14 Sep 2012

Future paths of international higher education

The landscape of international higher education is constantly changing. Our task – as scholars of international education, as well as practitioners who need to understand international education – is to identify the most important and decisive paths to take. What are the trend lines in international education that will shape everything else?

In recent years, the trends that have been especially important in creating international education and internationalised education have been (1) study abroad/student mobility, (2) research collaboration and (3) university rankings. But internationalisation will not stand still and other trends are emerging which could shape the future of international education.
The following three trends or paths have been identified as becoming increasingly important:

The growing pluralisation of advanced higher education

More countries now provide higher education at advanced levels and the number will keep on rising. A total of 49 countries now maintain systems of higher education that publish more than 1000 journal papers per year in science and social science (as collated by Thomson). The threshold of 1000 journal papers is a useful indicator for the presence of local research and doctoral capacity. This number of 49 countries is an increase of almost 30% in the number of countries with their own capacity in research in just 15 years.

This trend indicates that there are now many more countries capable of attracting visiting students, scholars and researchers, and acting as collaboration partners, either among neighbouring countries or across the world. In turn, this will increase the ‘horizontal’ aspect of student mobility, with a reduced proportion of mobility concentrated in a few dominant countries like the USA, UK, Germany, France and Australia; and with mobility patterns in the world as a whole beginning to look more like mobility patterns within Europe. In addition, as the capacity of higher education improves in emerging countries, we can expect more students and researchers from the long established systems to spend time in the emerging countries. We can already see this in the growth in the number of American students going to China.

A growing emphasis on hard-edged indicators of internationalisation

Within the administration of government programmes and also institutions’ own strategies for building international awareness and engagements, a growing emphasis can be seen on hard-edged indicators of internationalisation. No one has ‘nailed’ the problem of developing a fully satisfactory set of indicators – one that both contains coherent numerical measures, and is sufficiently comprehensive to cover the many aspects of internationalisation – but there are several projects under development. This focus on hard-edged indicators shows that many systems, and some of their institutions, want to achieve more intensive and self-transformative international experiences. They want to bring an international dimension to the knowledge content of the curriculum, to enhance global skill-building and to improve intercultural relations in culturally mixed classrooms. They want to move from rhetoric and bland mission statements, to changing the nature of the education that everyone receives.

This is a very challenging task, and there is always a danger of placing too much emphasis on those elements that can be counted – so that internationalisation becomes limited, formulaic – but if the drive to achieve internationalisation is strong enough then progress is made. A strong example can be seen in those East Asian systems like China and Singapore that use targets and formal benchmarks to drive improved internationalisation.

The emergence of mass open online courseware

Mass open online courseware (MOOCs) is becoming accessible from leading universities with top brand value: Harvard-MIT (Ed-X), Stanford (Coursera), plus many others. Many of these programmes have quickly gathered enormous enrolments worldwide. Because they are free at the point of delivery and offer social networking potentials, they are especially well attuned to the logic of the internet, attractive to users, thereby building a large demand pool that then becomes the platform for a range of activity, including potential commerce. MOOCs offer top rated content, assessment and certification from globally leading universities  and they have the potential to operate as both supplements to, and substitutes for, conventionally delivery. The unknown question is whether employers and other institutions will place value on MOOC credentials. If MOOC qualifications are recognised, MOOCs might be especially attractive to potential international students, saving such students vast amounts in course fees and living expenses in English-speaking countries.

All three trends are paths into the future, though they are rather different to each other. The fact that we have these different paths before us, and that we will go down more than one of these paths (and others), shows how rich and varied internationalisation has become. It is larger and more ambiguous than any definition we might develop in order to understand it.

By Simon Marginson
Simon  Marginson is Professor of Higher Education at the Centre for the Study of Higher Education, Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne.

Interested in discussing the future paths of international education? The trends outlined here, together with others, will be debated in the dialogue session, ‘What are the future paths for international higher education’ taking place on Friday 14 September from 10.00 at the EAIE Conference.