Professor Simon Marginson, IOE, International Higher Education

3 April 2014

By Professor Simon Marginson, IOE, International Higher Education

Since World War Two international higher education has been led by the English-speaking countries, especially the United States.

The near hegemony of the Atlantic countries in the university sector has exceeded their role in the trading and financial economies. It has been akin to American domination of film and cultural commodities, though falling short of American supremacy in the military sphere. The US and the UK sustain the leading research universities and the strongest domestic systems. The United States was the first mass higher education system and until recently the US and Canada had the highest participation rate. The US, followed by the UK and Australia, pioneered the corporate form of executive leadership in universities and performance cultures. Arguably UK universities are the leaders in value for money, though only because the business model rests on a thick bedrock of inherited intellectual capital.

Likewise English-speaking countries have led the process of globalization-global convergence and partial integration-in the sector, helped by the fact that since 1945 English has been the one required global language. European universities have introduced more than 6400 programs in English. The Anglo-American science university provides the main template for global university rankings. The US and the UK have been the leaders in research. The UK and Australia pioneered mass commercial international education, and also transnational education in East and Southeast Asia. US universities are now the largest players among the 220 offshore campuses worldwide. NYU Shanghai and the joint liberal arts college of Yale and National University of Singapore take TNE to a new level of cross-border integration. Stanford, Harvard and MIT developed Mass Open Online Courseware, MOOCs, a mechanism for distributing disciplinary content knowledge led by star professors and packaged in global brands, the equivalent of Hollywood in this sector. British publishing and business services companies fashioned the commercial form of global ranking at Times Higher and QS, though in the outcome the less commercial approach taken by Shanghai Jiao Tong ARWU, more solidly grounded in social science and less open to manipulation, has proven to be more credible and influential.

In other words, since the quickened process of globalisation that began with the Internet-another US/UK development-in the early 1990s, the global higher education landscape has been shaped by the Anglo-American neo-imperial project. This has provided British universities with profound advantages, sustaining their status and compensating them for the parsimony of public funding. A broad range of strategic options has been open to executives. The brand has maintained its value, partly because of the continuing linguistic dominance of English in education and business, partly because of London's power of attraction as a global city, and most of all because the careful harbouring of resources has ensured that comparative research performance has been sustained in the leading universities. International student demand, both among all prospective students and among high achieving students, has strongly exceeded supply. Notwithstanding the difficulty some HEIs face from time to time in making up the numbers, at the level of the system as a whole, supply rather than demand has shaped total international student numbers, above all the supply of visas and the warmth of the welcome-the ease and cost of entry and the post-study options. 

But nothing lasts forever. Though English is still the one global language, for now, the old neo-imperial reach is receding and giving way to a more plural world in which global pull is exerted by a larger number of regions, nations and cities, the East is rising, and capacity in higher education and research are more widely distributed. While American research universities are so strong abroad that they can sustain their sense of cultural superiority a bit longer, this is less true of the Westminster countries. Today I will use graphs and tables to sketch certain features of the changing higher education landscape, and draw out the strategic implications for universities in the UK, before concluding with international education and international students.

Worldwide trends

When we look from the nation outwards to the higher education world, we can see three main trends. The relentless expansion of educational participation across the globe. The spread of indigenous capacity in science and technology to many countries. And the emergence of more higher education systems with autonomous clout.

First, the growth of participation. Tertiary participation is uneven by world region and country. We focus on the zones where it is low, the gaps-variously seen as populations to support and opportunities to exploit. Let's focus instead on the uniform pattern of expansion. Once countries achieve a basic threshold of state-building, the demand for secondary and then tertiary education starts to rise and it goes on rising. Sooner or later governments must respond, and they go on responding. Families also supply their own investments. The balance between government funding and family funding varies across the world but the outcome is the same. From time to time the growth of participation slows but the long run trend is clear. Remarkable though it may seem when we look at the numbers for Africa and South Asia, all post-school education systems are on track to eventually become High Participation Systems, systems enrolling more than half of the population. This level has already been achieved in much of Europe and East Asia, and parts of the Americas. While economic growth is one of the conditions for high participation, and economic factors shape the growth of graduate numbers in some specific fields, overall, student numbers are driven less by labour market demand than by social demand. The driver is social aspirations. Increasingly, everywhere, families find that young people need tertiary education not only to secure a position in the top layer of professions and occupations but for full agency and citizenship.

Second, the spread of autonomous research, and the deepening of national higher education capacity across the world, matching the quantity expansion. Activity in science and technology is growing at a healthy rate. Between 2001 and 2011 worldwide investment in R&D increased by an 4.4 per cent per annum while the output of science papers in the Thomson-Reuters list of disciplinary journals grew by 2.8 per cent a year. Research is expensive. It is a largely a cost, rarely generating direct returns in net terms, especially basic research. But to access the fruits of worldwide innovations in science and technology, national economies need their own capability in science, their own trained people and their own capacity to train researchers, partly in government labs but mostly in universities. Universities train most of the researchers who work in industry. Until the last 15 years or so research science was overwhelmingly dominated by the US, UK, Western Europe and Japan. This is now changing. 

In 1997 there were 39 countries that published more than one thousand science papers a year. The threshold of one thousand is a proxy for local scientific capacity. A nation with 200-300 journal papers a year, like Indonesia and Vietnam, secures its presence in the global literature through PhD students and post-docs in the USA, UK or Western Europe, often publishing with their PhD supervisors. A nation with 1000 papers has its own science universities. In 2011 there were 51 such nations-an increase of 12 nations in 14 years. The new kids on the block included Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Tunisia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Malaysia. More will follow. Some governments, such as that of Saudi Arabia, are front-end loading investment to achieve 'world-class' science universities as quickly as possible. Nation-states see themselves as 'global competition states', in Cerny's phrase. One of the core conditions of global competition states is capacity in S&T. Nations that lack an indigenous scientific capacity are forced into a position of continuing dependence.

The result is a complex mosaic of science systems across the world, at varying stages of autonomous development, varying disciplinary strengths, varying cross-border partnerships, and varying distances from the leading universities in the Anglo-American and Western European countries. Differences in research strength have important implications for international education, because research is the principal driver of brand value, the spread of research capacity brings more competitors and collaborators into the strategic game, and global flows of talent are drawn towards nations with science power, not just for research activity but for education and credentials. The pattern of teaching services is shaped by the research rankings. As more national systems move towards the level of High Participation Systems, and become science systems as well, international education is less about meeting unmet demand, and more about using mobility to secure comparative advantage. This pushes up the level of standards and the intensity of competition.

Some science systems are focused on building educational and research capacity in STEM and are growing rapidly. Others have already established comprehensive research and educational systems at tertiary level and are growing more slowly in research quantity, or not growing at all. Some, but not all, mature science systems are closely focused on lifting the quality of science or the efficient targeting of research funds, and like all systems they want to foster more effective links between university science and industry.

In certain long-established national science systems there is little or no growth in journal papers, despite the worldwide expansion in scientific knowledge. For example between 2001 and 2011 journal output in the UK rose just 0.1 per cent a year to 46,035, which was 21.7 per cent of output in the United States. The rate of growth was 0.3 per cent in France, 0.8 per cent in Germany and 1.1 per cent in the US. Journal paper output fell by 1.7 per cent a year in Japan.

Northwestern Europe houses a number of high quality science university systems, including the Netherlands and Belgium, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, and Switzerland and Austria. On some output indicators Switzerland is stronger than the UK research sector. In the longer run the Excellence Initiative will lift performance in the leading German universities. These systems like UK are characterised by high rates of intra-European collaboration. They dominate the list of leading research countries in terms of citations per paper, one proxy measure for research quality.

The trajectory in the Post-Confucian countries of East Asia, countries where the political and educational culture has been shaped by Chinese civilization, is different. For the most part these systems have established strong R&D and world-class universities only in the last 10-20 years. With the exception of Japan-which formed its science system in the 1970s-the dominant pattern is one of extremely rapid growth in R&D spending and journal outputs. In the decade after 2001 China's R&D spending grew by a remarkable 18.1 per cent a year in real terms to reach $208 billion in 2011. South Korea also stands out. In 2011 it spent $60 billion on R&D, 4.03 per cent of GDP, the second highest level in the world after Israel.

Between 2001 and 2011 journal output in China grew by 15.6 per cent a year, concentrated in Engineering, Physics, Chemistry and Computing. In Chemistry China produced 17 per cent of all world papers in 2012 compared to 16 per cent in the US. The US had twice as many papers ranked in the top 1 per cent by citation rate but the gap in quality is closing. In computing China had 13 per cent of all journal papers but 17 per cent of the world's top 1 per cent papers. However, China is weaker in Biological Sciences, Medicine and Psychology. In South Korea the annual growth in papers was 8.8 per cent. It was Taiwan 6.5 per cent, which is especially strong in computing and electrical engineering, and 6.4 per cent in Singapore.

Science was also moving in India at 7.6 per cent per annum. However, paper volume in India is one quarter the level of China, and less than that of Korea which has one-thirtieth the population of India. There are many problems in the leading research universities. India is held back by the lack of that element so prominent in East Asia-the centralizing, modernizing national state. There are pronounced regional disparities. Investment in R&D is fragmented. Strategic leadership and performance cultures are under-developed.

Other nations where research outputs are expanding rapidly, from low levels 15 years ago, include Brazil, Iran, Malaysia-where a generation of talk about the knowledge economy is finally bearing fruit in the universities-and parts of Europe. The fastest growing basic science system is that of Iran. Led by Physics and Chemistry output surged from 1035 journal papers in 2001 to 8176 in 2011, an amazing growth rate of 23.0 per cent per year. Approximately one quarter of all papers are published with international co-authors, which sits on the world average level of cross-border authorship, but only 15 of those 8000 papers were co-written with Israeli authors. Science breaks down some barriers but not all it seems.

Global systems

So far we have been looking at the world landscape from the national viewpoint. Looking outwards from the UK we see the inexorable spread of tertiary participation everywhere, and the deepening of research capacity in a growing number of countries. A handful of strong higher education nations is becoming a larger group. But the worldwide landscape can and should be surveyed from more than just the national perspective. We need to move above that landscape to more fully grasp what the different nations have in common; to develop a sense of how global systems, crisscrossing all the landscape, are changing the strategic conditions for us. 

The worldwide landscape is being remade by systemic global developments. For example, first, the extension and intensification of communications. As well as complex data transfer and project sharing, low cost synchronised cross-border meetings in real time are now commonplace. This facilitates all other international functions. Second, as will be already apparent from what has been said, the evolution of a one-world science system based on English language publishing and absorbing previously separated research conversations. This is associated with the rapid increase in cross-border research authorship, from 16 per cent of all journal papers worldwide in 2001 to 25 per cent of all papers in 2011. Third, momentously, global comparisons and rankings. Fourth, almost as momentously, MOOCs. Fifth, the spread of all forms of cross-border partnership, including twinning and joint degrees. Sixth, the continual expansion in student mobility at every level from first degree to doctorate, facilitated by credit recognition, partial degree standardisation, and quality assurance mechanisms. And seventh, the rise of the regional factor in higher education, not just in Europe but elsewhere-partly in response to Anglo-American hegemony. This is a formidable list of global systemic developments.

Global comparison and ranking is shaping educational systems at national level according to single global standards and models. The process of homogenisation is not complete-important national differences remain, so that reform packages are hybrids of global model and local culture-but increasingly, governments and HEIs across the world find themselves responding in similar ways. There is now a new set of informal rules that are too potent to ignore.

Consider the impact on policy and practice in pre-tertiary schooling, of the OECD's PISA assessments of the educational achievement of 15-year olds. PISA is now the principal performance indicator for school-level education bureaucrats and ministers. Not all countries are focused on lifting their PISA scores. Many are though. There is intense international interest in, and borrowing from, systems such as Finland, Korea and Shanghai that have done well in PISA.

The equivalent in higher education is global university 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 are now installed on the front page in many countries. Research persistently shows that despite the shortcomings of this form of cross-border comparison, rankings are highly influential with families and students in decision about 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. As noted, global rankings inexorably push governments and universities alike towards the model of the comprehensive Anglo-American science university that makes up the ranking template. They drive mergers designed to secure reputation and critical mass, and drive offshore recruitment to lift citation rates. University ranking has become perhaps the chief performance indicator for ministers of higher education, and university presidents / rectors/ vice-chancellors.

MOOCs. More than one third of all American higher education students were enrolled in at least one online program prior to MOOCs but MOOCs are something else. MOOC programs began two and a half years ago. Through Coursera and Udacity at Stanford, and Ed-X run by MIT and Harvard, MOOC offerings and enrolments have grown extraordinarily rapidly. MOOCS have taken off because they are high quality programs from global brand universities that feature leading world experts, students' work is assessed, and students who complete the program successfully receive certification at its end. MOOCS also provide scope for social networking between students. As a free platform with user navigated content and networks they are attuned to the web, unlike other online prototypes that replicate the bricks and mortar university in virtual form. As free programs from prestigious universities, they are an attractive alternative to any program in any mode that charges tuition fees. MOOC programs are already recognized by 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 MOOC programs will continue to roll out alongside conventional delivery in existing HEIs. 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.

Meanwhile the more long term growth in global mobility continues-from 1.1 million in 1980 and 1.3 million in 1990 to 2.1 million in the year 2000 and 4.3 million in 2011. Demand is fuelled by the worldwide growth of the middle class, especially in China and India. The number of middle class people in Asia-people living on $100 USD or more a day-is expected to rise from 600 million in 2010 to more than 3 billion in 2030. It will multiply five times in twenty years. Middle class families want tertiary education for their children. Regardless of the quality of home institutions, in a globalising world some will always see advantages in education abroad.

Strategic implications for UK universities

To move towards a summing up, what are the strategic implications of all this for UK universities? There are two main implications.

First, the days of neo-imperial domination of higher education are drawing to a close, if they have not finished already. In Western Europe and to some extent in Eastern and Southern Europe the Bologna process and the European Research Area have stimulated widespread modernization and the advance of research capacity. In East Asia combined strength of both student numbers and journal paper output will surpass that of Europe/UK. Already in 2011 Post-Confucian East Asia and Singapore spent $448 billion on R&D, considerably more than Europe/UK with $345 billion and not far short of North America with $453 billion. A growing proportion of the world's scientific knowledge is coming from China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Already, in many respects these systems are our equals in higher education. Self-belief is a fine thing, but we need to set aside those notions of cultural superiority that are still deeply ingrained. We need to respect and understand European and East Asian higher education. We need to learn the main languages of East Asia, which will remain in use in universities, so as to learn about our East Asian colleagues just as they have successfully learned about us. We need to learn about the histories and cultures of the region. The approach to the role of government, to state-university relations in higher education, and to educational culture in the family, is distinctive and will be increasingly influential worldwide.

It is not generally realized that per capita wealth in Post-Confucian Asia, except in China, is already on par with that of Western Europe. In China there are great regional disparities. Per capita GNI in Shanghai, Beijing region and parts of Eastern China is already at half the level prevailing in the UK and Western Europe. However, in terms of basic preparation for tertiary education, 15-year old students in the Post-Confucian systems are not just equal to but much stronger than their Western Counterparts, in reading as well as in STEM. The Post-Confucian systems are all moving towards High Participation status or, like Taiwan and South Korea, are already there. China is expected to achieve a TER of 40 per cent by 2020.

East Asian universities do not yet lead the world top 200. However, the investments of the last two decades are beginning to bear fruit in the entry into the world top 500 of an increasing number of universities from China, Taiwan and South Korea. Mainland China had eight universities in the ARWU top 500 in 2005. Less than a decade later in 2013 it had 28 such universities. The two top Singapore universities, NUS and Nanyang, are at Western European levels in research performance, not that far below Cambridge. In China, in addition to the large comprehensive universities such as Tsinghua and Peking University and Zhejiang, an impressive layer of smaller S&T focused universities has emerged, such as Nankai and the university of Science and Technology, the Academy university.

Second and finally, we need to take our rhetoric about student-centred education seriously and apply it to international students.

As I noted earlier, the UK's position in the international student market is strong. In the longer term, it could be undone by a combination of factors: the strengthening of higher education in the rest of the world, the maintenance in the UK of an unsympathetic visa regime and uncompetitive post-study work rights, and an insular confidence that global English and the attractions of Britain allow us to continue as we are without adjusting the educational program or the welfare regime to the many international students in our midst. Too often, we as international education providers expect international students to adjust to us. But good relationships are mutually sensitive. We must learn also to adjust to them.

We need to acknowledge, more fully, the issues and problems that many international students face. Problems of financial sustainability and emergency support. Problems of restricted work rights and high exploitation in the workplace. The many students forced to work outside their visa limitations find it impossible to challenge exploitative hours and wages and sexual harassment in the workplace. Problems of the scaling back of work rights after graduation, in order to reduce the potential for migration applications. Problems of lack of information and appalling living conditions in the housing market, where landlord surveillance of non-European students, as required by UKVI, cuts into their capacity to seek redress. Problems of discrimination and abuse, especially outside the campus in the general community. Problems of inadequate support for some students in their efforts to acquire academic English, and their linguistic isolation in local communities. Problems of living under surveillance and the increasingly discriminatory policy on non-EU students, especially but not only in the further education sector. A regime designed to capture illegal students have been universalized to all non-EU students, so that the whole group face possible discriminatory treatment on the basis of birth. This is worst possible outcome. It is expensive and draconian and lowers the nation before the world. It also violates the values and traditions that for many international students, are primary reasons for their difficult passage to the UK.

I wish you well in your deliberations at today's Forum. I am confident that in this room we have the goodwill and expertise to meet these challenges and to take international education to a higher level.

Our team


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