How will changing demographics transform higher education? Demographics are a vital tool in the futurists’ toolbox, and are also crucial for understanding just about everything in education, including not just higher ed but K-12, informal education, vocational training, and more.
Case in point: how populations are changing around the world in terms of their connection to colleges and universities. The HESA blog (see below) had a fine post on this topic earlier this year, which I’d like to raid here.
Usher’s one-sentence summary: “overall, youth numbers are shifting from richer and middle-income countries to poorer ones.” That is, traditional college-age populations in Europe, the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, etc. are either declining or hitting a plateau. The planetary growth in young people is coming instead from Asia and Africa:
By “Asia” the growth is really in central and west Asia, not China any longer:
Africa is where the serious growth it, at least in relative terms:
What does this mean for nations that depend with increasing intensity on students from abroad? Usher offers two views, beginning with concern: “Ceteris paribus, this is bad news for international student flows because on average, the potential client base is going to be coming from poorer countries.”
Then he offers a more positive take, emphasizing that democraphics is the ground, yet there’s a lot of room to move there:
[K]eep in mind two things: first, international education is by and large the preserve of the top five percent of the income strata anyway, so national average income may not be that big a deal. Second, while the size of the base populations may be changing, what really matters for total numbers is the fraction of the total population which chooses to study abroad. China is a good example here: as our data shows, the youth population is falling drastically but international student numbers are up because an increasing proportion of students are choosing to study abroad.
Vital stuff, and very useful for university leaders and education analysts.
What’s missing from this analysis, or where would I disagree? It’s not the focus of this piece, but adult learning matters a great deal. As I’ve said over the years, higher ed systems in the US and other aging nations would do well to expand their “non-traditional” learner base. Perhaps we’ll see two-tiered campuses, with traditional-age students being increasingly from Africa and west-central Asia, and older students being the locals.
Usher posted this in February, and possibly composed it before reactions to Trump’s immigration policies were available, but I’d add the chance that international student flows to the United States will drop as a result of those policies and how people interpret them.
I link this in part to rising income inequality within the United States. Recall Usher’s observation that “international education is by and large the preserve of the top five percent of the income strata anyway”. That’s one reason for American colleges to recruit abroad: not only to win more students, and also to get some non-white ones, but especially to attract those from wealthy families who can pay full tuition. Think about how that will impact the makeup of American student bodies over time.
Also from the American content, remember administrative bloat? Attracting more international students will increase the bloat, as some of those administrators are the ones tasked with recruiting and supporting those learners.
This is also where online learning comes in, with the dream of attracting students from around the world, without the burden of physical relocation.
And this is where higher education marketing and outreach will have to grow.
The Higher Education Strategy Associates’ blog is one of my favorite research sources. Alex Usher has a deep grasp of educational data, and a very canny awareness of academic strategy and politics. He focuses the blog on Canada, which is useful (to me, and to anyone looking at transnational education), but also considers global higher ed. The blog’s on a summer hiatus, but I recommend digging into the archives and catching up when Usher returns to us, his fans.