We are becoming more global

We are becoming more global


What have been the major developments affecting national education systems in the last decade or so? Simon Marginson suggests there are four such developments in this article, adapted from the essay published in the EAIE Anniversary Publication, Possible futures: the next 25 years of internationalisation of higher education. All of these changes are occurring at the global level, through global comparisons, or global systems, or shifts in the global balance of power in education and science.


1) The growing impact on policy and practice in secondary schooling, due to the OECD’s PISA assessments of the educational achievement of 15-year-olds

This has become perhaps the principal performance indicator for school-level education bureaucrats and ministers. Not all countries are focused on lifting their Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, but many are. Some such as South Korea have implemented major programmes focused specifically on lifting reading, science or mathematics achievement. There is intense international interest in systems such as those used in Finland, Korea and Shanghai, which are doing especially well in the PISA. This has led to a spate of policy borrowing.

2) The rise of university rankings, especially research rankings

Global university rankings were a minor news item when the first Shanghai Jiao Tong University top 500 league table was issued in 2003. They have grown in importance by leaps and bounds and are now installed on the front page in many countries. Research, especially by Ellen Hazelkorn, persistently shows that despite the shortcomings of this form of cross-border comparison, rankings are highly influential with families and students when deciding on international education. They also affect the esteem (and often the revenue) given to universities by governments, industry and philanthropy, and shape patterns in the cross-border movements of academic faculty. Global rankings inexorably push governments and universities alike towards the model of the comprehensive Anglo-American science university, which makes up the ranking template. They drive mergers designed to secure critical mass and offshore recruitment designed to lift citation rates. University ranking has become perhaps the chief performance indicator for ministers of higher education, and university presidents, rectors and vice-chancellors.

3) The advent of MOOCs in September 2011 at Stanford University

Through the for-profit corporations Coursera and Udacity at Stanford, and Ed-X run by MIT and Harvard, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) offerings and enrolments have grown extraordinarily rapidly. It is already apparent that this is a major game-changer in worldwide higher education. MOOCs have taken off because they are high quality programmes from global brand universities that feature leading world experts, students’ work is assessed using multiple choice online software, and the minority of students who complete the programme successfully receive a certificate. MOOCs also provide scope for social networking between students. As a free platform with user navigated content and social interaction they are perfectly attuned to the web, unlike other online prototypes, that tend to replicate the bricks and mortar university in a virtual form. As free programmes from prestigious universities, they are an attractive alternative to any programme in any mode that charges tuition fees. MOOCs are already recognised by many leading universities, though the extent of recognition among employers is as yet unclear. MOOCs might substitute for existing international education on a large scale. It is more certain that MOOCs will be introduced alongside conventional delivery in existing institutions. Either way, they promise to radically reduce the average cost of teaching, lower the number of academic faculty in many countries, and weaken the position of universities that are prestigious at national level but left in the shade by the global giants. MOOCs also promise to increase the power and authority of the leading US universities on a global scale.

4) The growing weight of higher education and science in East Asia and Singapore

There used to be two major zones in worldwide higher education and science: North America, primarily the United States and Canada; and Western Europe, including the UK. Now there are three such zones. Already the Post-Confucian systems in East Asia – China, Hong Kong SAR, Taiwan, South Korea and of course Japan – invest as much in research and development as does the whole of Europe and the UK. The output of published journal papers is growing by 17% per year in China and already their total output is almost half the level of the United States. Quality (as measured by citation rates) lags behind quantity of output, but is improving rapidly. Already China produces more than 10% of the world’s most cited top 1% papers in both Engineering and Chemistry. Science output in Korea, Singapore and Taiwan is also growing rapidly. World-class universities are advancing in all these systems. The National University of Singapore has a scientific output that, of quantity and quality alike, is competitive with the best western European universities. These outputs reflect the investments of the past 5–10 years and, given that funding of the leading universities continues to increase, we can be certain that the rise of Asian science will continue. In turn, this ensures that universities in the east will attract ever more talent from all over the world. In a radical transformation of the Atlantic and European domination of the last three centuries, much of the world’s knowledge will come from East Asia, in future. And with power in economy and science comes power in politics and culture. The rise of higher education in East Asia and Singapore, amid dynamic modernising economies, is leading to a more plural world in which the cultural mix will be more diverse. MOOCs assert American domination, but this process of pluralisation is working in the opposite direction.

While national education systems will remain intact, they will be increasingly influenced by these profound global changes. All but the last of these changes tend to homogenise the world either along the lines of a single global system, or closely related units within a single system. The rise of Asia brings a welcome opportunity for mutual learning across all borders, while at the same time that diversity will become folded into common education networks and a common world society. These are exciting global times; the next 25 years will be more exciting still, and international education is right at the forefront of momentous human developments.

To read the essay in it’s entirety, you can purchase the publication Possible futures: the next 25 years of internationalisation of higher education from the EAIE website.