Reflections on the Future of Global Higher Education – WAAS Conference Report

Education is the most important catalyst of social evolution. Today higher education is in the early stages of a revolutionary transition that will have immense impact on the future of global society. This article presents an overview of perspectives explored at the World Academy’s Forum on Global Higher Education conducted at the University of California at Berkeley on October 2-3, 2013. It examines issues resulting from rapid changes in educational technology and organization that impact on accessibility, affordability, quality, relevance, employability and content of higher education. It envisions establishment of a World University Consortium as a network and umbrella group to facilitate educational partnerships and linkages with other interested stakeholders at the international level, to provide a centralized source of information about latest innovative ideas and developments in this field, and to explore creative solutions to enhance the reach, quality and relevance of higher education globally.

There are defining moments when the long, slow crawl of history leaps into the future. The Reformation, French Revolution, and birth of the Internet are instances. Such a moment has come for higher education. No one can predict with confidence what the future of higher education will bring, but it is certain to be very different from what we have known in recent centuries. Education is in the early stages of breaking the boundaries imposed by the physical classroom, the monastic insulation of the college campus, the arbitrary rigidities of degrees, courses and one hour lecture segments, the social barriers of class divisions and the economic barriers of affordability. Misinformation, misconceptions and myths abound, but beneath all the hype, there are real forces at work and real changes in the offing.

The World Academy’s Forum on Global Higher Education was conducted to examine recent developments at the epicenter of educational innovation in Silicon Valley and to explore their potential implications for the world-at-large. The conference brought together leading educators from six continents to interact with faculty from UC Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, UCLA, Stanford, San Jose State, Carnegie Mellon, Duke, Phoenix, Florida, UNLV, San Diego State, Humboldt State, Brandman, Meridian, Berkeley City College, Mt. San Jacinto College, Ohlone College and Sofia University. They met with representatives from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, International Association of University Presidents, Creative Commons, Policy Sciences Center, Tony Bates Associates, Center for Partnership Studies, Spire Education, InterEnvironment Institute, Center for Digital Education and Net Impact, diplomats from Colombia, India, Mongolia and Venezuela, and companies pioneering new technologies and services in the field of education, such as Google, Pearson, Fujitsu,,, Knewton, StudyRoom, Talent2 Education and Accredible.

The Academy’s emphasis on global higher education is a natural and inevitable product of its endeavor to frame a new human-centered paradigm for global development. Efforts to address the pressing global challenges related to the financial crisis, rising levels of unemployment, poverty, ecological imbalances, international security, democratization, global governance and rule of law all depend on raising the level of education and understanding of people around the world. Without enhancing the quality of human understanding, knowledge and skills, these problems will continue to defy solution.

1. Global Needs Assessment
There was a consensus among conference participants that significant changes are needed in the global system of higher education in order to meet the diverse needs of humanity. In his inaugural remarks, UC Berkeley Executive Vice Chancellor George Breslauer described the growing pressures on his institution to cope with stresses resulting from the very rapid pace of technological change, rising costs and globalization. While local conditions naturally vary, there was a broad agreement on seven priority objectives: expanding accessibility to make quality higher education available to a much larger proportion of the population in both economically advanced and developing countries; raising completion rates of students who enroll in college; bringing down the cost of education, which is an increasing burden to students everywhere; improving relevance to eliminate the mismatch between the knowledge imparted and the skills required by the labor force to achieve full employment; enhancing quality of education; applying innovative technologies for delivering content, interaction with students, evaluation, assessment and accreditation; and reformulating the content of courses and curriculum to more effectively address social needs.

“A Chinese farmer would have to work for 13.6 years in order to fund tuition at a Chinese university, while those who live in wealthier urban areas pay the equivalent of 4.2 years of an individual’s annual income on average.”

Globally, levels of education are rising about 2% faster than GDP growth. The rapid expansion of the international Middle Class is generating increasing pressure for expansion of capacity in higher education. Figure 1 shows the percentage of the population in the age groups of 25-34 and 55-64 that has completed a college degree course in different countries. Korea leads the world with 65% of 25-34 year olds obtaining a bachelor’s degree or higher qualification compared with about the 40% average in OECD countries. Comparison of this age group with the 55-64 year old group reflects the rapid growth of higher education in recent decades.

An increasingly educated workforce is essential for responding to the growing complex­ity and sophistication of modern society and work. Globally, those with a college degree achieve higher rates of employment and earn significantly more than those with lower levels of qualification. According to a study by the Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution, those who graduate from a four-year college in the USA, on average, earn $20,000 more a year than those with only a high school diploma, as a result of the degree.1 In spite of the clear economic advantage of higher education, the percentage of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree ranges from a high of 45% in Norway to a low of less than 10% in many poorer developing countries as shown in Figure 1. In its report A New Dynamic: Private Higher Education, UNESCO estimates that the global system for higher education will need to expand its capacity to accommodate over 262 million students by 2025, up from 97 million in 2000.2

Figure 1: Percentage of the Population with Tertiary Education in Select Countries, 20103

Affordability is closely related to accessibility, for the wealthy are never denied educational opportunity. Even in education-rich America, John Mitchell, Vice Provost of OLI at Stanford, pointed out that large numbers of qualified, economically disadvantaged students are being denied education due to the limited capacity of public systems. In Brazil an estimated 4.5 million aspiring students will be denied higher education this year. Increasing accessibility is essential in all countries. A combination of rising costs, lower levels of economic growth and higher government budget deficits is forcing many universities in the USA to raise tuitions and reduce financial aid to the needy. Since 2000, the average tuitions and fees at public four-year institutions in the USA have risen by 72%, while the average earnings of full time workers aged 25-34 who only have a bachelor’s degree has declined by 14.7%. Student debt has topped $1 trillion and is now the single largest category of private American household debt. The situation in developing countries such as India is even more precarious, as most of the expansion in higher education has been in private, for-profit institutions charg­ing exorbitant admission fees beyond the reach of even Middle Class applicants. A survey conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, ASSOCHAM, revealed that Indian parents invest an average 75% of their income in their children’s education.4 According to a Xinhua News report, a Chinese farmer would have to work for 13.6 years in order to fund tuition at a Chinese university, while those who live in wealthier urban areas pay the equivalent of 4.2 years of an individual’s annual income on average.5 Each year of higher education costs 6 to 15 months’ labor for a rural parent in China.6

Table 1: Education Cost Affordability Rankings in Select Countries, 20107

Table 1 compares the total cost of completing a four-year degree, including tuition fees, textbooks and study materials, in various countries with median national income. It shows the average cost of education which ranges from a low of 2.2% of median income in Norway to a high of 110% in Mexico.

Rising levels of unemployment severely aggravate the education challenge. Youth unemployment levels are double the national unemployment average in most countries, ranging from 35% in Italy and 38% in Portugal to more than 50% in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Spain and South Africa.8, 9 While college graduates continue to earn significantly more than those who lack a degree, fewer graduates are finding a college degree an assured passport for remunerative employment.

The correlation between level of education and level of income is clearly evident. More education clearly pays. In 2009 college graduates in USA recorded employment rates 18% higher and income levels 22% higher on average than high school graduates.10 Figure 2 shows the earnings by level of educational attainment in USA.11 The average annual earnings for a high school graduate in the US is $30,000, whereas for a degree holder, it is over $60,000, and for a professional degree holder, over $120,000. In OECD countries, on average, the relative earnings of those with a tertiary education is over 1.5 times that of those with lower levels of education. In Brazil, Chile and Hungary, it is more than twice the earnings of adults with lower levels of education.12

Figure 2: Earnings by Highest Level of Educational Attainment in USA (2008-12)13

At the same time, employers are increasingly critical of the failure of conventional degree programs to impart the knowledge and skills students require for successful careers. A new US survey of American entrepreneurs cited by The Economist reconfirms the complaint that companies cannot hire the right people because universities are failing to keep pace with a fast-changing job market.14 Among the many noted deficiencies is the failure of higher education to equip students with the skills needed for working in teams, thinking for themselves, understanding other people and being creative.

Figure 3: Relative Earnings of Workers by Educational Attainment in Select Countries, 201115

Quality education is still a luxury enjoyed by a few. In evaluating the quality of new educational delivery systems, there is a tendency to exaggerate the quality of traditional institutions of higher education, ignoring the fact that even in the finest institutions, the quality of instruction varies widely. Between the best and average differences in quality can be enormous, and even greater between the average and the lowest level of institutions. In developing countries, many institutions are very poorly equipped, faculties are under-qualified, student-teacher ratios are far too high, and many teaching positions remain vacant. In India the vacancy rate among public institutions is about 40%. One need only try to recall the number of truly inspiring instructors encountered during four years to realize how rare top quality education truly is. But the importance of quality is not diminished by its scarcity. Enhancing quality is as important and as great a challenge as expanding the system quantitatively.

A global needs assessment must also highlight the need for revolutionary changes in the content of what is being taught. In a world of increasing complexity and speed of change, the knowledge imparted by overly-specialized courses of study is grossly inadequate to equip students to understand the world they live in, adjust and adapt to change, earn a decent livelihood and contribute meaningfully to the development of society. The declining emphasis on the liberal arts is aggravating the problem. Interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity are vital for providing students with intersectorial, integrated perspectives. There is ample and mounting scientific evidence that our relationship with ourselves, others and the planet we live in is the main variable influencing all the aspects of our lives. We need to see, think and act systemically. Economy is inextricably interlinked with technology, politics, law, society, management, psychology and the environment. Medical practice today requires an increasing knowledge of technology, sociology, psychology and ecology. Law is an artificial abstraction when divorced from an understanding of political and social processes. Vocational skills are inadequate unless accompanied by an understanding of other people, the capacity to work in groups, a knowledge of technology and its impact on human health. In an increasingly global­ized world, citizenship necessitates an understanding of other nations, languages, cultures and historical periods.

Heitor Gurgulino de Souza: President of the Brazilian Chapter of the Club of Rome; Trustee, World Academy of Art and Science
Janani Harish: Associate Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science; Research Associate, The Mother’s Service Society
Garry Jacobs: Chairman of the Board of Trustees, World Academy of Art and Science; Vice President, The Mother’s Service Society
Winston Nagan: Trustee, World Academy of Art & Science; Director, Institute for Human Rights, Peace and Development, University of Florida
Ivo Šlaus: President, World Academy of Art & Science; Dean, Dag Hammarskjold University College for International Relations & Diplomacy, Zagreb
Alberto Zucconi: President, Person-Centred Approach Institute (IACP), Italy; Trustee, World Academy of Art and Science
1. Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, “Regardless of the Cost, College Still Matters,” The Hamilton Project
2. “A New Dynamic: Private Higher Education,” UNESCO
3. “Education at a Glance 2012,” OECD
4. “Steep Rise in Education Fees,” The Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry of India
5. Michelle FlorCruz, “China’s Steep University Tuition Costs The Average Farmer 13 Years Of Income,” International Business Times
6. Keith Bradsher, “In China, Families Bet It All on College for Their Children,” The New York Times
7. Alex Usher and Jon Medow, “Global Higher Education Rankings 2010,” Higher Education Strategy Associates
8. “Employment and Labour Markets: Key Tables from OECD,” OECD
9. “Global Employment Trends for Youth 2013,” ILO–en/index.htm
10. Greenstone and Looney, “Regardless of the Cost, College Still Matters,” The Hamilton Project
11. Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney, “Is Starting College and Not Finishing Really That Bad?,” The Hamilton Project
12. “OECD (2013), Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators,” OECD Publishing
13. Graphic reprinted with permission from Greenstone and Looney, “Is Starting College and Not Finishing Really That Bad?,” The Hamilton Project
14. “Not Open for Business,” The Economist|hig|10-10-2013|6772701|37726496|
15. Graphic retrieved from “OECD (2013), Education at a Glance 2013: OECD Indicators,” OECD Publishing

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