A global scramble by universities to cash in on the lucrative market for overseas students risks hampering diversity, "dumbing down" postgraduate research and excluding poor nations, according to a report on international trends in higher education.
The Higher Education Policy Institute says that universities across the world are aiming to sell largely professional courses to overseas students willing to pay full fees in the belief that their qualifications will land them top graduate jobs.
In countries such as the UK and Australia, government policies restricting funding for domestic students are helping to fuel the race to entice overseas students.
But the ad hoc developments could have damaging effects. "The future of internationalism is too important to be shaped as a series of unintended consequences of miscellaneous policies or market forces," says the Hepi report.
It says that five major trends have reshaped the market.
The first two are student and staff mobility. It is estimated that the global demand for places from international students will exceed 7 million by 2025, a fourfold increase on 2000 numbers. Staff mobility is also increasing rapidly. The notions of brain drains and gains have been replaced with "brain circulation", as more academics work overseas and then return home.
The third development is a big increase in transnational education, where universities "set up shop" abroad with overseas campuses and distance-learning operations. This has led to a fourth change - the concentration of international teaching activities in professional subjects such as business and information technology. Finally, there is evidence that international collaboration in research has increased substantially.
But the report says that one "worrying trend" related to this is that the rise in the number of international research students has been relatively modest. There are fears that a preference among overseas students for taught masters rather than research programmes could lead to dumbing down in graduate education, the report says.
Hepi notes that, aside from the significant extra revenue that overseas students bring, internationalisation opens up new access routes for students, encourages collaboration between countries and institutions, and increases the global pool of people with training and qualifications.
But Hepi says there is also the risk that opportunities are likely to be unevenly distributed, militating against poor countries and students.
Middle-income countries that import higher education may also find that "scrambling foreign institutions" cause problems for their own higher education policy-making.
Another possible consequence is that market-driven competition may jeopardise a traditional ethos of cooperation, and a high concentration of students in a few subjects could hamper diversity.
In the UK, the report says internationalism that is purely market-oriented "may be inadequate to support the scientific research training of high-calibre international students, which could bring benefits, both to the UK and to the sending countries".
The report warns that domestic funding policies can create powerful incentives for institutions to become more active in recruiting overseas students.
"The question that policy-makers should ask is whether they intended to create an incentive for faster expansion of educational places for international students than for domestic students, and, if so, for how long," it says.
It will be important to have more systematic data collection on overseas activities, along with a periodic policy review, to keep on top of trends and their implications, Hepi adds.