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Continuing dilemmas for higher education in 2018

Let us try to forget 2017. It was the year of xenophobic nationalism in parts of Europe and the United States. The year of Trump, the Brexiteers, and let us not forget Hungary, Poland and perhaps Austria and the Czech Republic. There has been a noticeable tightening of political controls in China. All of these political currents will have an impact on higher education in 2018 and beyond. 

The past few years have also seen the revival of interest in free tuition in several countries and of budgetary woes in many parts of the world. What are likely currents for 2018?

Nationalism and internationalisation

The current political wave is already affecting higher education internationalisation and these influences will likely intensify in 2018 and perhaps beyond. For the first time in more than two decades, the numbers of international students in the largest host country, the United States, have declined. 

Of course, not all of the so far fairly modest downturn is due to ‘Trumpism’– the end of Brazil’s massive overseas scholarship programme, cutbacks in Saudi Arabia’s scholarship programme and other trends have played a role. 

But a combination of restrictions on visas for some, mainly Muslim-majority countries, and a general atmosphere of unfriendliness from segments of government and society, will all place downward pressures on international student numbers coming to the United States despite the fact that American universities continue to welcome international students. 

Brexit has created great uncertainty, especially among students from the European Union concerning study in the United Kingdom – and this is likely to continue to place downward pressure on EU numbers. It is less clear how nationalist trends will affect internationalism elsewhere. The threats to the Central European University in Hungary have certainly brought that country into international disrepute.

At the same time, other host countries relatively unaffected by xenophobic trends are already benefiting – Canada, most notably, is now seen as a welcoming environment with high-quality universities and has seen its numbers increase.

Revival of the free tuition debate

In the past several years, the debate concerning providing free tuition to post-secondary education has gathered energy in a number of countries. This has been a surprise to many since most economists and higher education policy analysts agree that free tuition is neither affordable in the age of massification nor is it good public policy as it provides unnecessary subsidies to those who can afford to pay. 

Nonetheless, in significant part led by demands from students, free tuition is on the agenda in a small but growing number of countries. 

The South African #FeesMustFall student movement was among the first to raise the demand, which led to protests and the appointment of a government inquiry commission, which recently recommended against removing fees. Defying the advice of the commission, South African President Jacob Zuma announced in December that the African National Congress-led government would introduce fully subsidised free higher education for poor undergraduate students from 2018.

Similarly, in 2016 massive student protests led the government of Michelle Bachelet in Chile to promise to eliminate tuition – financial realities prevented the government from fully implementing the promise and the likely election of a more conservative administration may raise the possibility of further unrest. 

In Germany, a number of the states imposed tuition charges in recent years, but in a reversal of policy, the entire country is now tuition free. 

Free tuition was also an issue in the 2016 US presidential election, with Democrat Bernie Sanders advocating it. Hillary Clinton later supported the idea, largely to secure Sanders’ supporters. The election of Donald Trump brought to an end the free tuition movement in the United States. 

In the UK the issue is very much alive, with a promise to abolish tuition fees aiding the revival of the opposition Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn in the 2017 general election. 

While fiscal realities in most countries will preclude the widespread implementation of free tuition, it is entirely possible the debate will continue and perhaps even gather steam in 2018.

A continuing fiscal decline

Financial troubles face higher education in much of the world, despite fairly strong economic growth worldwide. A recent report from the European University Association, for example, points out that 19 out of 34 higher education systems have seen funding declines, sometimes severe, with little sign of improvement. 

Public higher education in the United States has seen budget cuts in recent years with only modest improvement despite an improving economy. Some countries are investing in their top universities – with China in the lead. But even in the Chinese case, the entire academic system remains inadequately funded.

Despite universal agreement that post-secondary education is both central to the global knowledge economy and important for the economic well-being of individuals and society, funding is generally inadequate. 

In many countries, there is insufficient public funding for the top research universities that drive international competitiveness – and the rankings – and for the system as a whole. This situation has led to the increasing domination of private higher education and to growing inequality in almost all post-secondary systems. There seems to be little possibility that this situation will change much in the coming year.

To conclude, it is unlikely that 2018 will be a particularly robust year for higher education. Despite the global economic growth, and a recognition of the importance of post-secondary education, the political headwinds of nationalism, fiscal constraints and other conflicts do not bode well for post-secondary education.

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Written by Philip G Altbach,
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