The Start-Up: Shaping Global Higher Education

All Higher Education is intensely local. Its form and agenda are defined by who pays: As long as most degree-granting institutions are funded by local and national governments, this will remain the case. For all the talk about 'global higher education', the idea is mostly to export locally constructed ideas of education, to promote national brands abroad, to import students where possible. Indeed, it is only fair to acknowledge that Higher Education is also one of the most regulated of the sectors, and most nations only want the Higher Education institutions they can control. Whatever the rhetoric, the national governments don't want global higher education: They just want global investment in local Higher Education.

But Higher Education needs to be GLOBAL. This relates to the purpose of higher education, which, I shall claim, has expanded beyond the making of citizens to, in the era of mass higher education, making workers and consumers. And, since the expectations of work have shifted, the big employers have changed (for example, in India, if one projects over next 10 years, a retail chain of some kind will possibly employ more people than the Indian Railways, currently the second biggest employer in the world after the Chinese army).

Students know this already. They want an education that will allow them to be global workers. This is why the international student mobility is growing so fast. In the emerging countries, the employers want students with exposure and knowledge of global business practises. The entrepreneurs everywhere face a global market, employ someone from a different culture or have a supplier in another country. An inwardly focused education is no longer enough.

However, as always with these things, nationally funded education systems are slow, in fact, almost incapable, to adapt to this new reality. The regulatory framework keeps education locally orientated, however inadvertently. Curriculum and courses on offer remains difficult to change. Admission requirements are drawn up as if there is one school system in the world. Transfer of credits and accreditation of prior learning remains difficult and insufficient. 

This is where independent education companies play a new role. So far, their business models were about absorbing demand, servicing constituents, particularly non-traditional learners, who are under-served by the traditional Higher Education sector. However, with the intense and irreversible globalisation, its first wave carried on the crest of the global expansion of cheap credit, and its next wave washed in by the bust and workers returning home, the independent sector can, must, define the agenda and shape the demand. A truly global system of Higher Education is possible, one that links up with various national systems of schooling, but remains intensely transparent and inherently portable, which combines travel and study, and which is free of the assumptions of national superiority and connected with the vision of global business and society.

Indeed, the framework is all there - the independent companies have to just connect the dots. The universities have been doing exchanges and competing for international students, however imperfectly, for decades, and have been laying the groundwork for such an expansion. Publishing companies, dreaming about million-strong print runs, have been trying to create global franchises for their hit textbooks. The 'atoms to bytes' transformation of learning, and YouTube, were linking up the knowledge seekers and knowledge providers seamlessly. What was lacking is the vision and the model, which a nimble start-up can indeed provide. As they say - just imagine! - and global higher education is waiting to be realised.


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