The U.S. has arguably led the world in higher education for much of the century. But while there is much to be proud of, there are also some trends that should give educational leaders and policy makers cause for concern.
The share of international students who choose a U.S. university has dropped from 23 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2011. Meanwhile, other countries including Australia and the U.K. have experienced significant share increases. And although the U.S. ranks high in post-secondary degree attainment, its student loan debt now exceeds $1 trillion with average student loan debt near $30,000. Private expenditure per student is eight times higher in the U.S. than in Europe and this has real potential economic impact.
The rich legacy of democratic education in the U.S. should compel educational leaders and policy makers to devise more innovative ways to use higher education to strengthen our democracy and grow our economy. To this end, there are perhaps lessons to be learned from other nations.
In Democratizing Higher Education, educational scholars examined higher education systems around the world to better understand the global trends in higher education and study what these nations are doing to improve higher educational opportunities for their citizens in an increasingly globalized world.
For instance, in Canada, the only industrialized country without a federal department of education, the Council of Ontario Universities has formed Quality Assurance Framework.
This framework helps assure quality standards in universities and, equally important, to create a culture of continuous quality improvement that pervades every aspect of the institution – from transformative learning to continual value adding learning activities in all educational processes.
The European countries adopted a continental-wide policy framework in 1999, known as the Bologna Process, which seeks to create national higher education systems that are better able to respond to the rapidly changing demands of an increasingly globalized world.
Bologna established comparable degree systems which promote greater mobility of students, faculty and administrators between institutions, greater portability of course credits across institutions, and better collaboration and quality assurance across European institutions.
The U.K. has been a pioneer in open education.
Established in 1969, the Open University has an open admissions policy that allows students from many countries to study remotely (current enrollment is over 250,000).
The University of South Africa, also an open distance education institution, is one of the largest universities in the world with over 300,000 students.
Both universities provide examples of how e-learning technology can be used, together with modest state support, to provide high quality, flexible, and affordable higher education.
They exemplify the de-monopolization of higher education and they represent a break in the closed shop approach to higher education.
Higher education is a social institution whose main beneficiaries are students, the private beneficiaries, and society at large, the public beneficiaries.
Amid the inherent tensions between cooperation vs competition and quality vs. prestige, and notwithstanding the fact that national systems of higher education are embedded within complex cultural-historical contexts, these country examples remind us that we can learn from each other.
There are common outcomes that we all seek: access and affordability for all, institutional diversification, high quality teaching and learning, and more democratic higher education systems that are representative of society.
Patrick Blessinger is founder of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association and an Adjunct Associate Professor at St John’s University in New York. He is co-editor with John P. Anchan of Democratizing Higher Education: International Comparative Perspectives.