The OECD reports that four out of ten university graduates in the world will come from China or India by 2020—and a major part of global enrolment is taking place in these two countries. This trend is an inevitable and entirely natural result of the global expansion of higher education—massification, population trends, and the growth of the economies of both countries.
Trends elsewhere also contribute to this new reality. The slowing of population growth in most OECD countries and the actual significant decline in the number of university-age people in such countries as Japan and Russia as well as more modest declines in some others contribute to changes in the percentages of graduates globally. The failure of a few countries, such as the United States, to translate increases in access to higher education to degree completion is another contributor. Additionally, the economic slowdowns in North America and Europe will no doubt negatively affect degree completion rates as students drop out for financial reasons, postsecondary institutions raise tuition to levels that will be unmanageable for many students, and academic offerings are cut back. These trends are already evident in the United States, with California leading the way in the decline of public higher education.
A key element in this discussion is quality. An inevitable result of massification is the overall decline in the quality of many academic systems—teaching staff are likely to have lower qualifications, and students are admitted with sub-par academic preparation. This inevitably means that many graduates will lack appropriate skills. This problem has already received considerable attention in both China and India. For example, the large Indian infotech companies find that a large majority of engineering graduates do not have the knowledge needed to work in industry and are obliged to retrain them.
Since China and India have participation rates well under OCED averages—just 11 percent for India and a bit more than 20 percent for China—it is inevitable that their share of global degrees will increase in the coming period as the percentage of the age cohort enrolling increases and catches up with more developed economies. But we need to examine the implications of this trend and not jump to conclusions.
Another trend that may not affect the total number of degrees obtained in any specific country but has consequences for the economy and labor market is the degree program that students choose to study. In many countries, engineering and some STEM fields are losing popularity and fields such as communications, business, and languages are gaining favor. In North America and much of Europe including Russia engineering enrolments are trending down.
Thus, while the new OECD survey provides useful information and has considerations for policy, the important lessons may not be quite what most commentators are focusing on.