Global Trends in Higher Education

Rapporteur: Thaddeus B. Herman

Around 20 individuals came to the first event of the spring semester held by the Center for Global Studies: Global Trends in Higher Education. This event brought together three experts in the field of higher education to converse on some of the latest trends in an increasingly globalized world.

The first to speak was Walter McMahon, an economist who studies the development, financing, and macroeconomics of education. His recent work on the rate of total return from higher education shows that under-investment in the US is leading to sub-optimal rates of growth and development. McMahon began by stating that human capital plays a central role in growth and development.

A main thrust of Mcmahon’s presentation was that there are social benefits of higher education besides earnings. But despite this, there have been rising tuition costs at both universities and community colleges, in part due to an increase in privatization happening in the US, UK, Canada, Germany, India and Malaysia. And while a trend such as privatization may make sense in many industries – for example, steel – those industries don’t have the same “spill-over” benefits into society that higher education does. McMahon stated that his research shows the humanities, history, education, and political science have larger social benefits than fields like business and engineering. These social benefits are seen in populations who have received higher education, and they include better health, greater longevity, better-educated and healthier children, smaller families with less poverty, increased probability of having a college-educated spouse, and greater happiness.

The next to speak was Helaine Silverman, a professor in the department of Anthropology. She is also the Director and Co-Originator of the Collaborative for Cultural Heritage Management Policy (CHAMP), a strategic research center dedicated to the critical study of cultural heritage and museum practices around the world.  The structure of CHAMP is interdisciplinary, as it works with many units on the University of Illinois campus such as anthropology, architecture, landscape architecture, business administration, music, English, the classics, urban and regional planning, and the school of information sciences, to name a few.  

Silverman began by asking the question: “What does heritage have to do with global education?” “Everything”, was the emphatic answer. There are heritage claims being made for Jerusalem by Jews and Muslims, as well as other groups around the world. There are conflicting conceptions of national identity; immigration informs debates about the heritage of countries. This contemporary reality motivates CHAMP to offer coursework addressing the past and the present. In the US there are no free-standing departments of heritage studies, they are embedded in departments of anthropology, architecture, or others.  

The final speaker of the event was Allison Witt, the Director of International Programs in the College of Education where she teaches Global Studies in Education and is the Program Leader for the International Education Administration and Leadership program. Witt began by pointing out that higher education has always been global to some extent. The US higher educational model is cobbled together from many other international models. She placed US higher education in the larger context of how the international engagement of the United States has changed from a development focus (post-WWI and WWII) and moved more recently towards the use of Higher Education as a form of soft power.  

Since the 1980s, with a large cut in public support of education instigated through the economic policies of Reagan and Thatcher, there has been a shift towards a more competitive framing with academic institutions having to compete for grants, students, and funding. There is a large field of literature dedicated to the study of this shift, identifying this trend as “Academic Capitalism”Witt continued her talk by next focusing on study abroad, which she pointed out is tied to benefits for students and communities. The university is seen as a hub of innovation globally and has research relationships with universities around the world. This global focus was then explored vis-à-vis the original mission of a land-grant institution, which was the opportunity for local individuals to receive technical training in agriculture and engineering.

Witt suggested we need to move towards a collaborative model of global engagements. Teacher education is inherently a collaborative process, as it requires higher education to work with K-12 in equal partnerships to train teachers. Models need to be developed where we work closely with partner institutions and schools, where institutions reciprocally exchange preservice teachers in local schools, and where local teachers are engaged as both participants and hosts.

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