The race is on

As competition for international students grows more intense and complex, the traditional anglophone giants face a host of new challenges

December 9, 2021
Bookmakers at work ahead of racing at Doncaster Racecourse to illustrate the race is on
Source: Getty

The endless growth of international student numbers in four or five anglophone countries was for decades a given.

There was competition, and fortunes waxed and waned as attitudes to migration shifted, news events were interpreted positively or negatively in China or India, and Western governments used visa policy to sharpen their competitive edge.

But, for the UK, the US, Australia and Canada, there was plenty of pie to go around, and more coming out of the oven every year.

The sense that Covid may have changed some of these fundamentals returns this week, as countries set out their stalls to try to seize the initiative post-pandemic.

We report on a new Australian Strategy for International Education, which proposes a change in the way post-study visas are used to entice students to choose Australian universities over competitors.

“Australia should seek to attract new cohorts of students who may not wish or be able to travel to Australia but want to benefit from an Australian education as well as post-study work opportunities in Australia,” it says.

The idea that a student in India, where post-study work opportunities are a particularly important factor in decision-making, could obtain a cheaper Australian qualification via transnational provision and still get that foot in the door after graduating feels like a major escalation in the arms race.

It also touches on a second shift in the market dynamics: the broadening of the pool of provider countries that are now competing for international students.

A study published this week by the British Council and Studyportals says that a fifth of higher education courses taught in English are now in countries other than the five main anglophone systems. This amounts to almost 28,000 full-degree programmes, a growth of 77 per cent in the past four years. So as well as intensifying, it seems that the global recruitment race is also widening.

One of the ways in which universities in the traditional big five can respond is diversification of their international student cohorts (indeed, the Australian government’s strategy is explicit that it will “work with the sector to ensure visa settings continue to support diversification”).

This has become increasingly pressing as China’s relationship with the West has deteriorated, a point emphasised in another new report this week, published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London. The study, from a team led by the UK’s former universities and science minister Jo Johnson, focuses on the relationship between the UK and India in terms of higher education and research, and is a companion to an earlier report on the relationship between the UK and China.

With the rise of what it calls a “techno-authoritarian China” destabilising relations and threatening future decoupling between the two countries, it argues that India should be seen as a “natural partner” for a “comprehensive knowledge partnership”. This includes proposals for doubling the number of Indian students in the UK (as well as greater mobility in the other direction), supported by liberalisation of post-study work visas and a sector-backed loans scheme for Indian students.

Speaking at the THE Campus Live event last month, Lord Johnson made clear the extent of his concern about an over-reliance on fees paid by Chinese students, suggesting that in England the Office for Students could consider requiring universities to insure themselves against the financial risk of over-exposure to students from any one country.

In 2019-20, roughly 139,000 Chinese students headed to the UK – more than twice as many as came from India, the UK’s second-largest sending country.

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, which has made a deliberate play to get more international students in recent years, a surge in numbers – particularly from other countries in Europe – has had a destabilising impact of its own, with universities complaining that their campuses are now bursting at the seams, and seeking respite by proposing number caps.

It is a reminder of how fluid the flow of students can be, and that it needs to be controlled. As Rik Peelen, education officer at the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, put it, the answer is not to close doors, but “to focus more on how to manage internationalisation better”.

For the anglophone big hitters who may feel they are old hands, staying in control of an increasing number of variables makes that harder than it once was.

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