Accessibility statement

Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century - EDU00067M

« Back to module search

  • Department: Education
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Constantino Dumangane Jr
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25

Module summary

To introduce students to key issues and debates within contemporary higher education. The course will explore the role of higher education in society, the changing nature of the university, and trends in who participates in higher education. Students will develop an understanding of contemporary international trends in higher education, within a historical context. The relationship between higher education and social justice will represent a theme throughout the module. Students will draw from a range of disciplinary perspectives and engage with current theoretical and empirical research. Disciplines drawn from will include: sociology; political science; philosophy; history of education; higher education studies; and, economics.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2024-25

Module aims

The module is intended to introduce students to key issues and debates within contemporary higher education. This will include considering the role of higher education in society, the changing nature of the university and trends in who studies in higher education, when, where and why. The relationship between higher education and social justice will represent a theme throughout the module. The focus will be on understanding contemporary international trends but within a historical context. Students will draw on a range of disciplinary perspectives and make use of the latest theoretical and empirical research. Disciplines drawn on will include, but not be limited to, sociology, political science, history of education, higher education studies and economics. Students will be encouraged to develop skills in critical evaluation of scholarly and political arguments in connection with higher education, and in comparative/international studies.

Module learning outcomes

Subject content

Students should be appraised of a range of trends and developments in contemporary higher education internationally. This will include, inter alia, higher education’s role and impact in societies and economies; approaches to teaching and research within university-level institutions; the growth of higher education; and how higher education is financed.

Academic and graduate skills

  • Ability to compare and contrast systems of higher education and trends across different countries/regions.
  • Ability to critically analyse and evaluate higher education policies and trends.
  • Ability to source, synthesise, apply and evaluate theories and empirical research on higher education in relation to a given topic.
  • Competence in demonstrating these skills orally (formative) and in writing (summative).

Module content

This is the current week-by-week for this module.

Module content; Course stucture , Course details and Indicative reading follow:

Module content

Course Structure:

• The global rise of the university: From elite to mass to universal.

• Rankings and league tables: their implications for higher education

• Higher education and inequality

• Globalisation, internationalisation or colonisation in higher education

• Student Mobility

• Higher education and economic growth: cause or consequence?

• Who pays? Is higher education privatising?

• The idea of the university for the 21st century.

• Higher education and inequality

• Technology: ""The future is online"": Is there be a technological revolution in higher education?


Course details

The global rise of the university: from elite to mass to universal

There are more universities today than at any other point in history, with more students than ever before participating in higher education. This session will explore the shift from higher education as an elite to mass to universal system, and identify the key ideas and justifications associated with this trajectory. We will consider how scholars have characterised and debated the evolving university.

Rankings and league tables: their implications for higher education

Domestic and international university league tables and rankings are now a key feature of the higher education landscape. University administrators, politicians, funders and students pay careful attention to them and they are thought to influence policy and student behaviour. In this session we will trace the rapid emergence of league tables and consider arguments that the reason for their rise can be linked to the growth of higher education and its social and economic uses. We will also consider criticisms of rankings in principle and practice.

Higher education and inequality: Growing inequalities?

Expanding and widening enrolment in higher education is seen as a means of securing greater equity in social and economic outcomes, especially for historically disadvantaged groups. We will look at the evidence on patterns of inequality in access to higher education and consider whether these have changed over time or had any impact on social mobility or other dimensions of inequality. In doing so we will consider theories in the sociology of education concerning education and social inequality, including ideas of persistent, maximally maintained, and effectively maintained inequality. How much is the process of higher education expansion to be understood as one of 'credential inflation'? How does higher education connect to inequalities in wider society?

Globalisation, internationalisation or colonisation in higher education?

This session will draw from political science literature to examine the distinctions between globalisation, internationalisation and colonisation. Students will explore the implications of these phenomena in relation to contemporary higher education. We will focus in detail on the opportunities and challenges that these phenomena present for institutional identity and management (e.g. the meeting of Western and post-Confucian ideals), and, the creation and application of knowledge (considering the shift from modernity to post-modernity).

Student Mobility

This week, we will look at a phenomenon that many of you are familiar with: student mobility. This is a topic closely related to the internationalisation of higher education that we discussed last week. Indeed, many of us have, at some point in our lives, moved to study at university, either within our own countries or abroad. You are going to learn about the different types of mobilities students may engage in, their motivations to move, and the reasons why universities may be interested in recruiting mobile students.

There are now more individuals crossing borders to study than ever, and many young people worldwide have the privilege to experience foreign cultures, lifestyles and educational systems. In many countries like the US, the UK and Australia, international students are now key to the identity and diversity of universities, and this shift has important social and financial implications. They have even started to be represented in popular culture.

Higher education and economic growth: cause or consequence?

Universities are increasingly framed as drivers of economic development, and are expected by governments internationally to demonstrate their contribution to economic growth. Drawing from international research and policy, students will critically examine the assumptions of the ‘knowledge economy’ vision, and consider the role anticipated of the university in terms of developing a highly skilled workforce and producing economically valuable knowledge. Students will be invited to reflect on the impact of such policies on the institutional character of the university.

Who pays? Is higher education privatising?

In this session students will explore the complex financial challenges of sustaining a system of mass higher education. Students will critically discuss whether tuition fees are an inevitable feature of contemporary higher education, and will compare the current UK system with those in place in other countries across the world. We will consider other trends in the financing of the sector more generally, such as the growth of private universities, the prevalence of corporate values in the academy, and the move towards a ‘market’ of higher education.

The idea of the university for the 21st century

In this session we will consider a central paradox of global higher education: universities are more numerous than ever before, and yet there is greater contestation over the purpose and value of contemporary higher education. As the stakeholders of higher education have increased and diversified, so too have the range of expectations placed upon the university. As traditional ideals are challenged by new political, economic and social agendas, we will explore the tensions facing universities.

Technology, ‘The future is online’: Is there a technological revolution in higher education?

During the past few years there has been no shortage of predictions of the demise of the traditional university model in the face of an online revolution. It has been suggested that universities will not be able to sustain their current mode of operation when students can potentially have access to very high-quality material at any time and for very low cost via the internet. The most recent version of this prediction involves ‘Massively Online Open Courses’ or MOOCs. We will review the arguments for and against these predictions. We will conclude the module by considering the future prospects for higher education in the remainder of the 21st century.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay 3,500 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Essay 3,500 words
N/A 100

Module feedback

Students will receive written feedback on their summative assessments. The feedback is returned to students in line with university policy. Please check the Guide to Assessment, Standards, Marking and Feedback for more information.

Indicative reading

Indicative reading:

Allen, R. M. (2019). What do students know about university rankings? Testing familiarity and knowledge of global and domestic university league tables in China. Frontiers of Education in China, 14(1), 59-89.

Araki, S. (2022). Beyond the high participation systems model: illuminating the heterogeneous patterns of higher education expansion and skills diffusion across 27 countries. Higher Education, 1-19.

Boliver, V. and Wakeling, P. (2017) Social mobility and higher education. In In Shin, J. C. and Teixeira, P. (eds.) Encyclopedia of International Higher Education Systems and Institutions. New York: Springer. DOI:10.1007/978-94- 017-9553-1_43-1

Brown, R. (2013) Everything for Sale? The Marketisation of UK Higher Education.

Collini, S. (2012). The Global Multiversity. In Collini, S., What are universities for? (pp. 3-19). London: Penguin.

David, M. and Naidoo, R. (2013) (eds.) The Sociology of Higher Education: Reproduction, Transformation and Change in a Global Era. London: Routledge.

King, R., Marginson, S. and Naidoo, R. (2013) Handbook on Globalization and Higher Education.

Marginson, S. (2011). The Confucian model of higher education in East Asia and Singapore. Higher education in the Asia-Pacific: Strategic responses to globalization, 53-75.

Marginson, S., and Van der Wende, M. (2007) To rank or be ranked: the impact of global rankings on higher education. Journal of Studies in International Education, 11 (3-4): 306 – 329.

Thomas, L. (2020). ‘I am happy just doing the work…’Commuter student engagement in the wider higher education experience. Higher Education Quarterly, 74(3), 290-303.

Trow, M. and Burrage, M. (2010) Twentieth Century Higher Education: Elite to Mass to Universal. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Waters, J and Brooks, R (2010) Accidental achievers? International higher education, class reproduction and privilege in the experiences of UK students overseas, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 31:2, 217-228.

Woldegiyorgis, A. A. (2018). Harmonization of higher education in Africa and Europe: Policy convergence at supranational level. Tuning Journal for Higher Education, 5(2), 133-157.

Wolf, A. (2002). Elixir or snake oil? Can education really deliver growth? In Wolf, A, Does Education Matter? Myths about educaiton and economic growth. London: Penguin.

Yang, P. and Cheng, B. (2013) Student financing in Chinese Higher Education.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.