After a period of relative decline, higher education is globally experiencing a state of revival, expansion and high degree of convergence. The reforms in the wake of emergence of knowledge economy and globalisation have helped the system be more responsive to the requirements of the global job market.
The core elements of reforms that revived the sector can be categorised into the following four buckets:
1. Focusing on knowledge production
Knowledge has become the single-most important engine of economic growth contributing to industrial and technological competitiveness. Its perceived economic value has increased with the emergence of knowledge economy and globalisation. In developed countries, public investment in STEM subjects increased even during the economic crisis in order to retain excellence in research and teaching and to attract students and funding. Investment was seen as a strategy to get out of the economic crisis. This positive association helped developed countries increase their investment and retain top positions in the world university rankings. For example, the OECD countries led by USA and UK occupy top positions in the global university rankings.
Higher education reforms in Asian countries such as Chinese reforms of Project 985 or Project 211, the Centers of Excellence (COE 21) in Japan, Brain Korea 21 (BK 21), the Accelerated Programme for Excellence (APEX) in Malaysia etc. are good examples of prioritising investments in research and knowledge production.
2. Realigning higher education with employment market
A set of reforms attempted to reassert relevance of higher education to the changing context of employment. In the East European countries higher education facilitated transition from a centrally planned to a market economy through curricular changes. New courses were introduced to socialise and train graduates with market principles and operations.
The liberalisation policies and the globalization process changed the nature of skills demanded. Many an emerging job did not need skills to be developed through a long duration study programme leading to a university degree. This led to reforms to diversify institutions, study programmes, and certification procedures. The distinction between research universities, professionally- oriented universities, and community colleges in the USA; Grandes coles, universities, and IUTs in France; and the creation of service universities in Korea are examples of diversification to improve employability.
It needs, however, to be noted that the overemphasis on employability could lead employers to view universities as training institutions rather than academic organisations. This seems to be a very short-sighted and misplaced view. What is, perhaps, needed is diversifying provisions to promote expansion of the non-university sector which can respond more reliably to the changing skill requirements of the job market.
3. Expanding through nonstate resources
Most reforms attempted to expand higher education despite financial constraints imposed by the public exchequer. Two measures of expansion relying on non-public sources of funding were:
a) privatisation of public institutions; and b) expansion of private institutions.
Reduction, if not abolition, of subsidies, cost recovery measures and income generating activities have become common in reforms to privatise public institutions. A major share of the additional enrollments in many regions is accounted by private higher education. While relying on public institutions to expand the sector was more common in the developed market economies, a reliance on private institutions is found more in the less developed market economies of Latin America, Africa and Asia.
These reforms resulted in divorcing issues related to expansion of the system from the capacity of the state to finance the expansion. Needless to add, in all instances the incidence of cost burden was systematically transferred to the households. The effects of these reforms were visible through the unprecedented expansion in the first decade of the present century. The enrolment in higher education increased from 100 to 177.6 million between 2000 and 2010 accounting for an average annual increase of around 7.8 million and is the largest expansion ever experienced by the sector in any decade.
4. Harmonising processes for global integration
The efforts towards a harmonised degree structure, curriculum contents, student assessment, and external quality assurance mechanisms have been driving the system towards better convergences and integration globally.
The Bologna Process was, perhaps, central to higher education reforms in Europe. The countries in the region developed the European Higher Education Area (EHEA), adopted a credit system (180+120 credits equivalent to 3+2 years of full-time study), effected curricular changes, and embraced quality assurance processes. The effect of the Bologna Process transcended beyond Europe. Countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia formed their own regional networks.
This helped evolve a global framework, a comparable degree structure, a credit transfer system and increased mobility between universities located within and between regions. If you view the reforms as interplay of three sets of actors: state, market and households,they indicate that the locus of decision making shifted from state to markets and the incidence of financial burden shifted from state to households.
Whether the state wilfully reduced its role or was forced to retreat is another matter. The reforms also indicate a move towards an increasing market orientation, which helped in expansion but also resulted in widening inequalities in access as under market framework access is based on the ability-to-pay principle. Further, these reforms also led to imbalances in expansion between subject areas since the institutions in their efforts to mobilise resources are driven more by financially attractive but non-core activities than by core academic activities which may be less rewarding financially.
Authors BIO: Professor NV Varghese is currently Director Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education (CPRHE), NUEPA, New Delhi. Prior to joining the Centre, he was Head of Governance and Management in Education at the International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP), UNESCO, Paris.