2 February 2016

Researchers reveal future challenges for global higher education

The Centre for Global Higher Education’s launch in London saw leading international higher education academics unveil new research highlighting the critical challenges facing higher education.

On the first day, at a seminar entitled ‘Higher education in a global context’, UCL Institute of Education’s John Jerrim (download John Jerrim slides) looked at access to university and the implications for society. Questioning widespread beliefs that tuition fees are ‘unfair’, he argued that if tuition fees were funded by the taxpayer the poor could end up subsidising the education of the rich. He also revealed many of the misconceptions among young people over the costs and benefits of going to university. He argued that for the system to work well, prospective students need to understand the point at which they are expected to pay back tuition fees, the benefit of income contingent loans and their likely future earnings if they don’t go to university. He also highlighted the critical role of secondary school achievement, concluding that government policy must focus on raising achievement in schools if equal access to university is to become a reality.

The combined pressures of funding, competition and globalisation are altering higher education in unforeseen ways and on a global scale, shaping national futures. Robert Tijssen (download Robert Tijssen slides) from Leiden University in the Netherlands revealed the extent to which world university rankings are struggling to keep up with these changes. He showed that despite attempts to improve the scope and quality of ranking tools, many key features of university performance are overlooked: teaching quality, a university’s regional economic impact and the rise of boundary-crossing researchers being some examples.

A main problem, he said, is that university ranking systems ignore the increasingly diverse and interwoven interdisciplinary environment within which universities operate. He argued that ranking systems urgently need to reflect such a trend if they are to be seen as credible and equipped to meet the ever growing demand for high-quality information.

Ko Ha Mok (download Ka Ho Mok slides) from Lingnan University in Hong Kong SAR China identified the challenges and prospects for higher education in Asia. In the last 20 years, governments in Asia have expanded higher education on a massive scale to meet pressing demand from the burgeoning middle classes. Mok argued that such growth has implications for the UK: for example, through the increase in Asian-funded research opportunities, the increase in competition from Asian universities, and the growth of high-quality Asian students coming to study in the UK. He highlighted the potential dangers of the current ‘massification’ and ‘marketisation’ of higher education in Asia, warning that if Asian universities continue to focus solely on efficiency and economic gains, future society may face problems of graduate unemployment and insufficient upward social mobility. He called for the adoption of a more ‘humanistic’ perspective from universities.

On the second day of the launch, David Sweeney, Director of Research, Education & Knowledge Exchange at HEFCE, spoke about lessons that could be drawn from impact in learning and teaching when considering research impact. He acknowledged the challenges ahead when trying to measure the difference that universities make to society, but emphasised the need for universities to engage with the debate.

Alis Oancea (download Alis Oancea slides) from the University of Oxford spoke about the rise of ‘impact’ as a criterion for assessing research performance, not only in the RAE/REF but also in competitive funding from the public, private and charity sectors. She explored the vocabularies of impact and how these define and construct research, calling for the adoption of a more nuanced and relational notion of impact within the research governance system.

The final speaker of the launch was Paul Ashwin (download Paul Ashwin slides) from Lancaster University, who examined conceptual issues in measuring higher education impact. He demonstrated how relations between teaching and learning can be applied when considering the impact of teaching and research. Dissemination and impact are distinct from one another, he said, in the same way that teaching is not synonymous with learning. He questioned the idea of ‘owning’ impact, arguing that such a notion ignores the collective dimensions of knowledge production. He revealed the way in which underlying power structures are always at play in how we define impact and who owns it.

CGHE Director Simon Marginson said that the papers by all six of these research experts, leaders in their fields, are examples of the kind of work that CGHE will support and develop over the next five years.

‘Our job is to use research and critical analysis to anticipate developments in higher education in the UK and across the world – to help position higher education institutions and systems to better meet society’s long term needs.’