5 ways universities have already changed in the 21st century
Global higher education underwent a period of remarkable change in the first 15 years of the 21st century.
(UE) 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)
2. People are travelling further afield
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.
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.
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.