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Global academy bends to the winds of demographic change

Danny Dorling considers how population change influences the shape and direction of higher education in fundamental ways

The Earth at night from satellite

In this detailed satellite image of the Earth at night, the size of countries and continents has been distorted in order to show population density. (The most densely populated areas have been magnified. Unpopulated areas have been shrunk to nothing.) The dark areas show parts of the world in which people find it hard to access electricity, or use less of it. Ben Hennig, senior research fellow in the University of Sheffield’s department of geography, created the image using 2012 data.

There is a lot of angst about the size of the world’s human population and what those numbers mean for the future of our overstretched planet.

With the United Nations predicting that by 2100 there will be 11 billion of us, academics, policymakers and others are understandably and rightly worried about food supplies, resources, the environment and sustainability.

But looked at another way, 11 billion might also be a figure of hope. As vast a number as it sounds, it actually represents a slowdown in world population growth, and there are many reasons to be optimistic about our ability to respond to the challenges we face.

Many will look to universities for solutions but demographic trends are relevant to higher education in other ways, too, influencing the shape and direction of the sector far more than is often realised.

When, for example, UK student numbers dipped during the 1950s, it had as much to do with low birth rates in the 1930s as with education policy in a period of austerity. Similarly, university expansion in the 1960s was partly needed to cater for all the extra children born after 1945 – the “baby boom” associated with the end of the Second World War.

Importantly, changes in population can also affect young people’s chances of getting into university. In England we have recently seen a slowdown in the expansion of student numbers but this has not necessarily greatly reduced the opportunities open to university applicants: a sharp fall in the number of babies born 18 years ago limited the pool of young people who might have applied last year. This in turn may have been a result of changing trends in university participation a little earlier, because women who enter higher education are likely to become mothers later in life than they otherwise might. Around the world, the birth rate will fall as more women are educated – especially to university level.

The growing number of international students will also help to accelerate this global trend towards declining fertility. (It would take a brave person to move abroad to study and have a baby at the same time.)

Numbers (in millions) accessing different levels of education, 1970-2050 (projected)

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