Anybody who makes confident predictions about the future of today's fast-growing global higher-education marketplace should be reminded that education trend lines can shift unexpectedly and relatively quickly.
In the 19th century, for example, American students flocked to Germany, which pioneered the modern research university, combining teaching and research under one roof. Soon, Americans were copying the model, founding institutions such as the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Chicago. Before long, they had perfected it, building universities that achieved worldwide renown after World War II. Today, in a 180-degree turnaround, Germany is looking to the competitive ethos of American universities for inspiration as it seeks to revive its floundering higher-education system.
But if humility is in order when forecasting the exact form that university globalization will take in the years ahead, it seems safe to say that the trend is here to stay. The sheer degree of global activity in higher education is extraordinary. Some three million students worldwide now study outside their home countries—a 57-percent increase in just the past decade. Branch campuses have seen similarly rapid growth, with more than 160 around the world. Almost everywhere, governments eager to reap the economic benefits of an educated citizenry are trying to boost overall enrollment (China's has quintupled in a decade) and achieve "world class" status for at least some of their universities. Global college rankings, and global for-profit universities, are booming.
To what extent will each of these trends continue? Student mobility, for one, seems likely to surge: By one estimate, the number of globally mobile students will nearly triple, to eight million, by 2025.
At the same time, the overall direction of mobility could change significantly. India and China are likely to continue to be the world's leading single-nation exporters of students, but China has already started taking in more foreign students overall—mostly from other Asian countries—than it sends overseas. Indeed, with the emergence of Europe's Bologna Accord, which standardizes degree requirements across the European Union, together with similar efforts in Asia, Don Olcott Jr., head of the Observatory on Borderless Higher Education, suggests that a new "regional globalism" may emerge, in which students study abroad within their regions.
On the branch-campus front, it would be a mistake to read too much into setbacks like Michigan State University's recent decision to close most of its Dubai programs. Even as some branch campuses fail, many new ones open. That is in keeping with the entrepreneurial nature of such efforts, which vary significantly and face very different financial expectations and regulatory constraints.
An even more significant movement to watch, however, will be the efforts under way in so many countries—including China, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia—to create top-tier research universities. These efforts are certain to continue, but it remains to be seen which will deliver results, either academically or economically.
As values of competition and meritocracy spread in universities worldwide, global college rankings will surely remain popular. With improvements, particularly in measuring the quality of teaching and learning, they can serve as useful guideposts. But it is worth bearing in mind that, for some students, a flourishing for-profit sector—with appropriate oversight, to be sure—may be an effective route to advancement, with no need to pass through the doors of a top-ranked university. That's one reason that continued fast growth among global for-profits seems probable.
One final lesson for educational prognosticators, particularly in the United States: The "us versus them" prism through which American universities and policy makers sometimes view stepped-up global competition is becoming less and less relevant. Cross-border research collaborations have more than doubled in 20 years and will surely grow. Partnerships between leading Western universities and rapidly improving institutions in Asia, Europe, and beyond are expanding quickly. Universities may take on entirely new forms
In this evolving world, academic improvement in one country need not mean that others should fear falling behind. More than ever, the key to innovation and economic growth will lie in the freest possible movement of people and ideas—on campus, and beyond.