Ten trends transforming international student mobility

Even in an unpredictable world, there are clues about the future of student movement, says Anna Esaki-Smith 

July 16, 2017
Students
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Considering the state of political and economic affairs these days, it’s easy to throw up your hands in frustration when trying to figure out what study choices international students will make.

The Institute of International Education (IIE) recently released findings indicating an overall 2 per cent decline in international undergraduate admissions yield for surveyed US institutions in 2017-18. “Recent debates over visa and immigration policy have raised concerns…regarding the desire and ability of international students to travel to the United States for their education,” the IIE said. This follows a survey carried out earlier by the Council of Graduate Schools, with 46 per cent of responding graduate deans reporting “substantial downward changes in admissions yield for international students for fall 2017”.

Meanwhile, in the UK, recent teaching excellence framework (TEF) ratings that placed some of the country’s most prestigious institutions below lesser-known counterparts have complicated an outlook already muddled with post-European Union referendum uncertainty.

With all that going on, the exercise of mapping international student mobility and understanding factors influencing student decision-making has gone from being a challenge to something close to impossible.

Or has it? In some respects, even as the immediate environment feels increasingly volatile, the underlying forces determining the direction of international education are becoming more defined than before.

In our free scoping review, 10 Trends: Transformative Changes in Higher Education, we examine a number of factors (highlighted in bold below) that we feel are steering education choices today – elements that are less vulnerable to political shifts and more grounded in fundamentals that will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.

The influence of global demographics, for example, is vast and cuts across all aspects of education and industry. How will the world contend with a rapidly ageing East Asia; a population decrease that is led by the economic powerhouses of Japan and China? Or an explosion of youth in sub-Saharan Africa that makes the African continent abundant with human capital? A growing global middle class and Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations are making access to education a reality for people who were previously denied the opportunity, while national internationalisation policies, comprised of recruitment targets and financial support, and the distribution of national education funding are both carving out educational pathways for certain countries by clarifying priority areas. Investment in local education systems or mobility scholarships? A focus on outward or inward mobility?

The impact of English goes without saying, as university curriculums taught in English continue to grow and the language maintains its status as a global lingua franca. As we head further into today’s knowledge economy that is heavily influenced by technology, the impact of edtech and the demand for specific skills are inevitable, as is a closer alignment with corporate organisations that will result in multisector cooperation that will hopefully result in better employment outcomes for graduates across the globe. 

There are less obvious factors at play, their subtlety due to the fact that they are, in many respects, unquantifiable. The first is a redefinition of brand and value – with today’s informed students, the return on investment of an overseas study experience is an increasingly weighty consideration.

Certainly, an education at a “branded” university carries immeasurable benefits such as entry into a prestigious alumni network, the admiration of peers, and accolades from parents. However, will such an education result in a job offer? And from an employer’s perspective, does a branded education mean a better employee? The realisation, by both graduate and employer, that the skills and abilities an individual brings to the table mean more than a fancy diploma is changing the playing field.

Finally, while international students sometimes feel that there’s little to differentiate between universities offering a “quality education”, a renewed focus on the student experience, on the non-academic value that a university offers, counts. This is about more than having an international student services centre – it’s about the “quality” of the welcome and meeting the expectations a student has developed based on the vibrant images seen on a university website or in a brochure. 

Whether this means greeting a student at the airport to lessen the shock of arriving in a new culture, or making a better effort to encourage domestic students to befriend international counterparts, such tailored and individualised approaches are necessary to attract, and more importantly retain, overseas students.  

Certainly, this is by no means an exhaustive list and we don’t underestimate the challenges of today’s operating environment. However, it is useful to know that we do have access to data and information on which to base strategies, that there are trends impervious to political changes, and that the future may not be so difficult to predict after all.

Anna Esaki-Smith is editorial director for Education Intelligence, the British Council’s global higher education research service based in Hong Kong.

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