In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Higher Education and Globalization

  • Introduction
  • Globalization Theory
  • General Overviews
  • International Organization Reports
  • Journals
  • Debating Globalization in Higher Education

Education Higher Education and Globalization
Brendan Cantwell, Sanfeng Miao
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0171


In the 1990s researchers began to observe globalization processes in higher education. This observation was significant because higher education systems had long been understood as comprised of quintessentially modern and national institutions. The extent and meaning of globalization and higher education is a subject of ongoing debate. Early accounts tended to highlight the negative aspects of globalization and presented it as worldwide coercive and homogenizing processes in higher education, often akin to “Americanization.” Later more nuanced accounts of globalization and higher education developed. These accounts recognized globalization not as any single development but as a set of interlocking social, cultural, economic, and technological processes that interact in a complex way with higher education. Global interaction occurs differently depending on institutional and national circumstances. While most observers now subscribe to some version of the generic nuanced account just described, different understandings of globalization and higher education remain. The way globalization and higher education is understood in the literature may be divided into two broad approaches. One approach sees globalization as a mega process that influences higher education intuitions, albeit in varying ways. This first approach is most common in the literature on internationalization in higher education, which is primarily concerned with understanding how higher education is responding to the opportunities and changes created by globalization. Another approach sees higher education systems, institutions, and actors therein not only as subject to globalization processes, but also as entities that have some capacity to shape globalization processes and not just respond to them. A shared element in both understandings is the partial denationalization of higher education that comes with the recognition that understanding contemporary higher education necessarily involves some attention to global dimensions. While such recognition about the sector is now broadly accepted, it is not as broadly practiced and much higher education research and policy analysis remains nationally bound.

Globalization Theory

Generally speaking the field of higher education studies has applied globalization theory that has been developed in other fields of study. Those interested in deep study of globalization and higher education may find it useful to begin with theory that has been developed outside of the field of higher education but, nonetheless, has proved influential in forming scholarship on the topic. Higher education researchers have relied on a diverse set of theories, drawn from a variety of disciplines, to inform their own work on globalization. Research on political economy, such as Held and McGrew 2007, has been useful in framing the economic and political aspects of globalization, especially with regard to international trade; the relationship among the economy, society, and the state; and the political struggles associated with globalization processes. Sociological globalization theory, summarized in Sassen 2007, has been useful for understanding the integration of place, such as cities and regions, into global systems. Castells 2009 introduces techo-social theory, which has been influential in higher education studies of globalization as it highlights how communicative globalization has accelerated knowledge production and the flow of information. Globalization theory, drawing from cultural and literary studies such as Appadurai 2001, have shaped the way higher education researchers think about individual subjectivity, identity, and cultural hybridity. Finally, work from studies in political economy and business has informed research on the global governance of higher education. Braithwaite and Drahos 2000 is one such example.

  • Appadurai, Arjun, ed. 2001. Globalization. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    An edited book comprised of chapters by literary, cultural, and social theorists that focuses on globalization and identity. This book is especially useful for understanding concepts of cultural hybridity. While the chapters are cited directly in higher education research only occasionally, the ideas are germinal to much work on the cultural dimension of globalization and higher education.

  • Braithwaite, John, and Peter Drahos. 2000. Global business regulation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This book is an authoritative account of how firms are regulated in the era of globalization. It provides an accessible and comprehensive orientation to the ways in which globalization has shifted businesses regulation, including consideration of the role of individual actors, firms, states, and international organizations.

  • Castells, Manuel. 2009. The Rise of the network society. 2d ed. The information age: Economy, society, and culture, Vol. 1. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444319514

    Originally published in 1996. This book is among the most influential works on globalization theory and has left a strong impression on higher education studies. It is a foundational text for understanding the development and significance of communicative globalization on academic work.

  • Held, David, and Anthony McGrew. 2007. Globalization/anti-globalization: Beyond the great divide. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    An accessible and authoritative text outlining political and economic theory related to globalization as well as the most important political debates on the topic. Held’s work has been influential in informing the way higher education researchers define and understand globalization.

  • Sassen, Saskia. 2007. A sociology of globalization. New York: Norton.

    Helpful for conceptualizing local/global dynamics, this work offers an extensive sociological account of globalization with emphases on cities, regions, and places. This book is especially useful for understanding how higher education intuitions are interlinked with the locations in which they are situated and transnational social processes.

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