Some of the more extravagant projections of future global student mobility have been toned down in the latest studies, but both the Commonwealth and the IDP, the Australian universities' overseas marketing arm, already put the numbers studying abroad at more than 1.5 million.
Based on current trends, IDP forecasts a fourfold increase by 2025, with Britain among the most popular destinations. A range of political, economic and educational factors could affect the calculations but, inevitably, higher education will become increasingly reliant on the fee income from such students.
British universities are no novices in overseas marketing, but the presence of 1,200 delegates at IDP's conference in Melbourne last week, analysing everything from the impact of tourist advertising to the challenges of cross-cultural teaching, suggested that it would be rash to underestimate the competition. The draw of the English language and the reputation of British degrees remain strong, but any institution that wants to benefit fully from growing demand (particularly in Asia) will have to convince a sophisticated clientele that it offers real quality. That means welfare facilities, language tuition and personal attention on a level seldom demanded by home students, as well as a good course.
Even in Australia, however, some are beginning to question how far the expansion of international education can go. If the IDP's original estimates prove accurate, overseas students would account for almost 10 per cent of the entire population and dominate higher education. Researchers recognise that this is far more than individual universities could accommodate or would be prepared to accept. The same would certainly be true in Britain, where the proportion of overseas students is much lower.
In both countries, therefore, the potential exists for private colleges to mop up excess demand. Unscrupulous providers passing themselves off as adjuncts of famous universities have sullied the reputation of UK higher education in the past, but there are models in the US and elsewhere that show that this could change.
Universities would be wise to treat even the more modest projections of growth with caution. China, for example, has provided the most spectacular increases in student traffic into Britain, but many postgraduates are junior university staff whose role is to build up the indigenous higher education system on their return. UK universities that put all their eggs in the Chinese basket could be in for a shock in a few years' time. As well as diversifying their efforts internationally, they should be looking at what they offer overseas students. The lesson of the IDP's research is that quality, much more than price, is the key to an indispensable part of their business.