Democratization of higher education and responsible internationalization: Bridging the gap towards an accessible and inclusive education

Broadly defined, democratization is the process of applying the principles of democracy to a given structure or system, allowing the same to exist in a more participative and open society (United Nations, 1996). In the context of higher education, democratization means the process of making higher education accessible and available to anyone who wants to access it for different purposes (Blessinger, 2015). One such purpose — despite the system being unique per country given variations in socio-political and demographic contexts — is the production or creation of knowledge. This has resulted in a pronounced increase in the worldwide demand for higher education, corresponded by an even more rapid increase in supply from higher education institutions (HEIs). In a 2014 publication by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), higher education participation in 2009 reached as many as 165 million students across the OECD member countries and selected non-OECD member countries, with enrollment projected to reach 262 million by 2025. In Asia, enrollment rates have been on the rise over the past two decades. By 2025, the projected enrollment for higher education in Asia is expected to reach over 300 million (Calderon, UNESCO, 2018). Such explosive growth in higher education participation in Asia is affected by an increased population over the past 20 years, along with emphasis placed on the relationship of education and an individual’s subsequent opportunities in life (UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2014).

Even with the exponential growth that makes up more than 50% of global enrollment, tertiary participation among a number of developing countries in the East and Asia-Pacific region remains varied. For instance, data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) showed that Cambodia’s higher education participation in 2017 was just .2 percent of the overall enrollment in the region, compared with China’s 60%. While population is a relevant factor in analyzing the disparity of enrollment data between countries, economic conditions do play a more considerable role. This is especially true for the East and Asia Pacific region, which has some of the most financially stable countries, as well the poorest and developing ones. A 2013 policy paper from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (United Nations ESCAP) explains the correlation of higher income and standards of living with that of higher educational attainment. The study indicates that high-income earning countries in the region register an enrollment rate of 75%, while those bracketed as Least Developing Countries (LDCs) register an average of 20% only. Beyond the quantifiable data, this information means a deeper social divide with unequal opportunities is created within a society. The divide is an assault on the democratization of higher education, with those already coming from high-income groups having even more access to higher education than those from low-income groups.

What are the variables that can bridge this gap? Government spending is one. Low spending on higher education compromises quality of education, lifelong learning opportunities, and other reforms that promote access to and availability of higher education for those who want to participate in it. A closer look at the social and economic impact of higher education will emphasize its transformative nature. Education transforms a society. Higher education leads to better jobs, stimulates economic growth, reduces vulnerability among the marginalized, and breaks patterns of poverty. Institutional adjustments may also be necessary, such as on admissions policies, program designs, and learning strategies. The use of technology to upgrade and democratize both the tools for learning and for teaching could transform the HEIs’ education system and its corresponding resources to something more accessible by optimizing the use of limited resources, making these available to more individuals through proper data management. Democratization of higher education must confront questions on accessibility, availability, affordability, participation, and quality.

Internationalization of higher education continues to be a buzz-phrase in the sphere of tertiary education. HEIs go through great lengths to catch up with the constantly evolving nature of this phenomenon by subscribing to and promoting practices that correspond to what is considered standard in the overall discourse of internationalization. Globally, there is an undeniable upward trend in credit and degree mobility which can be both attributed to internationalization practices toward student, staff, and faculty mobility. New frameworks to further internationalize practices in HEIs continue to emerge while professionals in the higher education industry invest aggressively on what has worked thus far — putting an international face on institutional elements, from curricula to campus environment, all the way to program designs. To the uninitiated, these trends — which include increasing growth in inbound and outbound mobility as well as the deepening of partnerships with counterparts abroad — signify considerable success done in the name of internationalization. This is success hinged on the analysis of quantifiable data. Such quantitative analysis, however, is not inclusive and falls short in terms of understanding what internationalization could mean beyond numbers.

For internationalization to embody inclusivity, various economic and socio-political contexts across the globe must be confronted, particularly issues borne out of policies that leave out a great majority of student population worldwide behind (De Wit and Jones, 2018). Current internationalization practices are only able to reach a small population of mostly elite students and universities, especially since not all universities worldwide adapt internationalization practices as a response to the processes of globalization. This exclusivity marginalizes a population that either has no access to known internationalization practices such as mobility or is not keen to participate in both credit and degree mobility options. De Wit and Jones (2018) cite a study by Universities UK that shows students with mobility experiences earn better salaries than their non-mobile counterparts. While literature is scant on this development, it presents an alarming possibility because it exacerbates the advantage of the privileged over those who have no chance of participating in internationalization.

Pushing for more responsible internationalization entails providing equal opportunities and horizontal reciprocity among partner HEIs as well as broadening internationalization beyond the numbers provided by outbound and inbound mobility of students. Inclusion may involve integrating international components in the overall planning of activities within the HEI campuses to provide that internationalization opportunity even to those whose access to mobility is limited. Responsible internationalization must aim to mitigate the elitism inherent to internationalization itself.


Pilar Preciousa Pajayon-Berse, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at the Ateneo de Manila University Department of Political Science.