Challenges and opportunities for large education systems

Monday 01 June 2015

The phenomenal growth of further and higher education has created “super large systems” that share similar advantages and challenges, according to a British Council international study.

Large systems such as those in India and China do better in global rankings and have greater opportunities for international collaboration, but they struggle with similar problems - such as providing greater access for non-traditional students and maintaining quality during a period of fast growth.

The common characteristics of large systems are identified by the British Council study in partnership with UNESCO and the World Bank that looked at nine countries with very different political, social and economic conditions.  Its report on the findings, ‘Managing Large Systems’, is published as more than 1,200 leaders of higher education from 70 countries gather in London for Going Global 2015, the British Council’s annual higher education conference. The report identified commonalities and differences of large systems, and concludes by suggests six broad recommendations – that emerged from the analysis undertaken by the Institute of Education at University College London – of managing them.  

Nearly a quarter of young people across the world now enroll in further or higher education courses and two thirds of them study in the nine countries with large systems -Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, UK and the USA – which were studied in this report

The study of the big nine found expansion had typically come through private sector investment, raising tuition fees paid by ”consumer”  students, and the involvement of more vocationally-oriented institutions.

However, bigger is not always better unless standards can be maintained and opportunities are extended beyond the urban and social elites to reach students from the most disadvantaged regions and backgrounds, says the report.

The management and future of these systems is critical for the growth of global talent and the challenges can be best tackled by international knowledge sharing and the exchange of ideas and experiences, it says. 

But how relevant are policy approaches in one country relevant to another?  The report will be discussed on Monday 01 June at Going Global 2015 in the session: Big, bold and brave: the world’s largest HE systems.

The study finds most of the nine countries struggling to keep a balance between steering the system in the right direction while at the same time providing autonomy for institutions or regions.  The growth has usually been accompanied by a decline in government funding.

“While market mechanisms have fostered competition in certain areas between institutions and even between countries, a thriving global higher education sector is not a zer0-sum game.  All countries can make steps forward through collaborating effectively and sharing learning through experiences of policy innovation at national or institutional level,” the report concludes.

Rob Lynes, Director of British Council India said: ''Through this comparative process there has been much international knowledge sharing which in turn supports policy making that impacts on two thirds of all students worldwide. The future of these education systems and their management is critical for management of the global talent pipeline.”

Rebecca Hughes, the British Council’s Director of Education said: “The findings are a microcosm of the major issues facing all higher education systems - balancing access and affordability, public good and individual benefit, traditional delivery and innovation. I hope that by sharing data, approaches to solutions, and contrasting contexts of the challenges, and also discussing potential cultural barriers and common problems at system level, the British Council move forward these debates. “

Notes to Editor

For More Information please contact Tim Sowula tim.sowula@britishcouncil.org07771 718 135

The research is available at

Managing Global Talentwill be discussed at the Going Global session 3.6  Big, bold and brave: the world’s largest HE systems  between 15.15 and 16.30.  Speakers at the session are Irina Arzhanova, Director of the National Training Foundation in Russia, Professor Simon Marginson, Professor of International Higher Education at the Institute of Education, University College London UK, Dr Patti McGill Peterson, Presidential Advisor, the American Council on Education UK and Dr Renato Pedrosa, Associate Professor of the Department of Science & Technology Policy, University of Campinas, Brazil.

The conference, taking place at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London on June 1 and 2, has attracted more than 1,200 leaders of international higher education representing 70 countries and including 130 vice-chancellors, chief executive officers, Presidents and Vice-Presidents.

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