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Study projects slower growth in higher education enrolment

The British Council previewed findings this week from a forthcoming report that forecasts the global higher education landscape through 2020. The study, The Shape of Things to Come: Higher education global trends and emerging opportunities to 2020, points to the importance of demographic and economic trends in determining worldwide growth rates in higher education participation.

These factors will combine, the study says, so that the world’s largest higher education systems in 2020 are likely to be China (37 million students by 2020), India (28 million), the US (20 million), and Brazil (9 million).

The story told in the report is one of continued growth in global higher education enrolments and so in international student enrolments as well. However, the British Council report anticipates slower growth for the decade ahead, particularly in comparison to the dramatic growth of the previous two decades. A related news item from University World News sums up the relative growth rates as follows.

The study forecasts… an average growth rate of 1.4% per year across 50 selected countries that account for almost 90% of higher education enrolments globally. But this represents a considerable slowdown compared to the 5% a year global enrolment growth typical of the previous two decades, and record enrolment growth of almost 6% between 2002 and 2009… This slowing in growth ‘should be expected with the sector maturing or slowing in some markets, and demographic trends no longer as favourable as a result of declining birth rates over the last 20 to 30 years,’ says the report.

However, the study’s authors are quick to acknowledge that these forecasts could be greatly affected by the political or economic ambitions of some of the major source countries in the study sample. India, for example, has a stated goal of doubling higher education participation rates over the next decade. If this key educational market succeeds in doing so, this alone will have a material effect on the growth forecasts through 2020.

The rate of economic growth in source countries for international students is another important factor as economists have established a clear correlation between growing economies and increasing participation rates. This effect is particularly profound in developing nations where even modest changes in per capita GDP can translate into significant gains in higher education participation.

Following China and India, other emerging economies with predicted significant enrolment growth over the next decade will include Brazil which could add 2.6 million students, Indonesia projected to increase enrolments by 2.4 million, Nigeria with an increase of 1.4 million and the Philippines, Bangladesh and Turkey with increases of around 700,000.

In the end, the actual growth rates in global higher education enrolments will likely be largely determined by political and social goals, economic growth, and prevailing demographic trends with regard to school-age students. 2020 will be here before we know it and in the meantime these key indicators will no doubt be important signposts as to the size and shape of the global market in the decade ahead.

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