DUBLIN, Ireland – Leaders in international higher education discussed the trends they expect to inform the future of the field last week at the European Association for International Education conference.
“We are in a period of very big change,” said Gudrun Paulsdottir, an international strategist at Sweden’s Mälardalen University, who completed her term as the association’s president on Friday. She summed up the key question of the conference as this: “Where are we headed?”
A panel on Friday that took up this question considered a wide range of topics, including the potential of massively open online courses (MOOCs), asymmetries in international exchange, the link between university education and employment, and the rise of research universities in Asia.
Simon Marginson, a professor of higher education at the University of Melbourne, described MOOCs as the “big game-changer” in the international higher education landscape. “Students are going to look very seriously at this option in the future,” he said – in that they will contrast the many thousands of dollars they would spend on education in America, Australia or Europe with the opportunity to take online courses for free from some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, such as Harvard and Stanford Universities. In fact, many of those flocking to these massive courses are from outside the United States .
The outstanding question, Marginson said, is whether employers will recognize MOOCs. Increasingly, educators are experimenting with pathways through which students can convert MOOC certificates of completion into the currency of college credit.
“I think it’s likely that it’s going to have an impact on the labor market,” Marginson said of MOOCs. “It would be unrealistic to argue otherwise.”
Other experts were more cautious in their assessments. Gordon Cheung, president of the Asia-Pacific Association for International Education and a professor of business at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, pointed out that Internet penetration throughout Asia remains low, at only 26 percent. And Jordi Curell Gotor, director of lifelong learning for the European Commission, said that while he agreed that MOOCs have potential, “We should be aware of the fact that they are still at the beginning. By putting too many expectations on it, we might kill the animal.”
Also during the discussion of MOOCs, speakers pondered the outsized role that global brand-name universities play in international education. What with the most elite universities leading the way on MOOCs, is there room for anybody else? Will MOOCs only serve to perpetuate the elite universities’ advantage in identifying and recruiting the world’s most talented students?
“We need to find some way of pluralizing the environment," said Marginson, who suggested that universities could design MOOCs in areas of particular academic strength. A Hong Kong university, for example, could offer courses on China’s relations with the West.
The more longstanding problem of brain drain also came up on Friday. One audience member from South Africa spoke of Harvard, Stanford and Yale Universities recruiting the country’s best high school students and offering scholarships. “That’s not even a fair competition for us,” she said.
Hugh Brady, president of the University College Dublin, shared some insight on this problem: “It’s been the experience of many of our countries that if you can keep the students for the undergraduate experience, even though it will be in their best interests in many cases to take their postgraduate education abroad, they tend to have developed a homing instinct. But if you lose them after high school, they won’t come back. That’s certainly been the Irish experience.” Brady suggested that the development of foreign branch campuses in South Africa could be an effective solution (if not the whole solution), in that they would allow South Africans to access global university brands while staying at home.
Marginson considered another implication of the problem: he said that it may be the case that nations will have to move toward more hierarchical university systems in order to compete. He said that the Swiss or Nordic model of higher education – in which there are many high-quality universities, but no single elite institution – is under tremendous pressure. “It’s really high-brand value, high-prestige institutions that offer national systems the best chance of competing with the Ivy League,” he said. Marginson added, however, that such a hierarchical strategy creates resource problems for the non-elite universities in the system, and noted that the more equitable model is attractive for building a country’s research capacity.
Employment and the Labor Market
Another key theme at last week’s conference was the link between higher education and economic development. The unemployment rate  exceeds 10 percent across Europe, and youth (ages 15-24) unemployment is double that.
Nevertheless, speakers at the EAIE conference pointed to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (also released last week ) showing that college-degree holders had lower rates of unemployment from 2008-10 than their counterparts who had only completed a secondary education. The data also show that the wage premium for tertiary degree holders increased during the recession. Higher education arguably remains a good bet, but how can universities do a better job preparing students for scarce jobs?
Brady spoke of the need for a balance between institutions that prepare students to go straight into the workforce and others that engage in broader, liberal education. He advocated moving professional specializations to the postgraduate level, akin to the U.S. model. (European approaches to higher education generally encourage specialization at an early age.)
“On the one hand we’re always going to need ready-to-work graduates, but you also need a large number of students coming out who are deliberately trained to be lifelong learners,” Brady said.
Gotor said that it’s not only about universities training students in the right skills. “It’s about the right skills shaping the labor market.”
Rise of Asia
It’s no surprise that the importance of engaging with Asia came up at last week’s conference. Sessions featured such titles as “Engaging with Asia: Proven Practices and Strategies” and “Sino-EU Double Degrees: How to Overcome the Differences Between Systems.” Experts focused Friday on the potential for collaborative research.
“The good thing now is that the Asian universities are investing more into R&D,” said Cheung, “creating very good opportunities for collaboration between institutions in Asia, institutions in Europe and institutions in the States.”
“Asia as a whole spends as much on R&D as North America, but East Asia alone spends as much on R&D as the UK and Europe, already,” Marginson said. “It’s a race against time to get involved.”
Marginson also drew attention to other emerging hubs of research. He referenced National Science Foundation data showing the number of countries whose scholars publish more than 1,000 scientific papers per year: in 1995 , there were 37 countries in that category, and in 2009 , 49. “The newcomers included countries like Serbia, Tunisia, Iran and Chile," he said. "These are the new kids on the block.”
Other challenges and trends discussed during the international education conference include maintaining quality as Asian higher education systems undergo massification, the declines in public support for higher education and the corresponding introduction or increase of tuition fees throughout many countries in Europe, and the protection of international student rights. Paulsdottir, the EAIE president, pointed out that the move toward higher tuition has made international students a commodity in a way they haven’t historically been in Europe.
The EAIE has adopted a new charter for international students’ rights , which calls, among other things, for the portability of national scholarships and loans, the introduction of safeguards against “arbitrary withdrawal of study rights or temporary visitor rights,” and the creation of independent authorities, essentially ombudsmen, to which international students can turn. Last month, 2,600 international students at London Metropolitan University  found out they’d have to transfer to another institution – and quickly – when the UK Border Authority revoked their institution’s license to host students from abroad.
More than 4,300 international educators attended this year’s EAIE conference.