| If we take a long view – say back to the 1960s, we see a continual increase in the enrolment of students in higher education (which, for the higher education stat nerds out there, means ISCED level 5 or above). Around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, global enrolment in higher education was a touch over 15 million or so, with roughly half of these students located either in the United States or the Soviet Union. By the late 2010s, we were looking at a world with something in the range of 225 million students, which implies a growth rate of about 5% per year, every year, for 65 years (although in truth growth rates were lower than that for most of this period and higher in the period from about 1998 to 2013). This kind of growth has come to be seen as “normal”. But will it stay that way?
The thing to remember is that higher education enrolments are a function of two things: first, the size of the youth population (because, whatever else they may be, these institutions are still overwhelmingly used as a kind of finishing school for learners in their late teens and early twenties), and second, the percentage of that cohort which is choosing and able to attend this kind of education. These numbers have been rising for most of the past 65 years. Figure 1 shows that change in the numbers of youth aged 20-24 by region (the awkwardly acronym there stands for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, US and UK), while figure 2 shows the change of the global participation rate. Note that for the population figures I am specifically looking at the 56 countries HESA covered in World Higher Education: Institutions, Students and Funding, so the totals are a bit low, but the trends are still basically correct. Data for figure 2 is from the World Bank.
Figure 1: Population Aged 20-24 by Continent, in millions, 1963 to 2013