World Education Forum and the 2000 Millennium Summit. The proportion of illiterate women has not changed in twenty years, still representing two-thirds of the world’s 759 million illiterate people in 2008. In nearly all countries HE course choices still tend to be heavily gendered, for example with women choosing education and health-related disciplines, while men choose engineering and physics.

2. Rapid technological advances

Although it may not feel like it sometimes, the impact of changing information and communication technologies is only just beginning to be felt in higher education, with far more change on the way. Both teaching staff and students are becoming better connected than ever before, making both learning and researching an increasingly social enterprise, taking place far beyond traditional lecture halls and labs. A key outcome of these developments will be a huge increase in the volume, variety and velocity of data produced by higher education, in ever more open and accessible formats. This will include linked data about research, learning resources, the curriculum taught, assessment, achievement and performance. Although we are currently data rich and analysis poor this situation will begin to change, as new technologies, systems and training help us capitalise on this wealth of data in ways we cannot yet imagine. Learning will become more personalised and achieve better outcomes than ever before – as hinted at by some of the early studies into the ‘flipped classroom’ open resource initiatives taking place at Harvard, MIT, Stanford and others. There is also going to be a boom in ‘virtual campuses’, as we become more accustomed to learning together virtually, not just in-person. These changes will not only have an impact on accountability by informing policy and practice with better evidence, but will allow for real progress in terms of efficiency and innovation. This has the potential to dramatically improve access and equity, offering high quality higher education for all, in a cost-effective way.

3. An increasingly globalised knowledge economy

Technology-fuelled globalisation is making the world more interconnected than ever, from global to local and back again. As higher education increasingly becomes international it also becomes more varied – giving new experiences and possibilities to both students and educators. There is ongoing growth in trans-national education programmes and partnerships, with institutions reaching out to each other on a variety of fronts, from simple exchange programmes to complex multi-institution courses that include terms on different continents. Research is also becoming more and more international with those papers that feature international partnerships achieving higher levels of citation impact. The USA, UK and other established players still dominate the field but China and others are catching up very quickly. In this environment the continued importance of global higher education brands is reinforced, but there are opportunities for other players to carve out their own distinctive niches. Newer, smaller and more specialised UK providers can also benefit from international collaborations if they pick the right partners. Lastly, although they are often contested and uncomfortable to read, a key outcome of all the global benchmarking and league table work done by OECD, UNESCO, the British Council and others, is to help improve standards and raise quality.

4. Greater focus on sustainability

Given the looming environmental, economic and social risks threatening to engulf us in the long-term, an ongoing commitment to more sustainable practices has to be near the top of every HE leaders’ to-do list. But how many can honestly say that is currently the case? Whether it is practicing what they preach with their own organisational activities, picking research priorities or changing the content and style of teaching, higher education institutions must be on the front line in tackling these big long-term challenges. All around the world institutions are exploring new ways to address these issues: offering students a truly well-rounded education, covering ‘21st century’ employability skills, focusing on better wellbeing outcomes, building personal resilience and adaptability, or developing authentic community links. This area is often hard to quantify and doesn’t easily fit within a language of pound signs or academic grades, but in the long-run these issues may well be more important.

5. A funding mix in flux

In all nations the cost-sharing mix for higher education is changing, with the burden tending to shift from governments to parents and students (and to some extent businesses and donors). The UK has just seen one of the biggest such shifts, despite already spending considerably less as a proportion of GDP than the OECD average, with levels of public expenditure only higher than one other OECD country, Indonesia. Overall, global expenditure on higher education has increased significantly in recent years. From 2000 to 2008, expenditure per student by OECD tertiary educational institutions increased by 14 percentage points on average, after having remained stable between 1995 and 2000. The UK is currently spending slightly more than that average at c. £9,800 pa and that figure has grown quicker than the OECD average over the last decade. It is unclear if this will continue given the ongoing economic woes of many developed nations.

A range of different factors explain these funding trends but the main issue is the differential growth rates between the developing and developed nations, with many of the latter choosing austerity as the route out of a steep recession. However there is also a backdrop of increasingly market-friendly liberal (or neo-liberal) economic policies, allowing for the blurring of public and private models, non- and for- profit. There has been significant growth in partnerships with the private sector – both with multinationals and niche, high-value SMEs.

Hopefully, discussion of the above five trends helps to broaden perspectives and place changes to UK higher education within a wider context of major change. British HEIs have the good fortune to be far more in control of their own destinies now than ever before, thanks to funding changes alongside blossoming international and technological opportunities. Those that seize control and take into account the above key factors will grow even further as places of excellence with international reputations for innovation in learning. Those who stand still may find themselves left behind.


Education at a Glance 2011: OECD Indicators, OECD, 2011

The shape of things to come: Higher education global trends and emerging opportunities to 2020, The British Council, 2012

Comparing Education Statistics Across the World, UNESCO Institute of Statistics, 2010

International trends in the public and private financing of higher education, Bikas Sanyal and Bruce Johnstone, UNESCO-IBE, Prospects, 2011

University just got flipped: how online video is opening up knowledge to the world, Steven Leckhart and Tom Cheshire, Wired Magazine, 2012


1 Comment

Filed under #CFHE12, Blog themes, MOOCs

One response to “The five big trends shaping higher education – background for MOOC #CFHE12

  1. Reblogged this on About Education, Economics and Policy and commented:
    Interesting facts about trends in education

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