Why global higher education must be democratised

Patrick Blessinger

St. John’s University (NYC) and International HETL Association

In the broadest sense of the word, democratization is the application of democratic principles and the process of transitioning to a system based on such principles. Thus, the principles of democracy can be applied to any structure or system, not strictly governmental or political systems. The core universal principles of democracy include freedom, responsibility, and the equality and protection of universal human rights.

Individual freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin known as personal agency – the extent to which agency is allowed to develop is the degree to which self-determination is afforded to people. A human right is a birthright that every human being is entitled to by virtue of being human – the extent to which rights are protected determines the degree to which justice is afforded to people.

Thus, self-determination and justice serve as the two cornerstones of any democratic system. To secure these rights, democratic systems institute policies and rules.

Higher education serves multiple purposes

Within the context of higher education, democratization is the process of making higher education, through a diversification of institutional types and missions, available to anyone who wishes to avail themselves of the services it has to offer. Presumably, higher education is accessed by people for different reasons – therefore, higher education serves different purposes to meet a variety of needs.

In addition, democratized higher education systems will look different from one nation to another because each system has emerged out of a unique political, economic, socio-cultural, and historical context.

However, if there can be said to be one shared purpose of higher education that is common to all such national systems, it would be the common aim to produce learning.

Higher education as a global system

Globalization is the on-going ubiquitous process of interconnectedness and interdependence of people, institutions, societies, and nations as a result of increasing worldwide integration and interaction of political, economic, social, technological, and ecological systems.

For instance, the United Nations is a global quasi-political organization and the Word Trade Organization is a global quasi-economic trade organization and, some would argue, English is a global social language and the Internet is a global communication system. In like manner, higher education has also become a globally interconnected system in many ways.

Globalization also serves as both an overarching framework and an explanatory concept for better understanding the world we live in and how or why certain phenomena develop. The more globalized the world becomes the more likely it is that what happens in one part of the world will have an impact on other parts of the world.

Globalization continues to be fueled by international politics, international trade, international travel, international communication, and international higher education.

Internationalization is the adaptive strategic response of people, institutions, societies, and nations to the process of globalization. Internationalization is therefore the process of developing goods and services (for instance, higher education offerings) and adapting those goods and services to local contexts (for instance, language and culture). Within the context of higher education, this naturally involves developing a strategic plan about how to design and implement international educational offerings.

Given its explanatory power, some might argue that globalization (as both an overarching framework and an explanatory concept) has superseded modernism and post-modernism as a better way of thinking about the nature of the world we live in and as another way to interpret the development of literature, art, culture, history, science, etc. With respect to higher education, globalization and internationalization are so closely intertwined (a virtuous cycle), their relationship helps explain the growing diversification of global higher education offerings.

Trends in global higher education

In the book, Democratizing Higher Education, John P Anchan and I show that the supply of higher education continues to expand rapidly in response to the growing demand for it. The increasing demand for higher education is a worldwide phenomenon and high participation rates in higher education have become the norm in most countries.

For instance, three-quarters of young adults in OECD – Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – countries will participate in higher education (academic programs or occupational programs) in their lifetimes and many OECD countries have now reached universal participation rates, as defined by the US academic Martin Trow.

Globalization has been the main force fueling the internationalization of higher education. More than half of international students come from Asia (mainly from China, India, and South Korea) and 75% of international students study in OECD countries (mainly in the USA, Canada, UK, France, Germany, and Australia). Among international students, about 48% study in Europe, 21% in North America, and 18% in Asia.

However, the traditional national leaders in international higher education are losing share (for example, the USA share dropped from 23% in 2000 to 16% in 2012). Oceania, Latin America, Africa, and the Caribbean are emerging as major destination areas for international students.

Increased demand for higher education is occurring across all demographic sectors of society. There is growing diversity in the make-up of student populations and growing diversification in the types and number of higher educational institutions. There is an increasing shift towards reduced public financing and increasing pressure of higher education institutions to respond to the needs and problems of society.

Strengthening democracy

In light of the above research findings, the following core questions have emerged: How can we make higher education available to all who want to participate in it? How can higher education provide more meaningful opportunities for lifelong learning? How can higher education help prepare students to live and work in an increasingly globalized world?

Higher education systems needs to create more flexible structures in order to open up lifelong learning opportunities to all segments of society. Given the increasing rate of globalization and internationalization, it should be clear by now that a policy of universal inclusion is needed to more fully democratize higher education around the world, and concomitantly, to strengthen democracies around the world.

Note: this article also appears in the University World News blog at http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=2015090815175230

Suggested Citation:

Blessinger, P. (2015). Why global higher education must be democratized. Higher Education Tomorrow, Volume 2, Article 9, https://www.patrickblessinger.com/why-global-higher-education-must-be-democratised


Blessinger, P. (2015). Why global higher education must be democratized. University World News, http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=2015090815175230

Copyright © [2015] Patrick Blessinger


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and as such do not necessarily represent the position(s) of other professionals or any institution.