New world report reveals declining student enrollment in the Global North.

A new world report produced by Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates (HESA) revealed that dropping student enrolment has become a key issue in higher education in the Global North after decades of increase. 

The Global North encompasses the rich and powerful regions such as North America, Europe, and Australia. Developed by Emmanuel Wallerstein to describe a global capitalist system that separates countries into the core (the North), semiperiphery, and periphery (the South) based primarily on their economic participation. According to the recent worldwide research, demographic decline has joined with factors such as the global financial crisis and decreasing gross enrollment ratios to diminish tertiary education sectors and endanger the survival of universities and colleges in some nations. Following several years of boom phase and a phase witnessing high growth, the negative trend has become quite visible. 


Eastern Europe and Central Asia have witnessed drops in the ballpark of a whopping 30%, while there has been a surprising uptrend in a handful of countries like Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Europe has been particularly peculiar as the slight growth in a few countries has been overshadowed by a steep decline in countries like Romania and Russia. It has also been observed that there has been a shift away from the specialised colleges that dominated in the past in sections of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Advanced Asia. There is a degree of proliferation of (vocationally focused) ‘hybrid’ institutions throughout Western Europe. These tendencies have received little attention. One “certainly surprising” conclusion was that after 2011, 15 of the 56 nations surveyed saw student population decreases of 5% or more.

Public vs Private Institutions 

According to the research, credit has to be given to private institutions for making global higher educations for making rampant growth in countries of global south and increase enrolments from there too. Although the numbers have been fluctuating in America, but the overall decade long trend shows that number of private institutions first increased and then saw a shrinkage between 2013-18. After 2007, the number of private higher education institutions increased more consistently in Western Europe, rising by 36% to 2,448 over a 12-year period, while declining in Advanced Asia. “Advanced Asia has the smallest public sector, with only 30% of students enrolled in public higher education institutions.” CANZAUS has the second most privatised systems, with just 77 percent public enrolment, owing mostly to significant private higher education in the US. The public sector increased its share of enrolments from 81 percent to 85 percent in the Former Eastern Bloc, while the private sector bore the greater share of demographically driven enrolment declines, whereas in Western Europe, the importance of public higher education is highest, despite the sector’s share of total enrolments falling from 93 percent in 2006.

In 2018, the three largest Advanced Asian nations were the only ones in the Global North with a majority of private enrolments. Singapore, on the other hand, recorded 97 percent public enrollment.

Major Shifts and Points 

The report found out that 2011 was a pivotal year. Most enrolment declines started occurring after 2011. According to Philip Altbach(distinguished fellow in the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the United States): “It is not surprising that enrolments in the ‘Global North’ have levelled off – this is due to the fact that many of these countries have achieved close to ‘universal access’, and due to demographic trends. There have also [subsequently] been modest enrolment declines due to COVID – these seem to be at least to some extent recovering.” Funding per student continued rising throughout the research period. One reason is the drive for quality, especially in the Global North, said Williams. “Another is efforts to make further enrolment gains, and improvements in student success, which can be expensive.” After 2011, the trajectory of ever-increasing spending on higher education tapered off. The predominating specialised universities across Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Advanced Asian have also seen a major decline ever since the beginning of the decade. There is a degree of proliferation of (vocationally focused) ‘hybrid’ institutions throughout Western Europe. These tendencies have received little attention. The survey also demonstrates “underappreciated and fairly intriguing” variety in the vocational higher education and college sector, according to Williams. Schools, as well as businesses and other organisations, supply a substantial portion of higher education.

What next? 

According to Jonathan Williams (Vice-President of HESA), quality may be rising as student numbers decline and funds per student rise. However, a decrease in student numbers does not necessarily allow for cost reduction – “it does not imply you can lay off a professor” – and it is difficult to determine how much of the per student rise is due to sectoral inflation. For the time being, institutions in the Global North appear to be continuing the difficult – and to some degree costly – task of supporting the success of their increasingly diverse students, according to Williams. A number of countries may have already experienced demographic declines and will experience upswings. It is intended that the next version of the study would include a few more years of data to present an up-to-date picture of life before COVID. Following it, “2020 is likely to be a bit topsy turvy.” It’ll be intriguing to see. But I don’t think it will teach us much about the future since we don’t know which improvements will persist and which will fade.”