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Five ways universities have already changed in the 21st century

Lots has changed, but not this. Students graduating by michaeljung/

Global higher education underwent a period of remarkable change in the first 15 years of the 21st century. Five key trends affecting universities around the world illustrate how, despite increased access to information, our understanding of higher education remains limited.

1. More people are going to university

Since 2000, participation in higher education has increased significantly. UNESCO figures for enrolment in tertiary education show that globally, participation rose from 19% in 2000 to 32% in 2012. While the proportions enrolled vary between countries and regions, the increases are pretty much universal. For example, tertiary enrolment in Sub-Saharan Africa has doubled from 4% to 8% over this period.

The percentage of those who left secondary five years ago who go on to tertiary education. CC BY

While the increases in participation have been seen everywhere, there have been differences between countries in terms of who is going to university. The OECD Education at a Glance 2014 provides figures for the relative likelihood of participation in higher education for those whose parents engaged in tertiary education and those whose parents did not.

In Italy and Poland you are 9.5 times more likely to attend tertiary education if your parents did, whereas in South Korea and Finland, the proportion is a little over one. The UK and US have among the highest ratios: young people with parents who attended tertiary education are over six times more likely to enrol. These figures show large differences in how equal the expansion of higher education has been across the world and do not appear to relate to differences in tuition fees.

Beyond easy generalisations about the ways in which social hierarchies operate in different national cultures, we are not much closer to understanding the origins of this disturbing variation.

2. People are travelling further afield

While the figures on the proportion of tertiary students enrolled show clear increases, they are slightly misleading because they divide the total number of students by the total number of school-leavers in a country. This means that the proportions can be over or underestimated by the inclusion of international students (both incoming and outgoing) and the proportion of mature students. For example, the US and Western Europe are net importers of students, while Sub-Saharan Africa and south and west Asia are net exporters.

According to the OECD, the number of students studying abroad more than doubled from 2.1m in 2000 to 4.5m in 2012. While most of the host nations for these international students have remained the same over this period, the one exception is China. It did not figure as a host nation in 2000, yet by 2012, 8% of international students studied there, putting it third behind the US and UK.

The relative impact of these students is different depending on the size of the higher education system in question. In the US, over 800,000 international students make up only 4% of their student population, while the UK has around half the number of international students but they make up 20% of the student population.

In the UK, this has led to stories about international students dominating particular courses, but we are still in the process of understanding the impact of differing proportions of international students on teaching and learning cultures in universities.

3. The rise of the student experience

As the number and mobility of students have increased, so has the range of experiences that students are offered: from the limited and passive experience of a poorly-designed Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) to students engaging as partners in the design of their curricula and teaching and learning experiences.

This focus on students’ experience has been an important corrective to traditional teacher-focused approaches to teaching in higher education. However, the danger is that highlighting the “student experience” has obscured the essential role that students’ engagement with knowledge plays in the transformative potential of higher education. It is knowledge that changes students’ understanding of themselves and the world.

4. Quality of teaching under scrutiny

As the focus on student experience has increased, so has the intensity of scrutiny on the quality of teaching. In Europe, this has been partly informed by the Bologna process, designed to harmonise higher education systems across Europe. Positions in national and international higher education league tables have become a dominant way of representing this quality. Their attraction is understandable: they travel across a number of contexts and audiences, have resonance for prospective students and their families, employers, policy makers, academics and universities, and international bodies.

However, their shortcomings are equally obvious: they tend to involve unrelated and incomparable measures that are brought together into a single score by algorithms and weightings that lack any statistical credibility. Crucially, the stability at the top of the league tables reinforces privilege: higher status institutions tend to take in a greater proportion of privileged students.

League tables strongly and wrongly suggest that students who have been to these institutions have received a higher quality education. But this distorts our understanding of teaching, making it about history and prestige rather than about the ways in which students are given access to powerful knowledge.

5. The impact agenda

Since the turn of the millennium, there has been an increasing expectation for research to bring a benefit to the society that funds it. This is now a standard element of research funding in the European Union and South Africa.

While it is very reasonable to expect research to lead to wider social benefits, the particular approach that has been taken to measure this impact has been distorting. The focus on how individual projects impact on societies shows a basic misunderstanding of the way in which research has an impact.

Individual research projects contribute to collective bodies of knowledge in a discipline or professional field. It is these bodies of knowledge that lead to impact, not individual studies. Despite this, we now have myriad impact case studies purporting to show the changes single studies have wrought, giving us much more information about impact but potentially obscuring our understanding of the relations between knowledge and society.

A mixed blessing

The greater amount of information we have about higher education around the world is a mixed blessing. The measurement and monitoring processes that generate and communicate this information – such as university league tables – distort what is considered valuable about higher education.

The danger is that the individual, durable and stable elements of higher education that can be easily measured are given a greater value than those that are collective, complex, changing and country-specific. In the face of this, we need to reassert a focus on the communal creation and sharing of knowledge that global universities contribute to the world.

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