Higher education systems, as well as individual higher education institutions, are required today to find the delicate equilibrium between being attentive to national priorities and local needs and, at the same time, adjusting to operating in an international setting. Internationalization and globalization are perceived as a key reality in the 21st century, influencing profoundly higher education (Altbach et al. 2009; Altbach and Reisberg 2013; de Wit and Hunter 2014; Guri-Rosenblit 2011, 2013; International Association of Universities 2012; Peterson 2014). Some scholars claim that the process of globalization “is a force more powerful than industrialization, urbanization, and secularization combined” (Douglass et al. 2009, 7). Some go so far as to claim that the globalization process will give birth to a new grand model of a ‘global university’. In his book on The American Research University from World War II to World Wide Web, Charles Vest, a former president of MIT, predicted that: “A global meta-university is arising that will accurately characterize higher education a decade or two hence in much the same way that Clark Kerr’s multiversity accurately characterized American research universities forty years ago” (Vest 2007, 108). A relatively recent position paper of the International Association of Universities stated that: “Globalization is now the most important contextual factor shaping the internationalization of higher education…Irrespective of contextual differences within and between countries, nearly all higher education institutions worldwide are engaged in international activities and are seeking to expand them” (International Association of Universities 2012, 1, 2).
At the national level, an important challenge for policy makers is to decide to what extent are they investing in strengthening a small number of universities to become world-class-universities. The emergence of a super model of world-class-universities constitutes a remarkable manifestation of the impact of internationalization in higher education (Altbach and Balan 2007). Many governments around the world are obsessed at present with establishing world-class-universities, dominated currently by leading research universities from the US, and a handful of universities in the UK and a few other countries. Germany had allocated in the last decade substantial resources to some key institutions to become the ‘Harvard on the Rhine’ (Guri-Rosenblit 2013). Japan had funded competitive grants to create centres of excellence in its leading research universities. China has placed emphasis on creating world-class research universities. India, South Korea, Chile, Taiwan and elsewhere try to enhance standards of their mainstream research universities (Altbach 2013).
In the effort to create leading world-class-universities, policy makers at the national system level tend to prioritize a small number of institutions in order to improve their country’s position in the rankings, often at the expense of the rest of the country’s higher education system. International university rankings have become a familiar character of the higher education scene in the last two decades (Altbach et al. 2009; Altbach and Balan 2007; Kehm and Stensaker 2009; Millot 2014; OECD 2012).
Interestingly, though the effort to create and strengthen world-class-universities is conducted mainly by governments, most of the leading ranking tables focus mainly on individual institutions to be found in a small cluster of countries. Thus, university ranking that focuses on indicators such as research, publications and international reputation does not relate to the vast majority of institutions worldwide that cannot compete on the same playing field as world-class-universities. Millot (2014) argues that, in order to counter this perverse effect, attempts are being made in the last years to measure, rank, and compare national higher education systems, rather than individual institutions. Universitas 21, led by the University of Melbourne, constitutes an interesting example of comparing and ranking national higher education systems. Universitas 21 uses 22 measures grouped into four categories: resources, environment, connectivity, and outputs. The multiple measures provide a comprehensive view of the most important facets of higher education systems, including the roles and status of the top universities in each higher education system. However, the effort to compare national higher education systems is still in a nascent stage.
Obviously, in any given national higher education system, some universities are much more generously endowed and equipped to serve a broader range of functions in an international context, beyond the needs of their particular environment and society, while many others need to concentrate first and foremost on the present and future knowledge needs of their own communities, and develop their special loci of expertise (Guri-Rosenblit 2011; Ordorika 2006; Weiler et al. 2006).
Altbach (2013) argues that it is of tremendous importance to develop leading research universities, even in developing countries. There are usually few research universities in most national higher education systems, but they constitute a crucial part of any academic system, which, by its very nature, is most heterogeneous and includes different types of higher education institutions. Research universities in low and middle-income countries have crucial roles to play in making it possible for their countries to join the global knowledge society and compete in sophisticated knowledge economies. While research universities in the developing world have not yet achieved the top levels of global rankings, they are extraordinarily important in their countries and regions. Altbach claims that all countries need academic institutions linked to the global academic system of science and scholarship, so that they can understand advanced scientific developments and participate selectively in global science. Most countries can afford to support at least one university of sufficient quality to participate in international discussions of science and scholarship, and conduct research in fields relevant to national development.
In addition to the trend of fostering world-class-universities, changing recruitment markets for students and faculty reflect one of the major shifts in higher education policies in the last decades. Many universities worldwide have developed an array of strategies to benefit from the international environment and attract non-resident students. The outreach of universities to international student clienteles could be activated at different levels, ranging from enrolling individual students from different countries, through collaborative ventures with other institutions (universities or business enterprises), to cooperative undertakings with governments, international corporations and intergovernmental organizations. The phenomenon of recruitment agents that are hired on a commission basis to recruit potential students has existed for decades in the UK and Australia. It is practiced currently on a growing scale also by the US and continental Europe, that aim to recruit mainly students in countries like India and China. The operation of such agents, and the ethical problems which such an operation entails, are subject to lively debates in the relevant higher education literature (Altbach and Reisberg 2013).
Transnational education is one of the potent manifestations of the impact of internationalization upon higher education (Altbach et al. 2009; Becker 2010; Bischof 2014; International Association of Universities 2012; Li 2014; Naidoo 2010; Witte 2010). The discourse on transnational education in the higher education literature is characterized by an ambiguous and complex terminology related to a plethora of manifestations of the mobility of students, academic staff, academic programs, and collaborative ventures in teaching and research. The terminology relates to a long list of terms, such as ‘cross-border delivery’, ‘student mobility’, ‘credit mobility’, ‘articulation programs’, ‘franchises’, ‘joint and double degrees’, ‘off-shore provision’, etc.
The number of transnational students worldwide, that either study abroad towards academic degrees or study within extensions or branch campuses of foreign universities in their own national jurisdiction, has increased dramatically in the last decade. US is the leader in setting branch campuses, followed by Australia, the United Kingdom, France and India. Among the host countries, the United Arab Emirates is a clear leader, hosting 40 international branch campuses (Witte 2010). China is in the second position among host countries, followed by Singapore and Qatar. The host countries have recruited prestigious foreign universities to establish local campuses, with the goal of expanding access for the local student population and serving higher education ‘hubs’ for their regions. Leading research universities, such as Cornell University, NYU, Texas A&M University and Carnegie Mellon, are responsible for operating professional schools in computer sciences, engineering, medicine, business administration, etc. Approximately three million students are studying nowadays outside their home countries. Estimates predict the rise to eight million international students by 2020 (Altbach and Reisberg 2013).
The mobility of international students is currently an important policy issue over the world. The UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand use a point system for evaluating merits of immigrant applicants (Li 2014). Bischof claims that so far many countries, including European countries, offering cross-border higher education, do not have a clear policy and well-defined regulations related to franchising, validation and branch campuses. Bischof argues that the European higher education area with guaranteed recognition of degrees needs corresponding mechanisms of transparency and quality assurance related to cross-border offering of higher education programs by European countries. Such a quality assurance framework should include a joint European register of recognized, quality assurance higher education institutions and programs.
Commonly agreed upon standards and a white list of institutions adhering to them would help to ensure transparency and develop trust in cross-border education provided within the European higher education area (Bischof 2014).
Many activities carried on today in the direction of the internationalization of higher education have not addressed possible adverse consequences entailed in the internationalization process (International Association of Universities 2012). It is of tremendous importance that the leaders of higher education systems, as well as of individual higher education institutions, should define clearly their missions and operational goals on the continuum of the contrasting trends of serving national priorities versus operating in an international setting.