Overcoming the Competition and Ensuring Higher Education Quality in a Growing Global Market

Tadd Kruse, American University of Kuwait

The mobility of populations is an ever-present concern given ongoing global conflicts and plights, resulting in the highest number of refugees since the Second World War.  In addition to the political and economic impact of migrations, the global mobility of students is expected to increase, as seeking a high quality university degree is an essential necessity for career development and advancement.  Access to education and tertiary degrees is greater than ever, making competition for institutions of quality and reputation even greater.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) projects that the international student population will increase from five million in 2015 to eight million by 2025, showing a growth rate of 60% in overall global mobility over the next decade. This significant growth and projection is important for educators to take note, as international student populations present a number of benefits and challenges for institutions.  Overall, and aligned with internationalization or global learning initiatives on campus, these populations serve as valuable resources to both campus and local communities.  Many United States colleges and universities internationalize their campuses strategically and invest considerable resources to attract students by offering internationally focused curricula, by recruiting international students, and by enhancing their international programs and services.

For decades the United Stated and Europe were the hubs of tertiary education, drawing in over half of the world’s students studying outside of their home country.  According to the 2015 Open Doors Report by the Institute of International Education released in November, the United States reached a record-breaking number of international students at universities with 974,926 (10% increase) in 2014-15 academic year.

Although, these are significant figures, and the United States remains the leading study destination, the United States share of the global population dropped by nearly 10% during a twelve-year period since 2000.  Additionally, the recent IIE report indicates an overreliance on China and India who sent 44.8% of the almost one million international students noted above.  Notable shifts are occurring in student mobility and these factors will shape the landscape of international education over the next decade.  These shifts appear to be currently driven by increasing regional educational hubs, growing middle classes in Asia, regional mobility over global mobility, and increasing competition.

The latter causation, increasing competition, is one to take pause and warrants deeper consideration.  Competition has not just increased in the usual leading destination countries, but continues to develop on other European, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations.  Demand from Asia has been the greatest driver, but a number of important emerging markets will play a key role moving forward.  Competition is shifting and includes more widely distributed destinations, including increases in non-English-speaking countries.

Destinations for international students are expanding, and growing more competitive as institutions look to increase international populations on campus to enhance fiscal, academic, and diversity initiatives.  Systems and tools to rank institutions and compare institutional data (particularly outcomes), ultimately serve as an aid to students making decisions about higher education opportunities, are expanding and becoming key factors in how competition is perceived.

Competition in Perspective – Higher Education International & National Ranking Systems

In a global marketplace, a prospective student must begin to filter through the thousands of institutions of higher learning to determine quality and fit.  One such mechanism has been the utilization of ranking or scoring systems.   These systems are attempts to compare people’s perceptions of institutions resulting in a compilation of supposed public perception, a direct impact on brand recognition.   However, there are a lot of ranking schemes, comprised of varying methodologies (often including inputs on selectivity, faculty resources, spending, and research productivity), and each striving to identify how well-regarded an institution is perceived against a peer group.

National rankings have existed for decades and have been recognized for years as a guide to quality.  US News & World Report Best Colleges Rankings is more relevant than all the global rankings given its history and structure. The same goes for national rankings published in the United Kingdom such as The Times Good University Guide or The Guardian University League Table.  National ranking systems are growing around the globe with thirty-two new national ranking systems put into place since 2005. National or regional systems are often developed on multi-leveled metrics and apply different criteria to evaluate institutions of higher learning on different criteria.   In 2015, US News & World Report for the first time published the overall Best Arab Region Universities and subject rankings, featuring 91 schools (from a directory of more than 800) across 16 countries.  There is helpful information in a growing higher education market. However, unless one read the methodology they would not be aware that the rankings were based solely on publications and only those from one citation database.   This is a very limited scope given the common perception associated with ranking systems as indicators of quality.

However, international rankings of universities, which have existed for approximately a decade, are establishing a new avenue for consumers to consider the strength of institutions outside of the United States and Europe.  Examples include Times Higher Education World University Rankings (UK), QS World University Rankings (multi-national), Academic Ranking of World Universities (China).  Equally, these systems are often developed on metrics not easily decipherable to most, and evaluate institutions of higher learning on different criteria.   For example, the Academic Ranking of World Universities from the Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (China) has been in existence since 2003 and uses four criteria: Quality of Education (10%), Quality of Faculty (40%), Research Output (40%), and Per Capita Performance (10%).  However, the QS World University Rankings utilize eleven criteria and over 50 indicators: Core Criteria (50%), Learning Environment (16.67%), Specialist Criteria (16.67%) and Advanced Criteria (16.67%).

The IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, established formally in 2009, is an international association of ranking organizations and universities aimed towards the improvement of the quality of academic rankings and the quality of higher education in general. The body is interested in gathering information on all relevant ranking activities in the field of higher education, yet it notes that very limited information is available on national university rankings. National rankings are an integral part of the world’s higher education landscape and are much more developed, more comprehensive as on the national level universities operate within the same cultural and legal system and a rich body of comparable data is available.

Regardless of the system or ranking body these structures do influence perspectives.  In a NAFSA (Association of International Educators, the largest association of professionals committed exclusively to advancing international higher education) report A Utilitarian View of Rankings, Alan Ruby addresses the importance of ranking systems as they influence young people’s decisions about institutional quality and where to study, especially for prospective international students.   Systems utilize varying methods to assess an overall institutional rank, but many rankings systems also focus on a particular field (i.e. academic discipline, institution type, research, or specialty programs).  These systems vary greatly in scope, structure, and reliability from the applied methodology to the resulting ranking figures which are often misleading.  Common interpretation would be the higher the rank, the better the product, but institutions of higher learning are complex systems that provide a multitude of services to students. Therefore, it can be challenging to understand what factors are incorporated into each ranking.

Competition in Perspective – Accreditation, Quality Assurance, and the College Scorecard

Accreditation and Quality Assurance are essentially a systematic review of programs to ensure that acceptable standards of education, scholarship and infrastructure are being maintained.  UNESCO and the OECD created in 2005 an educational quality assurance framework that cultivates a culture of quality in higher education known as the Global Initiative for Quality Assurance Capacity (GIQAC) .  This framework is outlined in the Guidelines for Quality Provision in Cross-border Higher Education and serves as a guide for institutions and nations around the globe to develop processes which will enable monitoring using a set of commonly agreed-upon standards.

In the United States, higher education accreditation began in the 1880’s and was developed to protect and serve the public interest.  The process later evolved in 1952 into regions in a post-World War II America, and the rapid expansion of higher education as a result of the GI Bill. Processes were based on peer-evaluation amongst institutions and accrediting agencies, and the development of regulation, legislation and oversight by state and federal governments.  With the creation of the United States Department of Education and under the terms of the Higher Education Act of 1965, the United States Secretary of Education is required to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies determined to be reliable authorities on the quality of education or training.  The United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) both recognize reputable accrediting bodies for institutions of higher education.

With criticism of the current United States structure existing for more than a decade, accreditation in recent years has been ever present from presidential candidate speeches to the President’s State of the Union address.  More recently, in September 2015 United States Senators Bennet and Rubio introduced a bill that establishes an alternative, outcome-based quality review process to authorize “innovative, high-quality education providers” to undertake quality review based on stipulated performance measures of student learning, completion and affordability/benefit to students as set by the United States Department of Education. In short, it would test federally approved alternatives to accreditation, federal performance measures for providers, including student learning, and performance-based access to federal student aid.

Critiques of the current system include too much emphasis on processes and input measures (i.e. faculty credentials, research, etc.) and not enough on performance outcomes (i.e. student learning, retention and graduation rates) which should be at the core of quality assessment.  Access, affordability, accountability and student debt are at the forefront of concerns with current practices, followed by making this information easily accessible to the public.  How to disburse the most useful information about institutions of higher education to students and parents in a way that’s not overwhelming and that includes key information is challenging.  The United States Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics College Navigator tool, a top priority on the Obama administration’s higher education agenda, provides updated information on institutions, but was felt by many to be too overwhelming.

The United States Department of Education’s College Scorecard was designed to be an easier means to provide consumer information to assist students in choosing the best college, and allow users to search for institutions by name and by metrics such as cost, graduation rate, average amount borrowed, and employment data.  Some critics state that until a student unit record system exists, the College Scorecard data offers a much-needed step towards transparency in higher education. However, readers must also be warned of the confusion of correlation with causation when presenting data (especially related to earnings, as many factors impact a graduate’s salary potential). There are a number of limitations in the College Scorecard including: (1) exclusion of institutions primarily awarding certificates; (2) many metrics available are limited to data on students who received federal aid; and (3) average salaries for each institution are based on very wide ranges.  Overall, the College Scorecard is a positive step in providing outcomes and output based information to the public including some data not available outside of this system.

Each of these systems exist in an attempt to provide to the public access to outcomes based useful information related to the affordability, accountability and value of a higher education.  Information can be accessed through the specific program websites, the United States Department of Education, the National Center for Education Statistics, or the websites of various regional accreditors.


As mobility and competition for students internationally continues to grow, universities must become savvy and engage in the changing global market.  As student affairs practitioners, it is important that we acknowledge these shifting factors in how our institution, and those to whom we compete, are perceived.  We further must act to ensure quality education amidst a climate of increased accountability.  So how do we prepare?

Ask questions: “How are we using rankings and dataset information? What does it say about us?  What doesn’t it say about us?”  This is critical information guiding fine decisions between schools in the same type, field, price point, or rank.  Identify what are the institution’s communications efforts which highlight what sets it apart from its peers.

Understanding the basis of the ranking systems, accreditations, or college data dashboards to which you assume your students or their families may consult, will allow you and your colleagues to address rankings based on merit and not misaligned perceptions.  Ranking systems and even outcomes based data present one view of a college or program, so it is important for professionals to be aware of institutional strengths and be able to equally highlight further areas that are notable (i.e. new student center, enhanced security measures, expanding academic program).  Be ready to address the variability within, as some programs inside an institution may be ranked higher or lower than the overall institution itself, or may be greater attributes than others. Recognize these special attributes or niche of your institution and identify methods to highlight these in your programs, recruitment strategies, services, and strategic plans.  For the recruitment and retention of students choices will often come down to a series of factors including programs, location, cost, selectivity, reputation and diversity.  Be equipped with complementary information providing a wider perspective to enable students to look beyond the narrow scope of rankings systems or datasets and see the whole institution.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the figures and make-up of your international student population on campus?
  2. Are you in a state or institution hosting the most international students (see Open Doors 2015 “Fast Facts”?  How do you see the international population on your campus growing over the next ten years?
  3. Where does your institution rank in the US News & World Report Rankings?  How do you and your campus utilize the rankings in recruitment and retention strategies? How does your institution utilize accreditations and scorecard figures or other data dashboards to maintain a competitive edge?
  4. How can you as a Student Affairs practitioner be informed on applied strategies at your institution?  How can you support your colleagues to be more informed on quality assurance best practices? What can your department and you do to emphasize institutional strengths?

About the Author

Tadd Kruse is Assistant to the President for Institutional Planning and Effectiveness at the American University of Kuwait (AUK).  With over fifteen years of higher education administrative experience and having worked at institutions in the US, UK, and in the Middle East, he has spent more than a decade working abroad. He has experience in international education on a variety of fronts including international student housing, study abroad, exchange programs, and he co-founded and still oversees the Student Affairs Graduate Summer Internship Program at AUK.  Tadd has served as Senior Student Affairs Officer, founded a department at a start-up institution, and worked in a variety of professional fields within Student Affairs. He currently serves as a Leadership team member for the International Association of Student Affairs and Services (IASAS).

Please e-mail inquiries to Tadd Kruse.


The opinions expressed by Developments author(s) are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members, Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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