Working paper 34

The new geo-politics of higher education

Published April 2018

Download PDF


The outcomes of higher education are not confined to, or even primarily, the creation of private economic and status benefits for graduates. Institutions of higher education generate many other individual and collective benefits, on both the local/national and the global planes.

On the world scale, research-intensive universities (World-Class Universities, WCUs, universities producing at least 1,000 science papers in 2012-2015) now operate as a single network, one that is increasingly integrated and also operates as positive sum, with the leading research nations fostering emerging science countries through collaboration.

While WCUs mostly function as exclusive social institutions in local/national contexts, subject to middle class capture and often implicated in growing income inequalities, on the global scale they have more freedom to pursue solidaristic and collective approaches. ‘Flat’ cooperative science works differently to markets or corporate command structures.

The most important global common goods associated with WCUs are research itself and the systems of communications and people mobility associated with networked activity. The spread of the multi-disciplinary research university form across the world strengthens the scope for linkages. The last two decades have seen explosive growth in both total science outputs and joint international papers, an increasing proportion of output.

Many more nations are entering the open global system. World science power is more plural, with remarkable growth and improvement in China, South Korea and Singapore (though the main achievements are confined to physical sciences STEM) and developments in parts of Europe and Latin America.

While nation-states mostly invest in research to secure national competitive advantage, global relations in higher education and research are primarily cooperative and the global science system evolves according to its own logic. In the majority of countries, scientific publishing is primarily shaped by the global system not national organisation. Global science also constitutes a vast joined up zone of free critical inquiry, with larger implications for global civil society, a potential counter to post-truth populism.

However, global/national tensions can destablise cross-border activities, less in science than in global people mobility and communications. It is becoming more essential for WCUs to strengthen local relations and contributions, as well as advancing global agendas.

All publications