More than 150 years ago, the Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman set out his vision for a university as “a place of concourse, whither students come from every quarter for every kind of knowledge”. As students have become more mobile, and higher education institutions more international, Cardinal Newman might be surprised at the truly diverse concourse of the modern education market.

Driving the globalisation of universities are children from the middle classes in emerging economies who aspire to highly skilled jobs. In Asia especially, the development of universities has not kept pace with rising levels of affluence, creating a shortfall of places. As a result, western economies are vying to attract a growing pool of youngsters looking to study abroad. And in fast-growing nations such as India and Brazil, the race to build more universities is on.

Much of this change is necessitated by sheer demographics. More than half of India’s population is under 25 years old; by 2020 it will be ahead of China as the country with the largest population at tertiary-education age. The flow of Chinese students overseas is expected to grow as much as 15 per cent a year until 2018. Already, 2.5m students globally are studying outside their home country, creating a sector worth $30bn a year for the US, the UK, Canada and Australia, according to the Parthenon Group education consultancy.

For these traditional markets, the boom could not have come at a better time. Austerity has squeezed higher education state subsidies, while expenditure by universities is rising as competition – for the best staff, technology and facilities – increases. In the US in particular, rising costs and falling enrolments have put the long-term viability of some weaker universities at risk.

Last year, a report by education business Pearson, owner of the Financial Times, and the Institute for Public Policy Research, the think-tank, predicted an “avalanche” in the market that would challenge 20th-century higher education institutions. Its authors observed that the traditional relationship between universities, students and national economies was increasingly under pressure.

Western governments are all too aware of the threat to their academic centres and have made efforts to boost higher education exports. Despite domestic political concerns about immigration, Australia has loosened visa rules around international students to draw youngsters away from the two most popular university destinations, the US and the UK.

In the UK, stricter border controls led to a 49 per cent drop in enrolments from Indian students between 2011 and 2013, and a 38 per cent decrease for those from Pakistan. But these falls have been largely offset by huge increases from China, and a dedicated education export unit in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is working to build better links with international universities via branch campuses and shared courses.

While revenue from overseas students has provided a lifeline for cash-strapped institutions, Mike Boxall, a higher education expert at PA Consulting Group, says there are dangers in having too many incomers. “We are hearing anecdotally that [in some universities] this has reached an uncomfortable limit,” he says. “Students who have come halfway round the world to get an English experience… come into a classroom to find there are lots of other international students there too.”

Emerging economies face different hurdles. China has an ambitious $250bn-a-year programme to develop its universities and research facilities, but governments elsewhere are more restricted. Karan Khemka, co-head of the Parthenon Group’s education practice, suggested in an essay for Harvard Business Review that the “western model” of state-funded university education “is a luxury emerging markets, with limited resources, cannot afford”.

Instead, these countries rely heavily on for-profit providers to build a university sector that is rapidly scalable and sustainable in the long term. The UK’s university unions and some parts of its academic establishment have been sceptical of private institutions, casting doubts over their quality and value for money. But across Asia and Latin America, these providers do not carry the same stigma. In Malaysia, the private higher education market was worth $2.4bn, or about 1 per cent of gross domestic product, in 2012.

“In emerging markets it is absolutely the case that private universities are responding to growing demand,” Khemka says. “In Brazil, most higher education enrolments are in private universities.”

As old and new economies battle with how to deliver good-quality education to increasingly mobile students, technology could provide part of the answer. Massive open online courses, or Moocs, beam mostly free lectures and teaching programmes designed by top academics around the world to anyone with an internet connection.

Though some fear Moocs threaten the future of traditional, campus-based universities – particularly the attractiveness of this model to overseas students – it seems more likely they will provide a different and complementary way of consuming academic content.

Nick Hillman, director of the UK’s Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank, says in large parts of the world, including much of Asia, distance learning is still an “untrusted model”. “My hunch is that Moocs have most to offer the developing world, including large parts of Africa, as the value added is greater for those people who get access to trusted world-class resources for the first time,” he says.

Disruptive technologies, demographic change and changing patterns of economic growth have shaped significant changes in how universities function. Hillman describes the new outlook as “more students, more focus on teaching, a more international outlook, a more diverse range of providers and more collaboration on research”.

Longstanding academic institutions in countries such as the UK and US are finding new ways to distinguish themselves. They are deepening links with industry to fund research and help bring their findings to market, and taking more notice of what employers want from graduates. Some are opening international campuses in Asia and the Middle East to entice local students and using the internet to reach a wider audience.

Boxall believes in the UK, at least, three broad categories of university will emerge – oligarchs, innovators and zombies. Established brands such as Oxford and Cambridge are the oligarchs, assured of survival. Innovators are the middle-ranking universities prepared to take risks to bring in new students. Meanwhile, the zombies, which refuse to change and suffer declining enrolments, will spiral into extinction.

He argues that the future challenge for higher education institutions will be to stay in the game at a time when it is easy for aspiring students to access the knowledge and skills they need from elsewhere, whether online, directly from working with industry or through hybrid courses designed and funded by an employer.

“The world is in the business of finding solutions to multi-faceted problems and yet universities are still in the business of finding applications for curiosity-driven research,” Boxall observes. “The threat is not recognising this and becoming less and less relevant as time goes on.”


FT Twitter chat: Is it worth going to university? Join us 1200-1300 BST on Tuesday 7 October #FTuniversity

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article