Finding your way in the higher education marketplace

by Richard Yelland
Head of the Education Management and Infrastructure Division, OECD Directorate for Education

Suppose you are running a business with global brand recognition and tens of thousands of customers trying to buy your product. You can choose to remain exclusive and put the price up, or you might want to increase production to meet demand.

If you are running a university you might well find that your Government won’t allow you to do either of these things. Indeed, they might not even allow you to charge for your product at all. At the same time some of your competitors benefit from public subsidies and strong support for their export efforts.

As higher education has grown and expanded over the past fifty years its international dimension has become stronger. OECD data show that the numbers of students attending institutions outside their country of origin tripled between 1985 and 2008 and expectations are that the market will continue to grow.

It is however a very asymmetrical market, dominated by some strong providers, mostly in English-speaking countries: the United States in terms of sheer numbers and Australia in terms of the proportion of its student body who come from abroad. Moreover it is a volatile market, where public perceptions can be quickly swayed by relatively minor incidents. Changes in Government policy on immigration or institutional funding can make a big difference.

The challenges to those who responsible for strategic planning in universities and other higher education institutions are therefore considerable. OECD’s Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE)  has been running a series of focus groups to explore some of the issues and the conclusions will be presented at a conference at Lund University in Sweden in mid-December. The aim is to learn from each other and to come up with some useful advice for institutions as they plan their approaches.

And if those who are responsible for the supply side are struggling to keep up with developments, spare a thought for the students and prospective students who make up the demand side. Some countries will provide scholarships and other help, while elsewhere they have to fend for themselves. The quality and relevance of higher education programmes and institutions is far from transparent even at national level. Internationally, where students are prey to misleading – and sometimes fraudulent – advertising, and where their only guide is rankings largely based on research outcomes, it is very hard for them to reach the right decisions about their futures.

As we traverse the second decade of the twenty-first century there is more than ever a need for us to focus not only on the quality of higher education, but also on being transparent about it and on communicating what we know.

Programme on Institutional Management in Higher Education (IMHE)
More about the OECD/IMHE project “Managing Internationalisation”
Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO)
Conference “Strategic Management of Internationalisation in Higher Education”, Lund University, Sweden

Photo: Lund University House, credit: Kennet Ruona

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