International student mobility driven by imbalances in the global higher education system?

International student mobility driven by imbalances in the global higher education system?

Dirk van Damme, Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress Division at the Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD in Paris provides further reflections to his recent keynote speech on the ethics and economics of international education at the recent EAIE 25th Anniversary Event held in Amsterdam earlier this week. Here, Dirk explores the growing imbalance in the international higher education system.

Today, an estimated 4.5 million students study in another country and that figure will continue to increase to an expected 7.2 million in 2020. Even if international students still form a very small part of the total student population around the globe, the growth rate of international students exceeds that of domestic students. International student mobility is one of the very interesting indications of the globalisation of higher education, yet we know little about what drives it. Some people refer to the lack of capacity in home countries to cater for the growing numbers of middle-class students looking for an excellent education (the ‘push’). Others primarily explain mobility by the reputation of world-class universities in destination countries, boosted by international rankings of universities (the ‘pull’).

Global restructuring

Obviously, push and pull factors reinforce each other, as in any form of migration. And maybe it would be more interesting to look into the underlying forces and frictions in the global higher education system generating both push and pull factors. The most obvious global imbalance of course is the huge discrepancy between the global distribution of the global talent pool and the global distribution of academic excellence (for which we don’t have any other measure than the rankings scores at country level). In 2000, the US had 17% of all people on the globe with a tertiary qualification. Its share dropped to 14% in 2010 and will further decrease to 11% in 2020. In contrast, China grew from 17% to 18% between 2000 and 2010, and is expected to reach an astonishing 28% in 2020. In a less spectacular way, many other emerging economies follow the same track. The global restructuring and relocation of the pool of high-skilled people is one of the most dramatic changes we witness today.

Academic reputation draws international students

The picture of the global distribution of academic excellence looks completely different. In 2010, US universities took a share of 43% in the Times Higher Education World University ranking top 200. China did not yet take any share, and Asian universities in general do not yet seem to have broken through into the top of the global academic system. The UK only had 2.8% of the globe’s graduates in 2010, but accumulated a share of 13.8% in the top 200 universities. Rankings are far from being a perfect indicator of academic quality and their impact will remain contested, but it is clear that there is a huge global imbalance between the quantitative development of higher education and the qualitative distribution of excellence. International students look at easy measures of academic reputation to guide them in their search. A recent study in the UK looked at millions of Google searches and found that they largely were in sync with the reputation measures provided by rankings. By lack of better measures of transparency, students look into rankings as the best possible proxy and universities should understand that.

Wide skills variation of graduates

There is another very interesting, but much less well known indicator of imbalances in the global higher education system. OECD’s recent Adult Skills Survey (PIAAC), which provides measures of adults’ literacy and numeracy skills, allows for the comparison of countries’ share of higher education graduates in the working population (16–64 years old) who have high levels of skills. The astonishing fact is that across countries, people with the same qualification show very different levels of skills. In Japan, 37% of people with a higher education degree perform at the survey’s highest levels of literacy, whereas in Italy only 12% do so. In between these two extremes are countries like the Netherlands (36%), England (25%), The US (24%), Canada (22%) and France (19%). It is clear that the skills equivalent of higher education degrees varies enormously between countries. In fact, Japanese high school graduates have better skills than their Italian higher education colleagues.

To infer from these skills distribution indicators something meaningful on the quality of each country’s higher education providers of course is jumping too far. Also, the use of skills in the economy and the opportunities for workers to develop their skills over the course of their lifetime are important factors in explaining the skills distribution in a country. But it is evident that such discrepancies create tensions even in a harmonised European Higher Education Area, where higher education degrees are supposed to more or less carry the same value in terms of skills. Probably, these data will be too far removed from international students’ frames of reference to guide them in their search. But they confirm the fact that a degree does not symbolise much in abstraction of the country or institution delivering it.

Globalisation does not seem to have a converging or equalising impact on higher education in the world. Probably it even promotes greater diversification and inequalities, leading to huge imbalances on a global scale. International student migration is only one way – but a very significant way – through which these imbalances drive people’s behaviour in search of a better life.

By Dirk Van Damme, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD, France