China's one-child policy will contribute to tougher times ahead for universities recruiting international students, a study has predicted.
A new modelling tool devised by the British Council and the Economist Intelligence Unit has identified likely shifts in student mobility by testing data longitudinally over 12 years.
Its first analysis is of China, a major source of overseas students for the UK, where such factors as price elasticity and demographics have been assessed.
The study forecasts that overall demand for higher education in China will continue to grow for the next five years before it drops off because of demographics changes.
At the same time, the proportion of Chinese students studying abroad will decline marginally, meaning the pool of international students will begin to shrink from 2011.
Also projected to fall is the UK's market share of international students from China. The study envisages a slide from 14 per cent of the market to 12 per cent by 2015.
As a result of all these shifts, the total number of Chinese students at UK universities is expected to rise from about 45,000 in 2006 to 60,000 in 2011, at which point it will start to fall.
A key factor is China's rapidly ageing population, which has its origins in the one-child policy introduced in the 1970s. The number of 15 to 19-year-olds in the country peaked last year and is now in long-term decline, reducing the pool of prospective students.
This downturn is mitigated, however, by China's rapid economic growth, which has helped push up university enrolment rates sharply in recent years. The country has an expanding urban population with rising incomes that continues to boost the market for overseas study.
The British Council says previous studies of demand from China have understated the impact of price - in terms of tuition fees and cost of living. Chinese students do seek value for money, it says, and countries including the UK, US, Canada and Japan are competing on price as well as on reputation.
Agreeing that price was a crucial factor, Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said: "The fact that English degrees are more expensive than in other parts of the world means that it is particularly important to demonstrate value for money."
The British Council study also suggests that a "9/11 impact", which reduced demand for places at US universities after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, may begin to wear off. This could leave UK universities facing renewed competition from the US.
In a final warning, the study reports that China now has 165,000 international students at its own universities. This number is set to grow, especially as young people from elsewhere in Asia choose to study there, making China itself a competitive threat to UK universities in the international market.
Dr Bekhradnia said the predicted drop in the number of Chinese students at UK institutions would be serious, but he remained optimistic about the resilience of the sector. "English universities are extremely versatile and adept at creating new markets. There have been ups and down in the past, and they have succeeded in coping," he said.
The British Council study, which is to be repeated next for India and Nigeria, concludes that the nature of the UK's relationship with China must change - with a greater emphasis on collaborative partnerships, particularly around science and research - if universities here are to prosper as the dynamics change.