Two scenarios for global higher education

How will the global higher education sector evolve?

I recently gave a plenary address to the Berlin OEB conference, and tested out some ideas on the audience.  I’d like to expand on them here.  Specifically, I want to share two scenarios for how higher education’s international nature could change.

Planetary University

In the year 2029 we see the advent of Planetary University, a globally distributed higher education system.  It is accessible to students just about everywhere, especially virtually.  It produces and shares research across all national borders.

How does this work?

international house_wojtekgurak

There are several bricks and mortar Planetary Universities around the world.  On each one the majority of faculty, staff, and students are from nations other than the host country.  At the same time the supermajority of non-PU universities and colleges support students in transferring studies and credits.  Students typically take classes from multiple institutions worldwide – French language from one, Python from another.  The majority of students engage in study abroad either through formal programs or simply by transferring between nations.

Research is transnational by default.  Project teams typically consist of researchers from multiple nations, collaborating via digital technology.  The majority of scholarly publishing is open access, which enables researchers from the developing world to partake and contribute more than they can now.

Support staff and administration normally think in an international context.  For example, senior admin lobby for global faculty, staff, and student applications.  IT departments are keenly aware of tech developments and threats from around the world.  Staff respond to regulatory changes in countries other than their own.

This scenario is based on the past generation of rising international study (for example).  Also, in a sense this is a neoliberal higher education order, as Planetary University echoes the movement of money, ideas, and people across borders.

National College

In contrast the National College focuses itself on its country of original, with little international engagement.

Trump RockyNC teaching and research has certain national characteristics, depending on political currents.  Curricula and publications may celebrate, critique, or ignore local or distant ethnic groups. Select sciences may be downplayed or emphasized.  Humanities topics are especially reshaped accordingly.  There is strong emphasis on national pride and tradition, especially as solutions for contemporary problems.

Administratively, regulation and accreditation are essentially national, more so than today.  Campuses may or may not have strong faculty/staff unions.  Governmental agencies can have a strong institutional presence than they do now.

The drivers here include populist, nationalist movements, especially, but not exclusively, on the political right.  Antiglobalization plays a role.  Another force is recent controversies over selecting universities’ language of instruction, with calls to either teach a global language – i.e., English – or to teach in a local tongue.  We’ve also seen it in the Hungarian government’s successful expulsion of a very international university.

…these are scenarios.  They are not predictions of likely futures.  They are models of possible futures, based on present day trends, designed to help you think through where higher ed can be headed.

We might not see a bricks and mortar Planetary University formed, although it’s possible, especially in a partial sense.  National Colleges may be more likely, especially in some polities (think Poland, Brazil, Hungary, Turkey). We could also see both of these scenarios play out, with different countries picking one or the other path.  Indeed, within a given nation or even a city we could see both scenarios in play.

(“International House” photo by Wojtek Gurak)

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5 Responses to Two scenarios for global higher education

  1. Phil Katz says:

    Bryan — Do you imagine either (or both) of these scenarios co-existing with the types of cosmopolitan universities that already exist today? There is a long list of research universities that are more than national in scale and scope by pretty much every standard (except, perhaps, multiple languages of instruction) — i.e., the national origins of faculty members and students alike, collaborative research across national boundaries, support for geographically distributed research sites, encouragement of study abroad for domestic students, the range of subjects and perspectives being taught, etc. Even quite small liberal arts colleges can lay claim to some dimensions of cosmopolitanism. Does this persist within the interstices of your scenarios? — Phil

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Phil, I think those cosmopolitan colleges and universities are on the way to becoming Planetary University.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        PS: for some reason – possibly this head cold – your use of cosmopolitan brought to mind Rosenberg.

        “…It is the same old druid Time as ever,
        Only a live thing leaps my hand,
        A queer sardonic rat,
        As I pull the parapet’s poppy
        To stick behind my ear.
        Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
        Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
        Now you have touched this English hand
        You will do the same to a German
        Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
        To cross the sleeping green between.”

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