Over the past decade, the global geopolitical balance has undergone considerable upheaval. In the competition for a new world order between China, Europe and the United States, the unsettling rise of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ marks a major turning point. The international order is caught between the Chinese-US giants causing tension in economics and technology, but also in scientific diplomacy.
Europe, for its part, is engaged in refounding its political agenda and Brexit has certainly reshuffled the cards of university diplomacy. Different future scenarios are taking shape. Will global competition between the United States, China and Europe continue to be the benchmark for student mobility flows?
What about academic and technological sovereignty in the face of new Big Tech competitors? Will the Anglo-Saxon model of higher education organised around the Big Four (Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the US) be able to resist these challenges? Below we look at four major trends.
1. New initiatives to attract students
In recent years, higher education and research (enseignement supérieur et la recherche or ESR in French) has seen the emergence of new university hubs in geographical areas undergoing fundamental changes (in the Indo-Pacific, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East).
In the Middle East, several university hubs have committed to becoming leaders in higher education. This initiative is part of a process aimed at diversifying the economic activities of the Gulf countries by investing in ESR.
As the university market in these countries remains relatively new and volatile, they are relying on a branding strategy supported by offshore campuses of world-renowned universities.
Making a stronger contribution, the Indo-Pacific is on the way to becoming a global university hub with Western democracies putting a substantial amount of investment into higher education and research. This is evidenced by the rise of the French Indo-Pacific strategy since 2018, led by the development of Franco-foreign campuses and the intensification of joint degree programmes supported by French overseas universities.
The Indo-Pacific region is ultimately the main source of international students, representing 45% of all students studying abroad in the world.
Although international student mobility between states on the Asian, European and North American continents has prevailed until now, projections for 2030 show that this will increasingly compete with intra-regional mobility.
This is based on reinforced networks and shared economic interests: the concentration of commercial activity flows, the density of technological transfers and links between large companies and centres of higher education.
Within this new polycentric system (poly-nodalism), student mobility will become a vector of value-creation and will drive the global competition for talent.
On a European scale, this intra-regional dynamic is already embodied in the European Universities Initiative or EUI. As a mini-consortium programme, the initiative is based on a training-research-innovation model whereby European universities are destined to become highly competitive institutions in value-added areas (health and well-being, digital technology, the environment and social inclusion).
In addition to mobility for all, with a long-term objective of 50% of students and doctoral candidates within each alliance in the EUI, the goal is to create common governance structures, awarding joint European degrees and encouraging a proactive policy on micro-certifications, individual training accounts and apprenticeships.
The challenge is to promote a holistic vision covering all the missions of a university, despite the various organisational cultures of the institutions involved.
2. Academic and technological sovereignty: a major challenge
Over the past five years, many Asian universities have made their way into the top international university rankings, attracting greater numbers of international students into their fold. China, for example, has managed to attract 492,185 international students, yet this dynamic remains largely regional and 45% of these students come from the Asian continent.
Moreover, China has nearly 3,000 universities and the overall budget is largely directed towards a handful of major research centres aimed at training new elites.
Recent high-profile reports by IRSEM (the French Military School Strategic Research Institute), Chinese Influence Operations: A Machiavellian moment and the French Senate’s fact-finding mission on extra-European state influences and their repercussions in the French academic world, have drawn attention to the Chinese control strategy.
This is evidenced by the proliferation of Confucius Institutes, which are accused of infringing academic and scientific freedoms. It brings to the forefront the issue of academic sovereignty and its fundamental values: citizenship, plurality of opinions, democracy, autonomy and open science. This question of the underlying values that should guide universities’ international collaborations is also at the core of the latest report by the European University Association.
Three scenarios are envisaged between now and 2030:
• A tripartite world in which Europe succeeds in establishing itself as a world power alongside the United States and China;
• A scenario of a renewed transatlantic partnership pitting the United States and Europe against China;
• A scenario of the resurrection of a multilateral order with flexible agreements between countries.
The study shows that while the scenario of a strong Europe remains likely, it also depends on its ability to establish itself as a leading sustainable power by 2030. This will be measured by the extent to which European universities manage to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
According to the latest Times Higher Education Impact Rankings 2021, of the world’s top-performing universities on the SDGs, the UK forms a golden triangle alongside Australia and Canada in the top 50 universities. However, Continental Europe remains the poor relation in this ranking with only six universities, including one French university.
It is the ability of universities to make the move towards the Sustainable Development Goals, whether by reframing their curricula or encouraging the social openness of their ecosystem, which will form the core values of European universities’ attractiveness in the next 10 years.
This is also the meaning of the ‘New European Bauhaus’ project which focuses on urban renewal, energy efficiency and more sustainable and inclusive lifestyles.
If this innovative programme allows higher education providers and industry to generate ambitious projects combining science, technology, crafts and art, it could be a formidable catalyst in attracting foreign researchers and students who are increasingly sensitive to issues of social responsibility.
3. Transmission of knowledge vs commodification of knowledge
Academic and technological sovereignty also faces increasing competition from the growing influence of Big Tech and large edtech companies.
This development is based on a number of factors that are shifting the traditional dynamics of universities.
These include the growing student population (600 million worldwide in 2040 compared to 200 million today); the exponential growth in online learning; and the rise of upskilling as well as the increase in new jobs linked to the digital economy which are encouraging web giants to take full advantage of the privatisation of education.
Google already offers a series of freely accessible MOOCs (massive open online courses) linked to the digital economy and delivers Google Career Certificates in barely six months.
We are witnessing the rise of ‘digital badging’ in education which is sequential, cheap and versatile and which offers an alternative to the more costly linear courses based on the Bologna system. Even if universities continue their central mission of transmitting knowledge, they will have to diversify the range of training they offer in partnership with large companies.
They will also have to develop their partnerships with MOOC platforms for short, certified training portfolios unless they want to see the private sector nibble away at their prerogatives even more.
This raises the question of the purpose of intellectual training in universities, which it seems is being increasingly undermined: can it still be based on the Humboldtian model of higher education or is it becoming predominantly utilitarian, aimed not so much at providing knowledge as at offering a range of marketable skills?
4. The new challenges to the Anglo-Saxon paradigm
While the Big Four have capitalised on teaching in English as a lever of attractiveness, almost 20% of the teaching programmes delivered in English in the world are now delivered in other countries. The competition comes first from Europe, but countries outside the West have also entered the race for English: in the Middle East, in English-speaking Africa and in East Asia.
There is a move from the logic of exporting their domestic students to that of importing international students, particularly by way of offering more affordable courses which are better distributed throughout the world. The proliferation of English-language courses is likely to disadvantage Anglo-Saxon universities, whose economic model is largely based on tuition fees.
One of the possible solutions is to intensify transnational education (TNE), enabling foreign students to obtain a degree from British universities without leaving their country. This formula has several advantages as countries do not need to develop universities from scratch and can draw on recognised expertise and existing resources.
Most East Asian countries are investing in the TNE sector which is worth £650 million (US$880 million) to the UK Department for International Trade. To sustain these arrangements, partners will need to be convinced that this educational model meets the same certification requirements as the awarding body of the home university.
Evidently, the COVID-19 crisis and health restrictions have increased the demand for transnational education. This, until now, has mainly been deployed in Africa and Asia, but is gradually gaining ground in Europe, with campuses opening in Poland and Germany.
Although transnational education is still a recent development, with no guaranteed return on investment, it could offer the opportunity to respond to some of the main new issues that are affecting university geopolitics.
Dr Catherine Saracco is head of education at the British Council, Paris, France.Source: How should HE respond to the new geopolitical dynamics?