International Educators Debate the Future of Student Mobility

September 12, 2013

Will the growing mobility of students and of knowledge itself change higher education as we know it?

That question challenged participants attending the annual meeting here this week of the European Association for International Education.

The rise of massive open online courses, or MOOCs, has made it possible for a student in Bangalore, India, to enroll in the same course as a peer in Berkeley, Calif. Open-access publishing has made more research available. Some four million students cross national boundaries to pursue their studies, a number that is projected to grow to seven million by the decade's end, according to the European Commission.

Yet none of those developments are clear-cut, speakers at a "dialogue" session on the future of global higher education cautioned. Big international publishers still control the distribution of much research, and in places without reliable broadband connections, even free materials may not be readily available.

Many questions remain about the quality of MOOCs, and their retention rates, even in popular courses, can be quite low. And international educators worry: If MOOCs succeed, could it be at the expense of global student mobility? Will that student from Bangalore not come to study at the University of California at Berkeley if he can just take Berkeley courses online?

"We have to seriously contemplate to what extent things we've been talking about here this morning will dampen the flow of globally mobile students," said Eva Egron-Polak, secretary general of the International Association of Universities, a worldwide organization of universities and higher-education associations.

Even if more students continue to study overseas, the demographics of those students are changing. An expanding middle class in countries like China and Brazil is putting a degree within reach of more families, and government scholarship programs are making it possible for students from places like Kazakhstan to seek a foreign education.

Traditionally popular destinations like the United States and Europe can no longer expect to be the first choice for all foreign students. Singapore, for one, has become an ambitious educational hub, and China, the No. 1 source of students at American universities, wants to attract more international students to its own universities. And as the quality of its universities has improved, even Turkey has grown in popularity with students from the Balkans and the Middle East, said a fellow panelist, Fatma Mizikaci, a lecturer in education at Ankara University.

'The Steady State'

For a long time, it's been an article of faith that increasing international student mobility is a good thing, Ms. Egron-Polak said, but, she asked, "What's wrong with the steady state?" Rather than focusing solely on growth, perhaps educators should focus on improving access to education for a broader group of students and on diversifying where they study, she suggested.

MOOCs could also change the dynamic, although speakers were split on the impact that the free online courses may have on traditional universities. Zong Wa, deputy secretary general of the China Education Association for International Exchange, predicted that the courses could fundamentally shift the role of bricks-and-mortar universities from places where knowledge is delivered to centers for research and collaboration.

But for all their being touted as a disruptive force in education, asked Patti McGill Peterson, presidential adviser for global initiatives at the American Council on Education, are MOOCs really innovative?

They could add value if they are "a way to bring the best teaching, the best knowledge from other places in the world to our classrooms, our countries," Ms. Peterson said. Too often, however, she said the MOOCs she had seen amounted to "a professor standing up with old yellowed notes."

Ms. Egron-Polak said much MOOC coursework was delivered by older, more established universities in North America and Europe. If they are really to globalize higher education, MOOCs can't be "unidirectional" but should be an opportunity to get the best thinking and teaching from the world over, she said.

Likewise, while the rise of open-access publishing is meant to make it easier for more researchers to make their work available to a broader audience, a handful of academic publishers still put out much of the major international research. That has serious implications for global education and research, said Ms. Peterson, because most of the journals' publishers—and the peer reviewers who select the papers to include—are in Western countries. As a result, ambitious researchers might opt to study issues deemed to be of global importance rather than those that are meaningful locally.

"They control the gate," Ms. Peterson said of the international journals and their reviewers. "They determine what's worth researching."

The four-day conference, which attracted more than 4,500 participants to this occasionally restive Turkish city, will wrap up on Friday.