International higher education by its very nature sits at an intersection of socio-cultural, economic and geopolitical variables. Over the years, we have seen the complex interaction of the factors that influence patterns of student mobility, institutional strategies and national policies.
What key trends can we expect for 2013 that will prove influential in international higher education? Here is my take on three trends to watch for this year related to university funding, regulatory environment and technology.
Funding: More institutional self-sufficiency and competition
The reverberations of the global financial crisis are still being felt on the campuses of many public institutions around the world. In the US, post-recession budget cuts in state universities and colleges have prompted many to increase their recruitment focus on international students who pay higher, out-of-state tuition fees.
For example, at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), new international undergraduate student enrolment grew seven-fold – from 142 to 1,012 – between 2008 and 2012.
While institutions like UCLA have a stellar reputation to attract and absorb international students, many other institutions are finding their internal capacities to be inadequate for this sudden shift towards a more proactive recruitment model.
In addition, “weakened pricing power and difficulty in growing enrolment are impeding revenue growth at an increasing number of US colleges and universities”, according to Moody's Investors Service.
The US is not alone in facing budgetary challenges. Recognising the “background of an increasingly competitive environment and reductions in public capital funding”, the Higher Education Funding Council for England warned about the financial health of Britain’s universities and said they may need to increase their surpluses, for instance, through fee hikes.
Australia also adopted a 'demand-driven' model by abolishing the enrolment quota system and replacing it with Student Entitlement Funding.
This scenario has spurred more competition among universities for government-funded students, because increased intake of students can bring in additional revenue. Moreover, Australian universities will face $500 million in cuts in research funds over the next four years.
Overall, governments in many countries are facing fiscal challenges – and drastic improvements are unlikely in 2013. As the World Bank noted: “The prospects for the next two years continue to be challenging, fraught with major uncertainties and risks slanted towards the downside.”
These budgetary issues will continue to trickle down to the higher education sector in 2013, resulting in a scenario of greater expectations of self-sufficiency from institutions.
Regulations: An increasing focus on managing risk and assuring quality
Another consequence of the global financial crisis has been the toughening of the regulatory environment for higher education institutions.
In the US, rising debt levels and default rates continue to increase scrutiny of the for-profit sector and still there are reports of emerging malpractices in the sector. The stock prices of two leading for-profit providers – Apollo Group and DeVry – are hovering close to a 52-week low, reflecting pessimism towards the sector.
In 2012, both Apollo and DeVry announced job cuts, with Apollo shutting down some campuses to manage costs and switching students to online education.
Likewise, leading destinations for international students have become more vigilant about visa abuses and have been responding with more stringent regulatory measures.
For example, in an effort to prevent ‘bogus students’ from entering the country, the UK plans to interview 100,000 prospective international students and Canada intends to tighten its regulations on acceptance of foreign students by career colleges.
In the US, a previous announcement about the accreditation of intensive English programmes and conditional admissions requirements also indicate intentions to mitigate immigration-related risks.
Overall, the student visa-related scandals have created immigration dilemmas for some countries in protecting the integrity of their immigration system without tarnishing the welcoming image they want to provide for genuine international students.
In 2013, regulatory environments are not expected to loosen due to increasing demand from stakeholders to justify the costs and benefits of higher education. This will result in increasing expectations around quality assurance and risk management of students and the immigration system.
Technology: Maturation of MOOCs to offer credible academic pathways
The most talked-about educational innovation of 2012 was Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Coursera, which started in April 2012, already has two million student signed up for its courses.
At the beginning of 2012, MOOCs were virtually unknown. By the end of the year, they had compelled many leading universities worldwide to voluntarily or involuntarily integrate them in their strategies.
The most recent entrant in this frenzy is Future Learn – a partnership of 12 UK universities led by the Open University (OU). With more than 250,000 students, the OU is the largest academic institution in the UK and a pioneer in distance learning. Even an established player like the OU could not remain immune to the competitive threat from MOOCs and had to find a way to respond.
As The Economist states: "MOOCs clearly mean upheaval for the cosseted and incompetent. But for those who most want it, education will be transformed."
In 2013, MOOCs will continue to confront many barriers. However, they will also mature from an irrational exuberance to a more viable and credible alternative for earning academic credits.
They are unlikely to influence the traditional segment of international students going abroad. However, the unique confluence of content, delivery, technology, quality and cost could transform expectations of a particular segment of 'glocal’ students and bring into question the sustainability of infrastructure-heavy branch campuses.
In my opinion, 2013 will be a year in which the higher education sector, under increasing pressure to justify its value, will face more regulations and greater expectations to become self-sufficient. At the same time, it will see the opportunities and challenges presented by technology-enabled models like MOOCs.
Adaptability to do more with less will be the hallmark of success in 2013.
* Dr Rahul Choudaha is director of research and advisory services at World Education Services in New York. He is an international higher education specialist with a focus on student mobility, transnational education and enrolment management. He earned his PhD in higher education administration from the University of Denver and blogs and tweets on higher education trends. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.