Are we on course for a global homogenisation of higher education?

“Students have different educational outcomes in mind, depending on where they come from and study”

Student aspirations and course expectations are more internationally diverse than you might think.

In fact, the reasons students are in higher education and the employability skills they think they will need on leaving are wide-ranging – according to the results of our Student Voices survey we conducted in collaboration with research consultancy Shift Learning.

Our research has been investigating student aspirations, needs and experiences, with student samples taken from higher education institutions in the UK, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and South Africa. It might be assumed that the student experience across these territories is fundamentally similar, but this has proven not to be the case.

Internationally, students have different motivations for study

Take student motivations, for example. When asked why they were studying at university we found that UK students are 20% more likely than their Dutch and Scandinavian counterparts to choose a degree for graduate prospects (63% compared to 43%). In the UK improving their graduate prospects was students’ top reason for going on to higher education.

In mainland Europe, however, students are more likely to state that they have gone to university to pursue their interests (54%) or to broaden their skills (51%). In Scandinavia, this was particularly the case and may be because traditionally a unique element in the Nordic model of higher education has been the huge investment of public funds, with little or no funding expected from students.

Whilst this model is under strain – with governments in this region levelling out or even reducing its financial support for higher education – the underlying ethos remains and it could be argued that it encourages students to place more emphasis on studying for enjoyment and further deepening areas of their own interest. By comparison, in the UK the high student fees and widening participation have focused student minds more on ensuring that they get something tangible out of their course – notably a qualification that sets them up for career success in what is now a crowded graduate market.

“In the UK the high student fees and widening participation have focused student minds more on ensuring that they get something tangible out of their course”

What about South Africa?

Well, here the link between education and financial reward is even clearer. In South Africa, the prime motivation for study, according to our survey, is to improve their financial prospects (53%). This is by far a bigger driver for study than it is for both UK or mainland European students. With the South African economy recently going into recession, it is perhaps hardly surprising. It appears that students entering higher education in South Africa are looking for qualifications to help safeguard their own financial futures.

Different international expectations on employability skills

Linked to their varying motivations for study, we also found variations in what students’ expectations were for their university’s provision of employability skills. UK students, for example, appear to place stronger importance than Dutch and Scandinavian students on the provision of employability skills that are not directly linked to their study. These include job application and organisational skills.

This may be because Dutch and Scandinavian students have a lower expectation of acquiring these types of skills through their institution or because higher UK tuition fees are forcing UK students to be more career-focused. What is interesting is that in the Netherlands and Scandinavia students perceive that there is a lot more value to employers in creativity and presentation skills than elsewhere. South African students, on the other hand, are more likely to consider study skills (93%) organisation skills (90%) and IT skills (62%) as important. This, however, may be a result of the larger class sizes in South Africa, the expectations on students to work with less one-to-one support and increasing reliance on digital resources by the institutions to manage such large student cohorts.

One shape does not fit all

Of course, we all know that students are diverse and have different needs, whilst widening participation is on the agenda for all national education systems. This is encouraging diversity both within and across countries.

What our research has shown though is that students have different educational outcomes in mind, depending on where they come from and study. Educational institutions looking to expand their international student programs or distance learning offerings should bear these variances in mind. Similarly, content providers such as Cengage, need to ensure that the digital solutions we are providing are not one shape and size designed to fit all but are products that have all student aspirations in mind and that can be shaped and reformatted to meet the educational and employment needs of students wherever the university and its learners might be.

Click here to download a full copy of the Student Voices survey.

About the author: Andrew Robinson is the director of Higher Education EMEA at Cengage Learning.