With 97 million people expected in higher education by 2010, universities worldwide are moving into South America, China and the Gulf in an attempt to bag the new recruits first, says Tony Tysome
Academics are working in one of the world's most rapidly expanding lines of business.
The global demand for higher education is growing at such a pace that it has outstripped provision and is creating markets across the world, each expected eventually to be worth billions of pounds.
Although economic problems have seriously hampered recruitment efforts in Southeast Asia - until 1997 one of the world's higher education demand "hot spots" - other regions have experienced more rapid growth as a result.
The United States, Britain, Australia, Canada, France and Germany are the established and emerging key players in a global recruitment game that is homing in on fresh opportunities in China, India, Brazil, Mexico and the Middle East.
According to a review of the world higher education market recently commissioned by the British government, there is "an insatiable demand for high-quality, cost-effectively delivered, tertiary education in English".
Growth has been fuelled over the past 20 years by increasing prosperity and the globalisation of business.
It is estimated that the global requirement for higher education will more than double to 97 million people seeking courses by 2010, from just 48 million in 1990.
Despite the collapse of the "tiger" economies, demand in Asia is expected to grow from 17 million to 45 million in the same period.
The worldwide call for courses taught in English has left Britain, the US,Australia and Canada competing for a share of an estimated 90 per cent of the international higher education market.
In 1996-97, the US had 458,000 overseas students (61 per cent of the market share taken by the four countries), the UK had 198,000 (26 per cent), Australia 63,000 (8 per cent) and Canada 34,000 (4 per cent).
While the UK and the US are regarded as "mature" destinations with well-established traditions of international student recruitment, Australia and Canada are more recent entrants to the market and have developed strong marketing strategies to increase numbers. Of the non-English-speaking countries, France and Germany are the most active.
The British Council sees New Zealand as a likely future competitor following the marketing pattern of Australia and Canada. Holland and Denmark are also following Germany's lead in expanding paid postgraduate training in English. Japan continues to increase its recruitment efforts, although with limited success.
Even Malaysia and Thailand, whose higher education systems have been badly affected by economic collapse, are making serious efforts to set themselves up as "regional centres of excellence" in the hope that they can attract students from nearby countries such as Vietnam, Korea, Burma and Laos, as well as from elsewhere around the world.
Southeast Asia's troubles have caused British, American and Australian marketing efforts to be redirected towards such countries as China and India, where there is judged to be huge potential. Asia's economic problems exposed an over-reliance on markets in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Korea and Indonesia.
Institutions, however, are still working hard to maintain a strong presence in these countries, with the expectation that business will pick up again over the next two years as economies recover.
Inevitably, fee levels are a factor in the equation. Would-be students will always take tuition fees, cost-of-living, and travel costs into account when making their decision.
Language is influential: the US, Australia and the UK have a natural advantage in offering an English-language learning environment, but other countries are increasingly offering courses at least partly in English as an incentive.
The US has traditionally been a key destination for students from the Middle East and the Gulf. Its culture and lifestyle is perceived as more welcoming than that of Europe.
Australia's universities suffered from the electoral successes of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, which was deeply opposed to Asian immigration.
While that effect might be countered by the appeal of Australia's climate,chilly Europe also has its appeal for many would-be students from Southeast Asia.
Trade is replacing aid as the key motive, with the result that levels of student mobility within the Commonwealth are declining.
The former Soviet Union carved a niche in sub-Saharan Africa, but the need for hard currency and the perception of Moscow as a racist, violent city has meant that Russia's universities are looking for new markets.
In the UK, European students have displaced students from Commonwealth countries, to the disquiet of the Association for Education in the Commonwealth, which is launching an investigation into the new patterns of movement.
Results from the study may be fed into this autumn's Commonwealth heads of government meeting.Development of human resources within the organisation is high on the agenda.
As cash constraints in some areas have curtailed students' globe-trotting ambitions, a growing part of the market is about taking education to the student. Courses are now offered via the internet, franchising, overseas campuses, joint programmes and split PhDs.
Many of these options, however, still involve a period of study abroad in the host institution.