A Lifetime of Thinking on Global Higher Education


Global Perspectives on Higher Education by Philip G. Altbach
No. 8, January 2018, Global Studies Literature Review

Global Perspectives on Higher Education (2016) is a primer that synthesizes 50 years of historical, conceptual, and theoretical research on higher education to help readers understand current contexts of international higher education. The basic premise of the book is that higher education institutions, and elite research universities in particular, are centers of knowledge and innovation that drive societal change and global economic development. Philip G. Altbach and his coauthors (Hans de Wit, Jane Knight, Ivan F. Pacheco, Liz Reisberg, and Laura E. Rumbley) analyze interconnected themes of “massification,” global knowledge production, internationalization, and multinationalization to show how each influences the other and guides higher educational change. The book also serves as a synthesis of the work of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, which Altbach directed for many years and where many of the coauthors call home.

The 18 chapters in Global Perspectives on Higher Education share a similar format: (a) introduction to a specific theme or topic; (b) inclusion of cross-national historical background; (c) overview of theoretical perspectives; and (d) analysis of comparative examples from specific institutions in various countries and cities. The material supports the claim that “globalization has meant that internationalization issues and themes have become more prominent for higher education at all levels and in all countries” (Altbach 2016, 11). The chapters balance analyses of positive changes (e.g., increasing mobilities, the sharing of information, and increasing access) with analyses of negative changes (e.g., competitive university rankings, the ubiquitous role of the English language in research communication and teaching, the growth of private education, and the weakening of the quality of mass higher education). Theories that are well known in comparative and international education, including “centers and peripheries,” push and pull, colonialism and post-colonialism, and public versus private good, are examined in terms of their impact on higher education within and between countries.

Global Perspectives on Higher Education includes reprints of articles written by Altbach since 1981, celebrating his pioneering research. Many of the older articles clearly forecast a “logical extension of the continuing inequalities among universities worldwide,” a fascinating reminder that early higher education researchers predicted many of the challenges we currently face (Altbach 2016, xi). Other chapters that discuss evolving institutional forms, the impact of for-profit and religious institutions, the influence of technology, and the changing role of nonelite institutions show how data that are time-stamped, and even the more recent data, can quickly become outdated.

Section 1 of the book, “The Global Context,” introduces the different stages of what Altbach calls an “academic revolution” that has impacted (and continues to impact) information technology, the role of English, global mobility, quality assurance, and the challenges resulting from the transition of elite to mass to universal higher education.

Section 2, “Implications of Globalization,” compares the positive changes in how elite universities support academic sharing, common degree structures, common use of English, and expanded domestic capacity, with the negative changes stemming from center/periphery inequities (e.g., awarding elite students more opportunities to study abroad), rankings, and having English as a dominant academic and publishing language that then influences the global knowledge economy. Free trade and neoliberal theories explain shifts in internationalization from an emphasis on curriculum and mobility to a commercial competition for talent, franchises, and university rankings. Related are explanations as to why students choose to study abroad, namely, it is something “cool” to do, it is a strategic opportunity to bypass the high competition to attend a home university, and it is the only way to get an academic education.

Section 3, “Centers and Peripheries,” applies a common theory in comparative education to a globalization context. As a center, universities in developing and low-income countries play a key role in their own societies; however, as a periphery, they are disadvantaged in the international knowledge network and can compete only with other second-level universities.

Section 4, “Comparative Perspectives,” focuses on how profit often guides the growth of low- and middle-quality private religious, for-profit, and multinationalization branches. Other discussions include: the debate about whether academics should be neutral or if intellectuals should advocate for change, and how student voice influences educational reform. Finally, attention is given to the worsening condition of academic employment due to job insecurity, poor conditions and pay, and low standards in nonelite universities due to low numbers of faculty with graduate degrees.

Global Perspectives on Higher Education includes five themes commonly found in Altbach’s work. First, higher education is needed for economic development. Second, as societies become more economically stable, the competition for fewer spaces in higher education is met by massification of the system itself. Third, mass higher education does not have the same power or impact as elite higher education. Fourth, as countries reach a saturation point, mass public and new institutions will serve nontraditional students, but will not influence the global economy. At the same time, fewer traditional students will contribute to the failure of less prestigious private institutions that will result in national economic stagnation. Finally, the global matrix is reinforced as elite universities must be global in order to attract the best minds and develop cutting-edge knowledge. This matrix is an inter- and cross-border response to internationalization, globalization, and multinationalization in which international alliances, patterns of mobility, and global competition of knowledge are at the foundation.

A key contribution of this book is that each chapter illustrates how local influences impact global flows and then how global changes impact local choices. However, while Altbach suggests that these patterns are directed by the process of maintaining or becoming a top research university, questions arise whether this reasoning is, in itself, creating new hegemonic patterns that purposefully keep some people out of the discussion. For example, community colleges and global counterparts, which are clearly part of higher education, are superficially mentioned in the book. Yet, these institutions challenge Altbach’s global matrix by transforming higher education by granting access to those who are newly entering into higher education as a result of universal secondary completion, thereby contributing to global knowledge production at a local level and redefining overall academic quality due to upward academic drift. As new sectors continue to challenge the status matrix, there is a need to acknowledge a new era of change in higher education, and perhaps this impact may shift elite universities from being the center for tomorrow’s global knowledge economy.

Global Perspectives on Higher Education is a contribution to the field because of several noteworthy achievements. First, the historical emphasis provides a context to current educational challenges. Second, the book offers fresh perspectives on positive and negative repercussions of mobility. Third, the comparative focus highlights a range of institutions to support theoretical discussions. Finally—and one of the most important benefits of the book—Altbach and his team have included a vast array of references. There is no doubt that the insightful discussions offered by this book are ones that scholars in the field will be debating for a long time.

Altbach, Philip G. 2016. Global Perspectives on Higher Education. Baltimore: MD: John Hopkins University Press.