Magazine article Times Higher Education

Census and Sensibility: Feature

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Census and Sensibility: Feature

Article excerpt

Ahead of the UN's World Population Day next week, Danny Dorling considers how the global academy is bending to the winds of demographic change.

There is a lot of angst about the size of the world's human population and what those numbers mean for the future of our overstretched planet.

With the United Nations predicting that by 2100 there will be 11 billion of us, academics, policymakers and others are understandably and rightly worried about food supplies, resources, the environment and sustainability.

But looked at another way, 11 billion might also be a figure of hope. As vast a number as it sounds, it actually represents a slowdown in world population growth, and there are many reasons to be optimistic about our ability to respond to the challenges we face.

Many will look to universities for solutions but demographic trends are relevant to higher education in other ways, too, influencing the shape and direction of the sector far more than is often realised.

When, for example, UK student numbers dipped during the 1950s, it had as much to do with low birth rates in the 1930s as with education policy in a period of austerity. Similarly, university expansion in the 1960s was partly needed to cater for all the extra children born after 1945 - the "baby boom" associated with the end of the Second World War.

Importantly, changes in population can also affect young people's chances of getting into university. In England we have recently seen a slowdown in the expansion of student numbers but this has not necessarily greatly reduced the opportunities open to university applicants: a sharp fall in the number of babies born 18 years ago limited the pool of young people who might have applied last year. This in turn may have been a result of changing trends in university participation a little earlier, because women who enter higher education are likely to become mothers later in life than they otherwise might. Around the world, the birth rate will fall as more women are educated - especially to university level.

The growing number of international students will also help to accelerate this global trend towards declining fertility. (It would take a brave person to move abroad to study and have a baby at the same time.)

So education and fertility are intertwined. Universities alter our demography as well as being influenced by it.

Globally, the rate of increase in levels of education is so rapid that in some countries hundreds of new universities are being planned. In the coming years, nations faced with declining populations will seek to grow their international student numbers to make up for falling demand at home. They might look to India, for example, where the population is expected to grow for many decades to come. In contrast, the number of young adults in China is expected to decline rapidly: these will be the grandchildren of those born under the one-child policy, introduced in 1978 (see graphs, below).

Demographers also examine migration, and the pull of higher education is, of course, a strong and growing influence on the movement of people around the world. The flow of students between countries is changing net migration rates ("natural" change, meanwhile, measures the difference between live births and deaths over a given period).

The UK's young people, too, will start to look further afield: after all, for many, getting away from home and experiencing something new is what being a student is all about and, as we move through the 21st century, travelling across England to another town is less likely to pass muster.

The fact that English students have not yet realised the extent to which they can access universities across Europe is something of a conundrum but surely it will not be long before they wake up to the opportunities. It did not take long for young adults from the Republic of Ireland to work out that they could study in Scotland for free.

At some point we should expect to see an increase in the migration of English 18-year-olds to mainland Europe, not only to experience a different culture for three years but also to access less expensive higher education - and through courses that will probably be taught in English. …

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