The Mechanism of Global Competition for Students

Position in the ranking of education quality — countries and universities are intensely competing for their reputation in the global market of higher education.

Last year, some Slovenian media announced that Slovenia occupied the highest position in the ranking of output places for acquiring education. A somewhat more scrupulous analysis of the source and awareness of the available data on the country-specific training costs show that this study rests on a shaky basis. Firstly, due to a significant difference in the cost of training, student benefits, infrastructure of universities and other specific features of individual countries, it is very difficult to draw reliable parallels, and even all the more so to make a unified rating.

The increasing number of news about various rankings of higher education institutions within the world’s top classifications appear in print. The facts perceived as a sensation unfortunately interfere with the rational approach and lead to the wrong direction.

In order not to overestimate the ranking positions, which should guide young people in choosing the place to study, you need to look at the flip side of the global higher education trends.


Concerns of the British Public 

First of all, it should be noted that an article in a foreign journal, from which some journalists have borrowed thesis on the high ranking positions in Slovenia, is dedicated to the concerns in another state rather than to elevation of Slovenia. It mainly describes a discussion in the British society. The Britons are concerned about the issue of future funding of their universities.

In England (Scotland decided to go a completely different way) tuition fee has been unchanged since the 90-ies of the twentieth century. The local society accepts the concept of paid education, while the government has gradually left the system of higher education funding. As a rule, no university would decide to decrease the price threshold, making it lower than the top rate defined by the law. As a result, the English education system has gradually become organically dependent on private funding, in the first place—on the contributions. Over the years, the negative side of the seemingly progressive policy in the system of higher education has surfaced. However, paying for education in fact has turned into a state regulated loan with a favourable perspective for instalments. At the same time, due to the high costs of living, young people have to take additional loans. The fear of exaggerated debts pushes the youth to look for alternatives.

However, there is more. The higher education is seen as a profitable export industry in the global market. For the past several decades, the development of English higher education aimed at attracting foreign students. Already the first Tony Blair’s government moved to a systemic support of British universities at their penetration into the world markets of educational services. For this purpose, the universities gained greater autonomy and were partially subordinated to the market rules and competition for funding.

The higher education became one of the most successful export industries of economy. Universities quickly opened campuses abroad, signed franchise agreements, but firstly they attracted foreign students to England. Today, the UK is one of the leading exporters in the field of higher education at the global level. According to the OECD, in 2010 more than 15% of the UK university students (i.e. those enrolled from outside the EU) paid full rate for their studies. This indicator is second only to Australia (20%).

According to the specialized British magazine “Times Higher Education”, only in the 2011/2012 academic year, foreign students produced approximately 10.2 billion pounds of total revenue by covering tuition fees and accommodation costs in the United Kingdom.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the British newspapers turned to hinting on the fact that education in the local universities became expensive and that this could lead to a decrease in the interest of foreign students.

Years of policy for integration of market mechanisms into the sphere of higher education and high incomes from sales of marketing services led to fundamental changes with regard to universities. The fall of the Britain’s competitiveness as a place for acquiring education threatens now not only the funding of higher education, but also the sphere of education as a sector of economy, as well as many other cash flows generated by foreign students.


Global Trends in the System of Higher Education 

The British debate on the “competitiveness” of universities eloquently tells us about the broader panorama and trends in the world’s system of higher education. Countries and universities quickly compete for asserting themselves on the global market of higher education. Some universities, such as Oxford in the UK, Harvard in the United States, and the Technical University (Munich, Germany) use their traditions and past achievements, while other universities (in particular, the Slovenian ones) have to win positions within the global structure of higher education in different ways.

One way of such positioning is the inclusion of more and more popular rating scales. The phenomenon of the universities ranking popularity is primarily associated with the prevalence of modern higher education. More specifically, by increasing the share of the next generation of young people who enter universities as well as by the increased public interest in the higher education.

On the other hand, the rating scales work on strengthening the global hierarchy of universities and countries. Every rating forms a certain image of the higher education system, defines the worldview and desired outcomes, and thus demonstrates the higher education system to the interested public, primarily, to the future students and their families.

In a time of global competition among universities, their reputation has become the core capital for students. Reputation therefore is sold as a luxury, which should enable graduates to achieve a higher social status and salary, as well as to implement a variety of personal aspirations.

In general, it can be argued that the rating scales favour the universities already included into the category of prestigious education institutions (British and American). This creates a global hierarchy of universities and, thus, a new form of inequality and social discrimination.

Due to the current focus on diplomas, it is becoming more important in what country and what university to acquire education. However, studying abroad is unaffordable for the majority of students.

The recent research on the specific features of the education policy in the European and other countries shows that the conventional rating scales also influence the systemic transformation of higher education.

The universities and higher education systems maximize their efforts to fulfil the criteria of leading rankings instead of focusing on the implementation of their own policies and standards. They are frequently pushed to such strategy even by the local government (for example, in France).


Unreliable Way to Obtain Information about Universities

From a practical point of view, the rating scales often refer to an unreliable way of getting information about universities. They tend to focus on a small range of indicators and prefer universities with high level of research achievements and Nobel Prize winners. For example, rankings that regard scientific research achievements as of paramount importance will say little about the quality of education on the Bachelor’s programs. Similarly, a university with high achievements in the field of chemistry may propose the education quality of below the average level in the field of medicine.

As a rule, we learn from such rankings too little about student life, opportunities for extra-curricular activities, etc. The best-known rankings neglect a variety of roles and tasks of universities in modern society, such as space of social criticism, social emancipation, development within the local environment, spiritual side of personality development, etc.

The universities of Slovenia also start featuring differences in their major policies. The University of Nova Gorica has already surpassed other Slovenian universities in some scientific fields and is among the world’s elite in a number of research studies.

The initiatives for classification and ranking of universities surely include bright and promising projects, for example, the U-Multirank project funded by the European Commission. It seeks to classify the universities in a wide range of different settings, so a user can choose the criteria that are most important for him. Thus, it is possible to obtain many different classifications rather than a standardized rating scale of universities.

It is important to note that, despite its experimental nature, some government departments in the UK and the prestigious Association of Research Universities (LERU) have already criticized the project.

When we face the ranking in relation to the system of higher education, we have to observe a certain caution and a healthy measure of scepticism. Especially when it comes to rankings compiled by individuals, organizations and the media. It should be taken into account that the game concerns a lot of money and corporate interests in attracting students. Therefore, we must be critical of advertising. It is necessary to check carefully the reliability of sources when it comes to information on the quality of universities and a suitable place for studying. First of all, you need to get rid of illusions about the fact that the diploma itself embodies an idealized way of life and high social status.


Author — Klement Miklavic