Is the growth of international student mobility coming to a halt?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Skills Beyond School Division,  Directorate for Education and Skills

Higher education is one of the most globally integrated systems of the modern world. There still are important barriers to the international recognition of degrees or the transfer of credits, but some of the basic features of higher education enjoy global convergence and collaboration. This is most visible in the research area, where advanced research is now carried out in international networks. But also in the field of teaching and learning, the international dimension has become very important. The so-called European Higher Education Area stands out as an area where degree structures, credit transfer arrangements and quality assurance frameworks have been aligned in order to adjust qualifications with the needs of an integrated labour market.

Yet, higher education is also one of the most unequal and hierarchical systems of the modern world; globalisation has not yet made the world of higher education a ‘flat’ one. There are huge imbalances between the quantitative supply and demand of education. And the imbalance in quality is even more striking: using an imperfect measure of quality such as the one provided by the global university rankings, one can immediately see that the perceived quality and reputation of academic institutions is concentrated in just a few countries, while the demand is exploding in other parts of the world. The academic top league (say, the top 50 institutions in any of the global rankings) is particularly concentrated, and because of the metrics used to determine quality it is very difficult for institutions in other parts of the world to enter that club.

To some extent international student mobility can be seen as a consequence of global academic inequality. Students are moving to other parts of the globe in order to find the best possible education their money can buy. International student mobility is one of the ways through which the geographical gap between supply and demand is being overcome. Investing resources in one’s son or daughter in order to secure them a high-quality credential has become a preferred strategy of affluent middle class families in emerging countries, especially after their purchasing power started to increase. The chart above shows that for many years the total number of international students remained rather stable around 1 million, but that from the 1990s onwards the numbers started to grow significantly. Some countries were quick to tap into this opportunity and developed strategies to market their higher education offer. From 0.8 million in 1975, the number rose to 4.2 million thirty-five years later.

Many people expected the growth to continue and even to accelerate. But that is not what happened, as is also clear from the chart. From 2012 onwards the growth really stopped. Between 2012 and 2015 a mere 100 thousand students were added to the 4.5 million. The recent figures, published in the OECD’s latest Education at a Glance, suggest that it is not just a temporary setback, but a more structural phenomenon.

What could be the reasons for this change? We probably need to look at developments both on the demand and the supply side. Regarding the former, the obvious explanation is the improvement of domestic education in the most important countries of origin. China, and to a lesser extent India, have invested huge resources in developing their higher education system, including a select number of universities that are predestined to achieve world-class status in the next few years. Chinese universities are now aggressively entering the global rankings and continue to improve their ranks every single year. Changing prospects at home have an impact on the investments strategies of affluent middle-class families in these nations.

Still, changes on the demand side alone cannot explain the lack of growth. Indeed, the potential reservoir of interested students in these countries remains immense. We also have to look at the supply side, to developments in the main countries of destination. It is evident that in the main countries active in the field of exporting education services, things have fundamentally changed as well. From a very hospitable and welcoming approach to international students, popular and political attitudes have reversed things into a much more hostile stance. This has happened in the main destination countries such as Australia, the UK and the US, but also in upcoming players such as Switzerland, Sweden or the Netherlands. The general backlash against migration, aggravated by the refugee crisis and the flows of asylum seekers, has also turned the climate for foreign students upside down. Populist and often false accusations that foreign students are only interested in permanent migration, and that they take the future jobs of domestic students, are now in the media every day.

The recent 2017 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange data, published by the Institute of International Education (IIE), points to a decrease of 7% in the numbers of new international students enrolling in US higher education institutions. The majority of surveyed institutions (52%) in the IIE survey expressed concern that the country’s social and political climate could deter prospective international students. In the UK, a political decision is being discussed of removing international students from the government’s target of reducing net immigration. Still, Brexit and a general hostile climate against migration in the UK is probably also becoming a deterrent for international students. Similar developments can be seen in other countries of destination.

What is happening at both the demand and supply side of international higher education is fundamentally reshaping the size and direction of international student mobility flows. In a strange way, they are reshaping the global academic inequalities. At the same time they are also redefining where and how the future professionals and leaders of the 21st century world will be educated. Just as much as academic education was an important instrument in shaping the post-WWII global order, the current changes in international education will have a profound impact on the 21st century world.

Education at a Glance 2017: OECD Indicators
Open Doors 2017

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