Higher education participation and enrolment has expanded considerably over the past century, and particularly since 1970. However, growth predicted over the 30 years from 2000-30 is likely to be higher than that experienced between 1970 and 2000. The number of students enrolled in higher education by 2030 is forecast to rise from 99.4 million in 2000 to 414.2 million in 2030 – an increase of 314%.
If an extra five years is added to these projections, the number of students pursuing higher education by 2035 is likely to exceed 520 million.
This growth is being fuelled by the transformation that we are witnessing in the developing and emerging regions and countries of the world – a growth that will only accelerate in the next decades.
Up to 2002, more students were enrolled in higher education in North America and Western Europe than in any other world region. But since 2003, there have been more students pursuing higher education in East Asia and the Pacific.
It is projected that East Asia and the Pacific is likely to remain the region with the largest volume of enrolments globally. In part this is explained by population growth, but it is also in part due to economic growth in the region over the past three decades.
North America and Western Europe traditionally had the greatest share of global enrolments. In 1999 there were 28.2 million enrolments in the region, which comprised 30% of all global enrolments.
While the number of enrolments grew to 35.5 million by 2009, the share as a proportion of total global enrolments has progressively declined and by 2009 stood at 22%. This share is projected to drop below 20% by 2014 and by 2035 will represent 10% of global enrolments.
By 2035, student enrolments in North America and Western Europe are projected to be 52 million. Countries with the largest number of enrolments are the United States (projected to remain in the world’s top 10 by 2035), Germany (top 20 by 2035) and the United Kingdom (top 30 by 2035).
East Asia and the Pacific
The East Asia and the Pacific region is expected to exceed enrolments of 100 million students between 2020 and 2021 and to exceed enrolments of 200 million between 2033 and 2034. By 2035, 42% of global enrolments (or 212.9 million enrolments) will be from this region, a sharp contrast to the 25% proportion it attained back in 2000.
China will remain the country in the world with the highest number of students enrolled in higher education by 2035 (anywhere between 20% and 30% of the world’s total). Other countries projected to have large numbers of enrolments by 2035 are Indonesia (world’s top 10), and Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines (all three in the world’s top 20).
Interestingly, the region that will stand out in around 20 years is South and West Asia. In 2000 the region had 12 million enrolments – or a share of 12% globally, increasing to 21.4 million enrolments by 2009 (a global share of 13%).
South and West Asia
By 2035 it is likely that South and West Asia will have about 125 million enrolments in higher education – a global share of 24%, making it the region with the second highest number of enrolments. In part the growth in importance of this region is associated with the size of its population and its economic development, which is second to East Asia and the Pacific.
India will remain in second place in terms of the number of enrolments. Iran and Bangladesh are expected to be in the world’s top 10, whereas Pakistan is expected to be in the world’s top 20.
Latin America and the Caribbean
Massification of Latin America and the Caribbean higher education systems is to continue well into the future, given the levels of inequality prevailing in the region. Increasing tertiary education participation and attainment is pivotal to cementing social mobility for people, particularly for those from disadvantaged socio-economic and indigenous backgrounds.
Similar to the East Asia and the Pacific regions, the number of students from Latin America and the Caribbean has increased exponentially over the past four decades. In 1970, there were 1.6 million enrolments (about 5.6% globally) increasing to 7.1 million by 1990, giving the region a global share of about 10% of enrolments. This rose to 11.4 million enrolments by 2000.
The number of Latin American and Caribbean enrolments as a proportion of global enrolments has remained at about 11% to 12% for the past 20 years. It is projected that this share of global enrolments will remain about the same up to 2035, when it is estimated that the region will have 59.4 million students enrolled in tertiary education.
By 2035, Latin America and the Caribbean will be the third largest global region in terms of enrolments, behind East Asia and the Pacific and South and West Asia.
Brazil is expected to become one of the world’s top five countries in terms of the number of enrolments. Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela are forecast to be in the world’s top 20 countries by 2035.
Central and Eastern Europe
Given the strategic geopolitical position of Central and Eastern Europe, this is a region that is often referred to as an emerging hub for the provision of educational services. Up to the end of the first decade of the 21st century it was ranked as the third global region with the highest volume of enrolments in tertiary education.
Central and Eastern Europe is similar to Latin America and the Caribbean in that it has been gradually increasing levels of attainment in secondary and post-compulsory education and as a consequence this region has observed an increase in levels of participation in tertiary education.
The extent to which national educational policy reforms are implemented will dictate the extent of higher levels of participation and tertiary education attainment levels achieved in the next five to 10 years.
A scenario that was considered in the projections to 2035 was that Central and Eastern Europe could possibly have a higher volume of enrolments than Latin America and the Caribbean. However, given the impact of the financial crisis on Europe and projected population growth over the next 20 years, the scope for growth in enrolments is more restricted.
Russia, Turkey and Romania are projected to be in the world’s top 10 countries in terms of the volume of enrolments, and Ukraine is projected to be in the world’s top 20 countries.
Tertiary education participation rate
In terms of the proportion of the population aged 15 -79 in tertiary education, North America and Western Europe stood at 5% in 2000 and increased to 6% by 2009. Up to 2003 this region ranked first – ahead of Central and Eastern Europe.
The ratio of tertiary education enrolments to general population is projected to increase steadily to 6.7% by 2020 and continue to rise to 8% by 2035. Despite the ongoing increase in participation in tertiary education, this region will be ranked fourth by 2035.
Since 2004, Central and Eastern Europe has been the region with the highest participation rate of all world regions, and it is estimated to rank first until 2029. In 2004, it had a rate of 5.8% and is projected to increase to 9.7% by 2035; however, by then this region will be behind East Asia and the Pacific and Latin America.
East Asia and the Pacific had a tertiary education participation rate of 1.7% in 2000 – only ahead of South and West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, but it has been rising year on year. By 2009, it had achieved a rate of 3.1% and this is projected to be 5% by 2020, when it will be ranked fourth.
East Asia and the Pacific is projected to become the region with the highest tertiary education participation rate by 2033, when it will exceed 10%.
In 2000 Latin America and the Caribbean had a tertiary education participation rate of 3.3%, ranking third behind North America and Western Europe, and Central and Eastern Europe. By the year 2022 it is expected that it will attain a tertiary education participation rate of 6.9%, becoming the second highest region behind Central and Eastern Europe.
However, Latin America may attain the highest rank temporarily somewhere between 2030 and 2032, when East Asia and the Pacific will overtake Central and Eastern Europe. It is projected that Latin America is likely to attain tertiary education participation in excess of 10% by 2034.
Historically South and West Asia has had the second lowest tertiary education participation rate of all world regions, just ahead of Sub-Saharan Africa.
The nature and intensity of regional shifts in enrolments and higher education participation levels will have profound implications for the way higher education is planned, delivered, funded and quality assured across the globe.
By 2035, the North America and Western Europe region is expected to drop to fourth position in terms of enrolment and participation rates, with East Asia and the Pacific, and Latin America and the Caribbean rising up the ranks.
Regardless of the relative growth that materialises up to 2035, it is clear that increased rates of access and participation in tertiary education will add pressure to debates about how higher education is funded by governments and is also likely to have an impact on how institutions operate and compete for resources as well as their ability to attract and retain academics and students alike.
Given the various levels of development and stages of economic and social reform around the globe, the degree of transformation in the education landscape varies from region to region, and as a consequence there will be different trigger points for ongoing education reform.
In some countries the main issue remains access to higher education. Other countries are confronted with the reality of ageing populations and governments' reduced ability to fund higher education and maintain its quality, standards and regulation.
The ongoing expansion of higher education brings numerous challenges as well as opportunities for governments and institutions; how these are managed largely depend on the relative stage of development or maturity they are at.
The fact that many developed countries are confronted with economic crises that inhibit growth, prevents them from ongoing investment in education, while others (mainly those in developing or emerging countries) are sustaining economic growth above world averages, which enables them to continue investing in or expanding access to post-compulsory education.
For some countries the policy implications of expanding higher education reside in either establishing or consolidating robust quality assurance and monitoring processes to strengthen their national systems; developing a policy framework that provides access to education for socially and economically disadvantaged people; and providing a policy framework to encourage institutional diversity and plurality in funding mechanisms.
As there are either new forms of educational delivery and sectors or types of institutions that are emerging, there needs to be in every jurisdiction clearly and objectively streamlined criteria and processes for establishing and regulating accredited higher education institutions.
Given that the impact of globalisation and technological development has brought countries and remote regions closer together, there needs to be a greater level of cooperation and institutional partnering to promote sustainable development, particularly among the most impoverished regions.
Developed countries could contribute to developing the capacity of less developed countries to implement policy reforms and widen access to all levels of education, by providing expertise as well as encouraging flows of capital for investment in education.
As there are greater levels of student and staff mobility, these flows are prime vehicles for improving international collaboration and for strengthening the quality of education, where needed.
* Angel Calderon is principal advisor for planning and research at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.