Competitive Higher Education Landscape

 By Laura M. Portnoi and Sylvia S. Bagley

Note: A slightly different version of this article first appeared in Academe, November-December 2015, Volume 101, Number 6. NAFSA thanks the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for permission to adapt and reprint the article in Trends & Insights. For more information, please visit

It’s no secret that higher education has become increasingly globalized and competitive. For the past two decades, during an era we refer to as “Global Competition 1.0,” contemporary globalization and major advances in information technology have made academics, administrators, and governments more aware of higher education institutions around the world. Comparisons abound as many colleges and universities work to improve their standing on the global higher education stage. Buzzwords such as global, excellence, quality, and competition are now commonplace in the mission statements and strategic plans of colleges and universities worldwide.

The Global Competition 1.0 era reached its zenith in 2003, with the advent of the first global university rankings system: Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU). The Times Higher Education (THE) rankings quickly followed in 2004. Rankings fuel competition and are often viewed as central to evaluating universities’ excellence, yet relatively few countries are currently viable players in the global reputation race, as evidenced by the small number of nations represented in the ARWU and THE rankings (see table 1).


ARWU Rankings THE Rankings
1. Harvard University (US) 1. California Institute of Technology (US)
2. Stanford University (US) 2. Harvard University (US)
3. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US) 3. University of Oxford (UK)
4. University of California-Berkeley (US) 4. Stanford University (US)
5. University of Cambridge (UK) 5. University of Cambridge (UK)
6. Princeton University (US) 6. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US)
7. California Institute of Technology (US) 7. Princeton University (US)
8. Columbia University (US) 8. University of California – Berkeley (US)
9. University of Chicago (US) 9. Imperial College London (UK)
10. University of Oxford (UK) 9. Yale University (US)

Colleges and universities from the United States dominate the top 50 in these rankings, followed by those from the United Kingdom and other European countries and from Australia, Japan, Israel, China, and Canada. Despite concerns about the validity of the rankings and their narrow focus on research excellence at the expense of other criteria, institutional leaders and policymakers increasingly consult such global university rankings in making key decisions.

An expanding array of worldwide university ranking systems—including the Quacquarelli-Symonds World University Rankings (which split from THE in 2009), SCImango, U-Multirank, and Webometrics— has signaled the emergence of what we refer to as the new era of “Global Competition 2.0,” characterized by rankings mania and an emphasis on elite research institutions. Many institutions in the United States and around the world have become enmeshed in a global reputation race. We are seeing a trend toward revering “global research universities” above all other types of higher education institutions. According to higher education researcher Simon Marginson, global research universities are top research universities with a high degree of global interconnectivity, along with globally focused missions and priorities. With a clear emphasis on enhancing research capacity, these universities are marketed as the primary sources of knowledge production in the world, and governments and industry partners within and across nations increasingly rely on them to fuel innovation and technology.

Education researchers Kathryn Mohrman, Wanhua Ma, and David Baker have similarly described what they call the “emerging global model” of top-ranking universities—institutions that are highly international in nature and possess an unparalleled degree of research intensity. Emerging global model institutions have eight distinguishing characteristics, as detailed in table 2.


Characteristic Description
Global mission The reach of these universities is intended to be global, and their identities are international in nature.
Research intensity Knowledge production through heightened research intensity is essential and is tied to both technology transfer and university-industry partnerships.
New roles for professors Professors are increasingly in competition for positions and research funds and are expected to engage in research that has commercial value.
Diversified funding Even in nations with more funds to devote to universities, nonstate entities are more extensively involved in funding, providing a stronger link to industry.
Worldwide recruitment International professors are valued for their experience with other cultures and differing perspectives that fuel innovation.
Increasing complexity These universities often have complex internal organizational structures with specialized research units and interdisciplinary centers.
New relationships with government and industry Greater collaboration exists between these universities, government, and industry, with states being less central.
Global collaboration with similar institutions These universities are becoming increasinly interconnected and interdependent, with multiple international associations and organizations to support their work.

Not surprisingly, nearly all emerging global model institutions are universities rather than colleges or nonuniversity technical institutes. Top universities that fit the global research university and emerging global model schema are the same types of institutions that vie for prime slots on global rankings lists. Although few universities will become such institutions, many strive toward characteristics listed in table 2, regardless of the alignment between these features and their original missions (for example, providing quality teaching or service to local populations). Aspiring toward this competitive, narrowly focused notion of “excellence” clearly matters to many in the higher education sector.


With the advent of Global Competition 2.0, countries and higher education institutions striving for recognition in a rankings-conscious higher education landscape employ several key strategies (separately or in combination) to enable their institutions to become more globally competitive. We describe six central Global Competition 2.0 strategies below.

Strategy 1: Building “World-Class” Universities

Although the past few decades have been marked by a decline in government funding for higher education in a majority of countries, targeted investment strategies have nonetheless emerged, most notably involving the development of “world-class” universities. For instance, the “211” and “985” projects in China aim to foster and sustain a limited number of universities at the world-class level. This movement parallels developments toward the global research university and emerging global model, with characteristics such as high research productivity, elite status, substantial funding (often involving industry partners), and global engagement serving as hallmarks of world-class status. In countries as diverse as Russia, South Korea, India, and Chile, similar efforts toward developing world-class institutions abound. Some countries strive to make their existing higher education institutions more elite, while others seek to build brand-new “top” universities from the ground up. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology is an example of the latter type of institution. From its inception, this university (which opened in 2009) was designed to rival top-tier institutions worldwide. The university’s vision and mission are global in scope, and it has sought industry partners, donors, and diverse collaborators from the outset.

Strategy 2: Merging Universities

In recent years, university mergers have become an increasingly common strategy for enhancing the global competitiveness of individual institutions and national higher education systems. University mergers are often tied to the parallel goal of working toward world-class university status. In some cases, governments merge institutions specifically for this purpose, as with Aalto University in Finland, which resulted from the amalgamation of institutions as part of the government’s overall plan to decrease its total number of universities from 20 to 15. In South Africa, 36 higher education institutions were reduced to 23. In this case, racially segregated institutions were merged in the postapartheid era with the explicit goal of increasing their global competitiveness; however, merging institutions with contested historical legacies has proven enormously challenging.

Countries around the world are following this trend of focusing attention on a smaller number of institutions that combine the best, most competitive elements. Merger negotiations and attempts are ongoing in the United States; as a recent newsworthy example, the University System of Georgia has undertaken five mergers of 10 institutions (with a sixth scheduled for 2016), despite controversy and resistance from faculty, staff, and students. Hypothetically, merged institutions can be more efficient and economically viable, though this is not guaranteed, and potential complications—such as the loss of jobs and merging existing institutional cultures—must be considered closely prior to the merger.

Strategy 3: Making Quality Assurance a Priority

Virtually every higher education system and institution worldwide emphasizes the need for quality. Governmental or quasi-governmental quality-assurance bodies designed to regulate the higher education sector have become commonplace in many countries, though with differing specifications based on national needs. Quality is regulated through accreditation and international benchmarking in an effort to heighten the status of institutions and attract elite scholars from around the world.

Although the United States lacks a national quality-assurance agency for higher education, accreditation and quality control through various private entities (often with a regional emphasis) have long been key facets of higher education provision—especially given that accreditation is linked with financial aid for students. Indeed, quality assurance has become a regional endeavor across the globe, with several networks emerging in the past few decades, including the Asia-Pacific Quality Network and the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education. Attempts have been made to establish broader international benchmarking standards through quality-assurance mechanisms such as the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education, which seeks to highlight best practices among 100 full and associate member states.

Despite the emergence of regional and international quality-assurance bodies, setting universal standards across the globe remains an elusive goal, and without clear measures of quality, rankings have become the de facto global standard. The absence of uniform, regulated measures of quality complicates the notion of global competitiveness, given that countries and higher education institutions are striving to achieve standards that have not been fully established or validated. Furthermore, national or global standards may or may not be feasible or useful, though some argue that students in a globalized world must be able to accurately compare the quality of programs nationally and around the world. Additionally, globally comparable standards may serve as an inspiration for institutions and higher education systems striving to improve not only their status but also their offerings and quality.

Strategy 4: Internationalizing Universities

Although higher education institutions around the world have historically had international connections, Global Competition 2.0 is intensifying this drive. According to education researcher Jane Knight of the University of Toronto, increased competitiveness is a motivating factor for higher education leaders who are seeking to enhance their institutions’ international dimensions. Through internationalization, these leaders seek to draw elite international scholars and students, enhance research capacities, and augment reputations.

Attracting international students is a key part of this strategy. By 2025, the number of students studying outside of their home countries is expected to rise to 8 million, and countries are increasingly competing for these students. The United States remains the top destination for international students, followed by the United Kingdom. Clearly, internationalizing universities not only can help the bottom line thanks to increased international student fee revenue, but it can also strengthen the stature of higher education institutions and systems.

Strategy 5: Increasing Cross-Border Higher Education

Cross-border higher education, also known as transnational or borderless higher education, has become increasingly prevalent as a means of strengthening higher education institutions as key centers for international students and scholars. Now that higher education has become a tradable commodity for member nations in the World Trade Organization under the General Agreement on Trade in Services, countries are increasingly using cross-border higher education ventures as strategies for global competition. Several common types of cross-border higher education curricular programs are depicted in table 3.


Type Description
Branch (or satellite) campus Sponsoring institutions operate brand campuses directly and send their faculty to the host country to teach classes.
Franchise campus Franchis campuses operate primarily on a for-profit basis, with local providers offering courses vetted by the sponsoring institution.
Twinning programs Students study for part of their degrees at their home institutions and part at the sponsoring institutions; the latter grant the degrees.
Joint degree programs Students attend both institutions; degrees are generally granted from both.
Articulation programs Students start their studies at home and transfer to the sponsoring country institution with advanced standing.
Online distance education Sponsoring countries and institutions deliver an entire program electronically.

The reach of cross-border higher education has increased with the rapid expansion of higher education around the world. The United States is a key player in exporting higher education, with more than 80 international branch campuses operated by U.S. institutions, according to the Cross-Border Education Research Team of SUNY at Albany. Elite institutions such as Yale University and New York University get most of the media attention, but cross-border higher education is alive and well at a diverse array of institutions, including state universities and technical colleges. Critics have raised questions about quality, protections for academic freedom and labor, and potential damage to institutional reputations; nevertheless, many institutions are using this strategy to increase their market share and enhance global competitiveness.

Strategy 6: Forging Regional Alliances

Alliances that involve the sharing of resources and goals between nations or regions are an additional strategy to enhance institutional stature. One of the best-known examples is Europe’s Bologna Process, which is designed to offer increased mobility between the higher education systems of different countries and provide an enhanced, high-quality, shared knowledge base to attract students and scholars from within and outside Europe.

In recent years, other regional alliances have begun to proliferate across the globe. The Southern African Regional Universities Association, for example, was established to pool institutional resources in African nations and allow African universities to compete with the world’s global research universities. Likewise, the Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning and University Mobility in Asia and the Pacific aims to strengthen the competitive edge of its member institutions and countries. It remains to be seen whether the United States will follow this trend and forge formal regional partnerships with neighboring countries to strengthen North American institutions.


The era of Global Competition 2.0 has clearly arrived—but just how relevant is it for nations and higher education institutions around the world? Many countries (including the United States) do not have national policies explicitly related to increasing the global competitiveness of colleges and universities, and our recent content analysis of more than 200 national educational policy documents from across the globe revealed key differences in priorities based on local contexts. With the exception of quality-assurance policies, strategies to increase global competitiveness are not consistent in the United States or globally. Rather than follow dominant trends, many countries and their higher education institutions respond to the push for global competition with what globalization scholar Arjun Appadurai refers to as “vernacular” approaches that are highly dependent on local contexts and priorities. These often involve factors related to human rights and human development, in alignment with the fifth principle of the AAUP’s Centennial Declaration, which states that “after teaching and research, the third mission of colleges and universities is about engaging communities and addressing social disadvantage, and not just about ‘enterprise engagement’ or ‘economic development.’”

Established countries tend to have specific, standalone higher education policies that include strategic priorities aligned with Global Competition 2.0. Even so, these policies also reflect multiple localized demands. In many developing countries, higher education is a relatively small part of broader education policies that focus on national development. Although elements of Global Competition 2.0 may be reflected in such policies, the move toward global competition in much of the developing world tends to consist of aspirational rhetoric rather than concrete strategies. Ultimately, contextualized priorities seem to trump global competition trends.

In our view, nations should continue to employ vernacular, locally mediated approaches to strengthening their institutions. As noted in the first principle of the AAUP’s Centennial Declaration, “colleges and universities are a public good, not private profit-making institutions, and corporations or business interests should not dictate teaching or research agendas.” In the United States, elite research universities, master’s institutions, and community colleges all contribute to the higher education sector through different missions, and this differentiation is a key strength of our higher education system. The global research university and emerging global model schema were never meant to apply to higher education as a whole, and rightly so. Although our elite universities get most of the international press, the success of our nation’s higher education system depends on the existence of, and support for, multiple institutional types. Global Competition 2.0, with its rankings mania and emphasis on research productivity, may not be relevant to the most pressing issues facing many of our institutions. The AAUP encourages stakeholders across higher education to reframe notions of excellence as they apply to a broader array of institutions. By reminding ourselves that institutions of higher education exist for the common good, we can strive for excellence and international recognition without compromising the essential foundations of knowledge, creativity, and academic freedom.

Laura M. Portnoi is the interim associate dean for graduate studies and research in the College of Education at California State University-Long Beach. Sylvia S. Bagley is director of teacher leadership in the College of Education at the University of Washington. Portnoi and Bagley’s coedited essay collection (with Val D. Rust) on global competition was published in paperback in 2013, and their coedited issue of New Directions for Higher Education on the same topic was published in December 2014.

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