End of Empire for Western Universities?

Sean Coughlan


Sean Coughlin is BBC education correspondent



By the end of this decade, four out of every 10 young graduates are going to come from just two countries: China and India.

Projections from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show far reaching shifts in the balance of graduate numbers, with the rising economies of Asia accelerating ahead of the United States and Western Europe.

Forecasts for the shape of global talent pool in 2020 show China rapidly expanding its graduate numbers, to account for 29% of the world's graduates aged between 25 and 34.

The biggest decline will be that of the United States, down to 11% and for the first time pushed into third place, behind India.

The US and the countries of the European Union combined are expected to account for little more than a quarter of young graduates.

Russia is also set to decline, its share of the world's graduates almost falling by half since the beginning of the century.

Indonesia, according to the OECD's projections, will rise into fifth place. The line up in order of numbers will be as follows by the end of the decade.

Degrees of change

Is this an end-of-empire moment?

Higher education has become the mirror and magnifier of economic performance. And in the post World War II era, universities in the United States, Western Europe, Japan and Russia have dominated.

The US in particular has been the university superpower, in wealth, influence and until recently in raw numbers

.Chinese parents rent apartments near schools to cut travelling time during university entrance exams

Up until 2000, the US still had a share of young graduates similar to China. And Japan had as big a proportion of young graduates as India.

Now China and India are the biggest players.

Their rise in graduate numbers reflects their rising ambitions, bidding to compete against advanced economies for high skill, high income jobs.

Instead of offering low cost manufacture, they are targeting hi tech professional jobs that have been the preserve of the Western middle class.

Fivefold growth

As the OECD figures show, this is not simply a case of countries such as China expanding while others stand still.

Throughout the industrialized world, graduate numbers are increasing but not as quickly as in China, where they have risen fivefold in a decade.

The OECD notes that by 2020, China's young graduate population will be about the same size as the total the US population between the ages of 25 and 64.

India will have the second largest share of the world's graduates by 2020, says the OECD

Will there be enough jobs?

This changing world map will see Brazil have a bigger share of graduates than Germany, Turkey more than Spain, Indonesia three times more than France.

The UK is in tune with the trend, projected to increase its share from 3% in 2010 to 4% in 2020.

This push for more graduates has a clear economic purpose, says the OECD's analysis.

Shifting from mass production to knowledge economy occupations means improved employment rates and earnings, so there are strong incentives for countries to expand higher education.

But will there be enough jobs to go round?

Ballpark figures: The US has been the university superpower in the post-World-War-II era

The OECD has tried to analyze this by looking at one aspect of the jobs market, science and technology related occupations.

These jobs have grown rapidly, and the report suggests it is an example of how expanding higher education can generate new types of employment.

Science and technology jobs, for professionals and technicians, account for about four in every 10 jobs in some Scandinavian and northern European countries, the OECD suggests.

In contrast, technology jobs are only a fraction of the workforce in China and India.

The OECD concludes that there are substantial economic benefits from investing in higher education, creating new jobs as unskilled manufacturing jobs disappear.

Quantity or quality?

The OECD forecast reveals the pace of growth in graduate numbers. But it says nothing about quality and does not show how this expansion translates into economic impact.

There are other ways of mapping the changing distribution of knowledge.

Each location each country has its own distinct geography. In the information age, we are not dependent on roads or waterways, but on bases of knowledge

A team at the University of Oxford's Internet Institute has produced a set of maps showing the geography of the world's knowledge.

It measures how populations are consuming and producing information in the online world, mapping the level of internet use, the amount of user generated material on Google, concentrations of academic activity and the geographical focus of Wikipedia articles.

In contrast to the rise of the Asian economies, this tells a story of continuing Western cultural dominance.

Viktor Mayer-Schonberger of the Oxford Internet Institute has observed. In raw numbers of undergraduates and PhDs, the Asian economies are racing ahead. But what's interesting is how the West persists in its positions of strength, because, he notes, the West controls the institutions.

Mapping a new world

There are more students in China than ever before, but they still use Western mechanisms to publish results, they accept the filters, Prof Mayer-Schonberger says.

"The big question will be whether the Chinese researchers can be as insightful as their Western counterparts? We don't know yet."

The maps also reveal how much Africa and South America are losing out in this new scramble for digital power.

The Oxford study shows besides, how research bases and their spin out economic activity are clustered in relatively small areas.

In the US, there is hugely disproportionate investment around Silicon Valley and the Boston area, with large tracts of wasteland between.

In the information age, this is a new kind of industrial map. No longer dependent on coal and steel but universities and innovations.