Riding the waves of international student flow will not be easy

The UK, in particular, could find itself gasping for breath by 2024 if it does not take the currents into account, warns Louise Nicol

September 21, 2020
A woman surfing a large wave
Source: iStock

Let’s fast-forward to 6 November 2024. Kamala Harris has just been elected US president and the celebrations of the country’s first woman leader are particularly joyful at higher education institutions.

It is expected that President Harris will build on the Biden administration’s four years of benevolent visa policies, expansion of post-study work opportunities and opportunities for skilled immigrants to become citizens. US universities and colleges are awash with students from all four corners of the globe, while many more overseas students are studying on US degree programmes online in their home countries.

In the southern hemisphere, Australia has got stronger and smarter following the significant impact of Covid-19 on its universities’ financial sustainability. It has maximised its dominance of Asean and south-Asian student markets and thrown its weight behind transnational education in a big way, with campuses in emerging and high-growth markets such as Indonesia and India. Its universities are developing high-quality research programmes with the three Chinese institutions now ranked in the top 20 of Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings, and its alumni network in the rapidly developing region brings it increasing economic and soft power.   

Dubai, China, Malaysia and Singapore are growing international education hubs in their own right, particularly for the more sensitive and safety-conscious Asian students who choose to be closer to home following Covid-19. Canada, with growth dented by the resurgence of the US, has had to become even more welcoming. And India’s plan to open up its borders to international universities is beginning to show success, opening the way for it to begin its own drive for globally mobile students.

Meanwhile, freed of a recalcitrant UK, the European Union has, as a bloc, offered post-study work for three years to anyone who has studied in Europe. The Netherlands and Germany are gaining significant market share, with France making particular inroads as it builds on traditional student recruitment strengths in Africa. Erasmus+ has become a global phenomenon, with bilateral arrangements throughout Asia, Africa and South America providing opportunities for building experience in multinational cooperation.  

If that all sounds pretty fanciful, let’s remember that time moves quickly in the world of global student mobility. It was only eight years ago that Australia had its third successive year of falling international student numbers and the UK was ending post-study work visas and had begun dismantling its overseas language-testing infrastructure. It is less than five since Canada was at only 350,000 international students and the US was celebrating its highest ever intake of both new graduate and undergraduate students. By 2019, Canada had reached 642,000 international students, while US admissions were on the wane.

So where will UK higher education be in 2024? That depends on what steps it takes now to establish and maintain a strong position, based on employability, soft power, trade and transnational education, as part of a broader national plan to facilitate economic cooperation and trade post-Brexit.

Employability, in particular, is an underused selling point, despite the demands of international students for a return on their educational investment. New technologies now allow tracking of international alumni as they return to their home countries, and the UK could aim to become the first country to harness this data to focus international recruitment marketing on career outcomes. There is no better time than a global economic recession to demonstrate that your higher education system gets graduates a better career.

This would also give the UK a significant advantage in transnational education, an area where it is already the world leader, with more branch campuses and overseas delivery than any other nation. Spending money to make a global alumni community a reality would also boost both institutional brands and opportunities for future economic and political cooperation. Covid-19 has shown the perils of dependence on a few markets, so diversification into emerging markets will be key.

Some would say that UK higher education got lucky in 2020 by being in the right hemisphere, with the right start dates to avoid the worst of the pandemic’s effects on student enrolment. It has been further helped by a good helping of anti-student rhetoric from the White House. But the lesson of recent history is that countries that have seen downturns in their global recruitment have been able to turn the corner quickly; nobody should doubt the possibility that a Biden administration will quickly see the US rediscover its status as the most attractive international student market.

In short, the UK must be smart, nimble and brave to surf the powerful currents and rip tides of global student recruitment. Every surfer knows that anticipation, timing and paddling hard are prerequisites for achieving the perfect ride. Catching the wave of international student recruitment isn’t very different, but the pressures of year-by-year enrolment targets often lead institutional recruiters to flounder around, trying to ride every “ankle buster” wave, instead of strategising for the next “bomb”.

University recruiters in all countries should take a moment to consider how the world could change and how they could adjust to avoid the prospect of suffering a wipeout.

Louise Nicol is the founder of the Asia Careers Group.

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Reader's comments (2)

I have never considered myself a futurist, but working closely with #HigherEducation leaders both academic & those heading up Professional Services & the #InternationalStudents they serve, during the #pandemic has given me every confidence in this vision of the future. At Asia Careers Group SDN BHD we see an exciting trajectory ahead for the International HE sector, despite the present challenges facing us all, with a renewed focus on the #graduateoutcomes & #employability of their domestic & #internationalstudents, we are looking forward to working with increasing numbers of Institutions to make these predictions a reality. We very much welcome your comments. Asia Careers Group SDN BHD - Investing in International Futures
Reliance on International student monies was always a risk, though it satisfied the business people on University governing bodies for many years, now that risk will affect those Universities, and their staff, that have become over reliant on it. Those members of the governing bodies that were satisfied will in all probability now simply disappear and leave the mess they've created behind for others to deal with. Those of us in the sector who work with and discuss future plans with our International students understood years ago that once their home University capacity had been built up the number of students going abroad, coming here and elsewhere, would reduce, with only those courses of interest to the industrials and military sectors being supported. The writings been on the wall a long time, it's just that no-one in-charge pays attention as they walk past it.

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