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The future for higher education is international

27 January 2014

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By Dr Joanna Newman, Director of the UK HE International Unit

What will higher education look like in 2020?

This is a question we ask ourselves regularly at the UK Higher Education International Unit. Our recent report, Horizon Scanning, identified trends, considerations and challenges faced by higher education in the next decade. One thing that we knew before commissioning the research, however, is that the future for higher education is international, whether in terms of students, operations or research. There is no longer any doubt that those institutions that embrace international opportunities are going to be the ones that not only survive, but thrive; the trick is understanding what the opportunities are, and how to go about embracing them.

A key issue here is that internationalisation is not simply about international students. And it is certainly not simply about bolstering universities in the UK with students from overseas. Rather, it is about understanding that internationalism gives us all a huge advantage, both corporately and personally. International experience makes graduates of all disciplines more employable. International reach makes businesses less susceptible to local economic woes; cultural understanding and knowledge brings huge dividends in terms of product development and identifying opportunities, not to mention attracting new customers. Academic research that is undertaken with international partners, meanwhile, is more likely to be cited by other academics.

The truth is that there is great change afoot in the world of higher education. Great change brings with it both opportunities and threats, which is why the annual International Higher Education Forum, hosted by Universities UK and the International Unit, is now such a key date in the calendar.

The opportunities are plentiful. Universities and institutions are now attracting significant numbers of students from around the globe; they are setting up campuses in Asia and the Middle East; they are partnering collaboratively with institutions on the other side of the world; and they are developing online resources enabling students anywhere to take part in degree courses and engage in debate.

The threats, however, are equally significant: reputational risks, political risks, socio-economic risks and more. Will students studying online be as committed to their studies as those on traditional courses? Is transnational education a panacea? Will student mobility continue to grow or will students start to study closer to home as their local institutions evolve and mature? Can our own outward mobility strategy succeed in driving students from the UK to study abroad so that our economy can benefit from the wealth of experience they bring back with them? Can UK institutions maintain their position as the second most popular destination for international students after the US? Can we reassure students internationally that they are welcome in the UK to study?

One of the more exciting - and challenging - developments in higher education is the 'unbundling' of provision from qualifications, allowing students to choose courses from different institutions and receive credit towards a degree or non-degree certificate or 'badge'. This has already begun in the US and we expect and hope, following the European Parliament Erasmus+ announcements last month, that it will continue apace across Europe too. But again, such a move is fraught with risks around quality of provision and student loyalty, not to mention the administrative upheaval that universities will have to face as larger numbers of students attend their institutions for shorter periods of time.

Other issues that will continue to rumble on include the gradual withdrawal of the state from the funding of higher education teaching in the developed world and the associated cost-reduction strategies employed by universities. And of course, there is the growth of private for-profit providers of higher education, a market that has already grown rapidly and will continue to do so.

There is a great deal that we don't know about the future. Political change can derail the best-laid plans and economic growth cannot be depended upon. What is certain, however, is that an international outlook, strategy and focus will be required by all higher education institutions if they are to flourish. The International Unit is opening all the doors it can; it is up to universities themselves to walk through them.

The next International Higher Education Forum is taking place on 20 March 2014. Follow the debate on Twitter  - #IHEForum14.

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