28 November 2016

CGHE conference to explore changing global relations in HE

CGHE’s second annual conference on 1 March 2017 in London will explore the drivers and effects of changing global relations in higher education. Simon Marginson reflects on higher education’s place in the world today.


The world and higher education are undergoing transformational change, and social contracts and global relations in higher education are in the melting pot.

In more than 60 nations across the world, more than half of all young people now enter higher education institutions (HEIs). Cross-border student movement continues to expand at a record pace and has reached four million students a year. Research science is also growing rapidly in many countries, the ‘World-Class University’ movement has spread to many middle income nations, and higher education and science in East Asia and Singapore are beginning to match Europe in quality as well as scale.

Higher education is an increasingly vital resource in the competitive world of industry innovation. It is now routinely expected to tackle key global problems such as climate change. It is a high (though often under-funded) priority of governments all over the world, which in many nations are introducing more detailed performance management regimes in efforts (not always effective) to extract greater value and more rapid and directed responses from the sector.

Research evaluation, comparison and ranking play a major role and the UK is considering new methods of evaluating and comparing teaching, learning and graduate quality. The ongoing growth and internationalisation of higher education has brought it into a central social and economic role in nations all over the world. Yet this sector also faces many new and continuing challenges.

Our goal is to identify, investigate and discuss those challenges with the potential for overcoming them in the future. CGHE’s second annual conference on 1 March 2017 in London will be devoted to changing global relations in higher education, and new dynamics in national systems and local HEIs.

The conference will explore the drivers and effects of changing global and local relations in education and knowledge, within and between nations, including global/local synergies and tensions. Higher education is closely affected by current political, economic and cultural debates. This is the natural consequence of becoming a socially central sector.

Sharp social inequalities within countries, migration resistance and attacks on climate science and on the general role of ‘experts’ and public intellectuals have positioned higher education as a target for vociferous criticism in some countries.

Higher education can do little about income inequalities, and is committed to expanding social participation and exclusion. Yet at the same time, growing competition within the sector, and the greater stratification of value in ‘steeper’ higher education systems, have undermined social inclusion.

While competition (as well as cooperation) play an inevitable role in research, it is by no means clear that intense competition between institutions leads to better outcomes overall, for example strong teaching and learning in middle and lower tier HEIs, or even fosters financially sustainable higher education systems. Nor is it clear that positioning the student as a ‘customer’, rather than a co-producer of learning, creates higher educational standards, more imaginative and flexible graduates, or vocationally sharper outcomes.

How can higher education enable greater equality and social mobility in societies with growing levels of income inequality? Is graduate underemployment a problem and should families and governments worry about it? Or do we have too few graduates, with the sector still not sufficiently socially inclusive to overcome social divisions? How should student learning be enhanced and how should it be evaluated and where possible compared? These are all questions that the conference will discuss.

Some issues in higher education (such as cross-border student mobility) are global in nature. Other issues are felt at national level but play out in nearly all countries. These include problems of financial sustainability in systems, and graduate employment and unemployment. A third group of issues play out nationally, or regionally, not everywhere.

For example, student unrest is playing a key role in certain countries. What is the future of public higher education in countries after the cataclysmic activism of 2016 in South Africa? What are the implications of widespread social media cynicism about ‘experts’ (Brexit, the Trump election, the climate change debate) for higher education, research science, and the future role of public intellectuals, which seems to be a feature of UK and USA? What about the intense resistance to globalisation in trade and migration, which seems to be deeply felt in the Atlantic countries and much of Western Europe, but not in East or South Asia?

What will be the effects of the rapid political changes taking place within Europe, including the departure of the UK from the EU, for future cooperation in higher education and research. In higher education European cooperation has been an unequivocal success, but it seems that higher education and research may become collateral damage of changes driven from outside the sector, such as Brexit. How will these tensions affect future patterns of worldwide student mobility, academic labour and research creativity and collaboration?

This conference will take place after CGHE has been operating for 15 months. As well as exploring the above topics, CGHE researchers will report on data generated in five of the Centre’s projects. This will be the first public release of CGHE research outputs. Our mandate is to encourage open discussion of the many issues in higher education, to encourage broad dissemination of our research, and to ensure that our research is adapted to meet the needs of its various users.