The International Landscape of Higher Education

For the last 25 years, globalization has had a direct impact on higher education, changing it to be more business-like and ushering in an era of increased competition between colleges and universities located around the globe—often with negative financial implications (Erikson, 2012). Globalization is also reshaping the way higher education institutions view their mission and their role in society (Gustafson, 2011), bringing about a landscape of changing institutions, dynamics, and even vocabulary (de Wit, 2012).


The author intends to investigate the changing landscape of global higher education, highlighting its main features and identifying possible areas of future research in light of findings by Deardorff, de Wit, and Heyl (2012). The author believes that the Bologna Declaration has greatly and globally impacted higher education, so special attention will be given to the Declaration and the process of its implementation.

The Changing Landscape

The geography of higher education has been changing dramatically in recent years (Deardorff, de Wit, & Heyl, 2012). Many universities in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia have transcended their historical role of receivers of educational aid and senders of students abroad, having now become “competitors, equal partners, and key actors” (p. 458). In addition, institutions that in the past looked only to prestigious universities as potential partners, have now realized that those potential partner universities may be their competitors in the “cross-border delivery of higher education” (de Wit, 2011, p. 242).

It has been suggested that higher education institutions should act as global citizens by engaging in special collaboration projects, partnerships, and conversations in an attempt to harness a global potential for knowledge acquisition and sharing (Sutton & Deardorff, 2012). The balancing act between the roles of partner and competitor may be a fruitful field for future research: how and why do universities choose partner institutions? How do they measure the costs—financial and opportunity—and weigh them against the benefits? When partnering with another institution, does a university remain focused on its own mission and values or does it incorporate the partners’ vision into the project as well?

Globalization has brought about a renewed focus on preparing students to be global citizens (Deardorff, de Wit, & Heyl, 2012). Some universities have taken this aim so seriously that their mission statements have been changed to include this goal (Green, 2012). Many higher learning institutions have invested in information technology resources in order to facilitate international communication and access to foreign databases (Baron, Willis, & Lee, 2010). Despite the wish to prepare global citizens, higher education institutions are still struggling with the contents of that preparation—what type of education should students receive and who dictates what the contents should be? Also, what are global citizens expected to know upon graduation? Should competencies dictate educational content, or should global curricula be implemented? These areas are fertile ground for future research.

Another area where globalization has had a direct impact is on the organizational structure of the university itself. For instance, several higher education institutions now have a dedicated individual or group responsible for its global or international initiatives and engagement (Deardorff, de Wit, & Heyl, 2012). The titles vary from college to college, and so do the ways institutions understand the roles of these positions. Some universities understand the terms “international” and “engagement” differently, and so have different programs and policies in place that reflect their understanding of those terms. Future research into how universities determine their global-facing structure—and how that structure reflects their understanding of ideas such as globalization, international, and engagement—would certainly help elucidate whether the university’s goals are being fulfilled not only locally, but in the global arena as well.

Globalization, increased competition, and a special attention given to financial returns have helped bring about a reduction in public funding for higher education (Deardorff, de Wit, & Heyl, 2012). Colleges and universities worldwide (with a few exceptions) have received declining public support for their activities while facing greater competition from institutions not only from their own countries but also from distant regions of the world (Beck, 2012). Several trends can be blamed for this reduction in funding as well, as identified by Davis (2012): parents are no longer enthusiastically supportive of a college education for their children; some colleges are “sinking into a rising tide of mediocrity” (p. 103); student interaction with course content is changing dramatically; hyper-connectivity has changed the expectations for new graduates; and for-profit universities have demonstrated how efficiency and cost control can be applied in higher education. Future studies about the impact of public funding reduction on public universities should help clarify two main points: Do public funds have a direct, positive impact on the quality of education? And, do private funds have an equal, greater, or lesser impact on the quality of education at those institutions?

The increased competition brought about by globalization has resulted in a focus on global rankings of colleges and universities (Deardorff, de Wit, & Heyl, 2012). These rankings have helped students and administrators to identify higher education institutions that have been successful in their educational efforts. They have also pointed to possible future partners for universities that wish to pursue special alliances as efforts to bolster their own global brands or recruit additional students for their programs. But global ranking is not the only criterion higher education institutions should use when deciding about partnerships and alliances: colleges and universities should partner in situations that are mutually sustainable and advantageous (Wildavsky, 2010). A deeper study about the criteria used by universities to partner with other institutions should allow researchers to better understand not only the reasons for the partnerships but also the ramifications of such decisions.

With a greater number of partnerships and special alliances among colleges and universities, students are more likely than ever to complete their education after attending multiple institutions (Deardorff, de Wit, & Heyl, 2012). These learning institutions may be colleges and universities (for-profit or not-for-profit), online institutions, corporations, or even Massive Online Open Course initiatives. With a variety of potential education providers, the student is likely to become the driver of his or her own education, choosing from a wide selection of options and charting his or her own educational course (Deardorff, de Wit, & Heyl, 2012). But as students move from one institution to another, there is a need for credits completed at previous schools to be recognized and transferred. This is where the Bologna Declaration has had a tremendous impact on the landscape of global international education.

The Bologna Declaration and Process

In 1999, several European countries gathered to discuss the impact of globalization on education and how, as a continent, Europeans could adapt to the new world reality. The resulting document, the Bologna Declaration (1999), proposed six main actions that had a direct impact on the globalization of higher education: “the adoption of a system of easily readable and comparable degrees (including the implementation of the diploma supplement); adoption of an [academic] system essentially based on two main cycles: undergraduate and graduate; establishment of a system of credits as a proper means of promoting mobility; promotion of student and staff mobility; promotion of European cooperation in quality assurance; promotion of the necessary European dimensions in higher education” (Deardorff, de Wit, & Heyl, 2012, p. 84). Based on these six main actions, European signatories have implemented initiatives that have brought about significant integration and deep changes to their educational systems.

One of the main changes made to European educational systems (that were not already under this particular framework) was the shift to a three-cycle degree structure with an undergraduate degree requiring between three to four years to complete, followed by a graduate degree that took one or two years to complete (Huisman, Adelman, Hsieh, Shams, & Wilkins, 2012). In credits, this translated to the most common combination of 180 credits for undergraduate and 120 credits for graduate degrees (Deardorff, de Wit, & Heyl, 2012). A study about how these credits have been accumulated since their implementation may yield important information about the duration of each program (e.g. how quickly are students accumulating these credits?) and a direct cost comparison between countries.

A second impact of the Bologna Declaration and its initiatives in Europe was the solidification of national qualification frameworks (Deardorff, de Wit, & Heyl, 2012). Prior to the Declaration, learning outcomes and competences were not clearly identified; after the Declaration, however, several countries started working on ways to develop their qualification frameworks, resulting in the “Dublin descriptors” that defined the skills students should acquired in the cycles (p. 86). A potentially interesting investigation would involve how these terms were translated into the different languages of Europe and how these terms are understood in different countries; such study may allow scholars to understand subtle yet important variations in praxis.

A third impact of the Bologna Declaration was in the area of quality assurance, whereby countries that previously did not have quality control procedures and policies in higher education started to make significant gains in this area (Huisman et al., 2012). Nearly all signatories now have robust quality assurance systems in place (Deardorff, de Wit, & Heyl, 2012). Ramírez (2014) investigated the impact of quality assurance policies in higher education, and has concluded that these systems have involved a colonial aspect that includes a global convergence around principles of accountability and quality control developed in the “Global North” (Ramírez, 2014, p. 121). So, while the Bologna Declaration has resulted in a more efficient control of quality in educational systems, it has also probably helped solidify dominant worldviews within those systems as well. Future research should investigate what aspects of the dominant views have been clearly passed along to—or imposed on—less powerful systems, and what impact those views have had on learning.

In addition to the impact on degree structures, qualification frameworks, and quality assurance, the Bologna Declaration has influenced other areas of higher education in Europe and around the world as well, such as the way credits are recognized and transferred between institutions of different countries, the ease of student and staff mobility, and even the efforts to combat social inequalities and limited access to higher education in certain regions (Huisman et al., 2012). It is clear that this document has had a tremendous impact on higher education and that impact should be investigated to its fullest.


The landscape of global international education has been changing dramatically for the last two decades. Higher education institutions around the world have dealt with a shifting field in which countries are more interconnected, information is more readily available, and funding is scarcer. A major development in the globalization of higher education took place in 1999, with the signing of the Bologna Declaration. The Declaration has had a clear and deep impact on global international education, and as countries continue to compete against each other—with direct effects on budgets, public contribution to higher education, partnerships, etc.—the actions and initiatives proposed in that document will continue to guide the way European nations (and other countries as well, including the United States) attempt to become even more interconnected, resulting in greater interdependence and—one would hope—greater understanding.



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Green, M. (2012, February/March). What is global citizenship and why does it matter? IAU Horizons, 17(3), 27-28.

Gustafson, J. (2011). Exploring frameworks to integrate globalization, mission, and higher education: Case study inquiry at two higher education institutions in the Pacific Northwest (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest LLC. (ED534187)

Huisman, J., Adelman, C., Hsieh, C., Shams, F., & Wilkins, S. (2012). Europe’s Bologna process and its impact on global higher education. In D. Deardorff, H. de Wit, J. Heyl, & T. Adams (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of international higher education (pp. 81-100). Los Angeles: SAGE.

Ramírez, G. B. (2014). Trading quality across borders: colonial discourse and international quality assurance policies in higher education. Tertiary Education & Management20(2), 121-134. doi:10.1080/13583883.2014.896025

Sutton, S. & Deardorff, D. (2012, February/March). Internationalizing internationalization: The global context. IAU Horizons, 17(3), 16-17.

Wildavsky, B. (2010). The great brain race: How global universities are reshaping the world. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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