This week’s readings discussed the various paths for international higher education to take in the future. Since the field itself is so new — and much of the rapid expansion and development has occurred in the last decade or so — it’s hard to say with any certainty that we can predict where international higher education will go and what the biggest challenges will be in the future. Yet the authors this week did highlight various areas that will continue to present challenges as international higher education becomes more interconnected across the globe.

I agree with Roberta Malee Bassett that equity and access is  “the single, most important challenge facing global higher education for the foreseeable future” (Bassett, 2015, pp. 5). While we in the U.S. have quite a bit of work left to do to increase access to higher education for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, the gap between the higher education “haves” and “have nots” is even wider in other areas of the world.

Globally, only 1% of people have access to higher education (Deardorff, de Wit, Heyl, 2012, pp. 463). Much of this gap is in the developing world, where inequality is much starker than in developed countries (although the developed world is seeing increasingly high rates of inequality that are approaching that of many developing countries). “In the francophone countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the children of the richest quantile account for 80 perfect of higher education enrollment, while those from the poorest 40 percent of the population group represent only 2 percent of the student population” (Bassett, 2015. pp. 6). Higher education in most areas of the world is still reserved for the wealthy elite, and until access truly expands to the rest of the world’s population, the global community will continue to miss out on millions of possible innovators and contributors to solutions to some of today’s most pressing global challenges.

Another trend to look out for is which path international higher education will take: soft power vs. knowledge diplomacy. We’ve spent a lot of time this semester discussing how governments look at internationalization of higher education not just as an economic opportunity, but also as a way to spread national influence to other ends of the world. While I support many of these initiatives, it’s hard to deny that the ultimate reason why these many internationalization initiatives are implemented is pure national self-interest.

This type of mindset pits nations and universities in competition with one another, rather than in collaboration. “Are the values of self-interest, competition, or dominance going to effectively address issues of world-wide epidemics, terrorism, failed states, the bottom billion in poverty, and climate change? The answer is no. This is based on the reality that solutions to worldwide challenges cannot be achieved by one country alone” (Knight, 2015, pp. 9). Instead, as Jane Knight argues, a model of knowledge diplomacy, which “…focuses on negotiation, mediation, collaboration, compromise, and facilitation” would be a better model for the future of higher education internationalization than the soft power approach, which is “…attached to power dominance, authority, command, and control” (Knight, 2015, pp. 5).

The last theme I want to touch on is the danger of overly commercializing higher education. Unfortunately, a perfect example of this can be traced back to my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. UW-Madison is perhaps most famous in U.S. higher education circles for the “Wisconsin Idea”, which states that “the mission of the UW System is to solve problems and improve people’s lives beyond the classroom. That mission encompasses teaching, research, outreach and public service.” This is why Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker trying to change the language of the University of Wisconsin mission away from the “search for truth” and “improve the human condition” to a mission to “meet the state’s workforce needs” caused such an uproar among Wisconsin residents and alumni.

While Walker ultimately backed off on the proposed change, this mindset towards the university solely existing to serve economic needs has become more dominant both in the U.S. and abroad — and has especially extended to the realm of international higher education. As Christine Musselin argues, the social and knowledge benefits of higher education — rather than just the economic benefits — are “all the more important because obscurantism, ignorance, intolerance, and fanaticism are unfortunately expanding.” The frightening rise of Donald Trump in the U.S., along with the increasing nationalism and identity politics throughout the rest of the world, proves the need for there to be an an increased importance on the social and knowledge benefits of education. As Musselin wrote, “Knowledge is not only important for its economic value but for society” (Musselin, 2015, pp. 13).

These are just a few of the major trends to look out for as international higher education continues to expand. While there are many challenges facing higher education throughout the globe, I’m ultimately optimistic about where we seem to be heading. Thank you, everyone, for such an insightful and engaging semester — I wish you all the best!

4 thoughts on “W13 – The Future of International Higher Education

  1. Quality and access indeed do seem to the prevalent themes in this week’s blogs and reflections on the future of international higher education. I do agree with your point that individual countries have agendas and self-interest that impact these concepts and that collaboration cannot be assumed in continuing to grow and foster international higher education efforts. For example, India is a focus of many global education initiatives. But we have seen that India has policy framework challenges that impact higher education and government in that country. Collaborations there must be rooted in regional realities and access cannot be taken for granted.

  2. Hi Jen,
    I was also interested in Jane Knight’s piece “Moving from Soft Power to Knowledge Diplomacy” which spoke about the goal of moving away from viewing international exchange using the competition driven power paradigm to using a more supportive diplomacy framework. Although I agree with her argument that we need cooperation and collaboration to address global challenges, I found this to be a little idealistic. Governments (and institutions, too) prioritize their self-interests, and I wonder if they would be as willing to fund these types of initiatives solely for the collective good. As one of the main government funded exchange programs in the US, the Fulbright program’s motivations have a lot to do with soft power, but I also see it as a way to clear up misconceptions and stereotypes while facilitating connections between people and institutions. International education and exchange have multiple benefits for all parties involved, so while I agree with Knight’s argument, I would rather have these exchanges funded for selfish motives than not at all.

  3. There seems to be a disconnect with Governor Walker’s view of the University of Wisconsin system existing to ‘meet the states workforce needs’, and the $250 million bienniel higher education budget cut he enacted, $54 million which was cut from UW Madison. In a public radio interview UWM president Rebecca Blank discussed increased class sizes, fewer course offerings, and deferred facility maintenence and repairs. With this as a backdrop, any institution would faces challenges implementing internationalization into their curriculum. It is more likely that they would focus just on increasing their international student population to bring in extra tuition revenue. You make an important point about the global issues of higher education access. While on a much smaller scale, I wonder what US access will look like amid dwindling state funding and rising tuition at public universities. Higher education certainly serves more than economic benefits. However if institutions are going to convince lawmakers to increase funding, economic benefits are most likely their best arguement.

    Great interview with UWM President:

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