Getting internationalisation right

by Andreas Schleicher
Deputy Director for Education and Skills, Special Advisor on Education Policy to the OECD’s Secretary General

The exceptional turnout at the 2013 OECD/Japan Seminar  in Tokyo this week, where over 300 participants from over 20 countries discussed global strategies for higher education, shows that the seminar had exactly the right agenda at exactly the right time. I asked myself how many people would have turned up had this seminar been held five years ago; or whether five years ago, Japan would have ventured to take the lead on this theme.

At long last higher education has become a global enterprise, with a rapidly growing number of students who are going global, with educational content going global, and with providers of higher education going global.

And as many speakers at the seminar pointed out, where those people go, where that content goes, and where those institutions go has huge economic and social consequences, for individuals, for institutions and for the economic and social well-being of nations.

That’s why getting internationalisation right matters so much. And why, in turn, global rankings of universities have become so popular – no matter what we think about those rankings. I am afraid the only choice that the international higher education community has is to either do those rankings well, or to have the media doing them poorly.

A country like Japan stands at an historically unprecedented point, in which supply and demand for university education are, for the first time, broadly in balance, and in which consumer choice, grounded in high-quality information, could be a powerful force in steering universities towards closer engagement with the development of abilities suited to professional life. But that’s only going to work if that information is available.

At the OECD, we are making significant investments in this area, with our aim of developing a direct  Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO). Surely, such assessments will tell us a lot more about the quality and competitiveness of world-class universities than past reputation or the volume of resources that are being invested can ever do.  However, while I have no doubt that the concentration of global talent and favourable governance are key to the success of world-class universities, I need to be convinced that abundance of resources is equally important. We had that same hypothesis in school education, where we used spending per student as a proxy for quality, until  PISA  showed with great clarity that the world is no longer divided between rich and well-educated systems and poor and badly educated ones. Indeed, one of the greatest results we should see from outcome-based comparisons of higher education institutions will be significant gains in effectiveness and efficiency.

But even instruments such as AHELO are just one piece of the bigger puzzle. Prof. Judith Eaton explained how global trends are changing demand for and the dynamics of quality assurance in higher education. As she noted, everywhere, there is expansion of government attention to quality: there is pressure to increase access with limited financing and international competitiveness matters more than ever. There is growing interest in market or industrial models of higher education, with the centre of attention shifting from intellectual development to economic development, even if I very much hope that universities will continue to question that trend, as it could be hollowing out the very mission of universities. There is also scepticism about the adequacy of quality assurance for public accountability, illustrated by diminished public confidence and perhaps diminished trust. As Judith put it, there was a time where the public turned to universities to make judgements on quality. Now we see the public wanting to make judgements about the quality of universities, demanding greater transparency and better data on outcomes. And there is disruptive innovation, there is no need to go to college to study any more, there is no need to go to college to get a degree, there is no need to go to college to meet with a professor, and there is no need to go to another country to pursue international studies.

Does the globalisation of higher education imply that the space for national policy intervention is getting smaller, as we have seen in the economic or financial sectors? As Prof. Simon Marginson explained, education and national research systems are still part of governments’ nation-building projects, including strategies for enhancing global competitiveness. Institutions remain partly dependent on national funding, and remain shaped by regulation and by national politics. Prof. Steve Egan pointed out that no one has yet gone for wholesale commercialisation of research universities. But globalisation changes the scope for government action, expanding it in some ways and contracting it in others.

If there is one thing we can all agree on, it is that we don’t have a real alternative to internationalisation. We just can’t afford to hold on to the past, but we do need to be active in defining the future we desire.

OECD/Japan Seminar: “Global Strategies for Higher Education-Global Trends and Rethinking the Role of Government”
Approaches to Internationalisation and Their Implications for Strategic Management and Institutional Practice: A Guide for Higher Education Institutions
OECD work on Higher Education and Adult Learning
Follow Andreas Schleicher on twitter: @SchleicherEDU
Photo credit: Globe with diploma /Shutterstock

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