All Change Please: International Student Mobility Today

The first ten years of this millennium saw globalisation of Higher Education at an unprecedented scale. The number of students opting to study abroad grew exponentially, mostly coming from the newly industrialised countries like India and China (they were the two big elephants in the room) to the popular destinations like United States, UK and Australia. This made good business - all the recipient countries led out red carpet and competed with each other, often fiercely, for market share. Higher Education exports, which roughly translates into how much money the sector brings to the economy from abroad, became the fifth or sixth largest (depending on what you count) in the UK: It attained a similar prominence in national policy making in other countries as well. While America, reeling under the impact of 9/11, global wars and the wave of social conservatism, remained a somewhat reluctant participant, it continued to draw maximum number of students because of its highly respected universities and exciting economic opportunities thereafter. The attractiveness of the sector drew new players too: A number of universities in Continental Europe started offering courses in English; Japan, with its great universities, and now China, which built (or rebuilt) new world class universities from scratch, were vying for a share of the market too.

However, this is a global industry which brings its customers in, rather than the other ones which go seeking the customers. The quick growth was bound to cause troubles, and that happened in Australia in 2008, and since then, in the UK. Australians tightened their visa rules, ostensibly to do away with abuse, but ended up driving away the students who now considered the country to be unwelcoming and unsafe. UK, which pounced upon the opportunity created by Australian reticence to admit foreign students and attracted a huge number itself, suddenly found it under siege from a souring public opinion on immigration accentuated further by the onset of recession. The Conservative Party, which won power through a coalition in 2010, made this one of their main planks in election: From the  point they came to power, UK Higher Education's International attractiveness was all but doomed.

Into the next decade, the trends have started playing out. Australian Government, somewhat in recognition of the adverse effects of their restrictions on student immigration, has relaxed the rules somewhat, to make studying in Australia more attractive. This has resulted in some growth in numbers, but it is somewhat clear that the country has now lost its preeminent position and is unlikely to regain its attractiveness. The impact on UK Higher Education is likely to be more severe, as the visa restrictions were far more tighter, more abrupt and implemented in a rather deliberate way to shake the confidence of International students. The revocation of license from a public university is unlikely to do any good: After the liquidation of many private colleges, these universities were considered safe by international students, and without this minimal assurance (that they would be able to complete their studies), they are likely to abandon UK altogether.

Indeed, there is a large expansion in the number of students going to Canada and Singapore as an alternative to UK and Australia, but these numbers are not large enough to offset the decline in the latter, much less to account for the growth in global middle class and student aspirations. This year would also show growth in numbers coming to many European countries, notably Germany, which, despite the natural barrier of its language proficiency, continues to be attractive to international applicants because it treats them equally with local students.

Also, in this vacuum, the South-to-South mobility will be interesting to watch. There are already reports that Indian students, who would have previously come to UK to study Accounting, are now going to Malaysia in large numbers. There is also increasing demand from countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh for Higher Education in India. The hitherto anemic Education Campuses in the Gulf Region is getting a new lease of life, as is the operations in Mauritius. Many US, UK and Australian universities have set up overseas campuses in China, Malaysia and other countries (not in India though, given the confused state of policy there), and may benefit from this trend. In fact, just as some commentators are pondering whether the MOOCs (Mass Online Open Courses) will spell the death of Overseas Campuses, the latter may get a new lease of life from the politics of migration and new trends in student mobility.

Indeed, this means new opportunities, for Educators, Policy Makers and Entrepreneurs. When markets change, arbitrages appear: The arbitrages in student mobility is up for grabs for new innovations in education, and even for some smaller countries (Mauritius and UAE come to mind) to create hubs for global education. Losers have been decided: We shall wait to see the winners emerge.


Anna Ridgway said…
I would be interested to know some more of your own take on the Australian government's 'relaxation of the rules' to make study in Australia more attractive. To add a little from the Australian perspective: there have been a number of significant secondary and tertiary educational reviews (including the 2011 Strategic Review of the Student Visa Program) which has led to a long-advocated for strategic realignment of the student visa program across the Higher Education and Vocational Education sectors, rather than simply a reaction to a dropping off of student numbers. Another factor to consider in the slower recovery of international student numbers is simply the lower affordability of studying and living in Australia, as a result of our unusually strong dollar, which has bucked the worldwide trend for some time now.

Thanks for your comments. Indeed, I was referring to the Knight Review, which helped realign the Australian visa regime to the needs of a modern, talent-based economy. While this was prompted by the practical concerns about the health of the Australian Higher Education sector, in the UK, by contrast, it was driven by a short term, ill defined political promise of bringing the net migration down to 'tens of thousands', without regard to the strategic needs of the economy or the education sector. The proposed introduction of post-study work rights would also help to attract international students, who would find the country more welcoming and aligned to their needs.

I am not sure strength of Australian Dollar necessarily makes a huge impact. If anything, this indicates the health of the economy. In most Asian and African countries, education is seen as an investment with sure returns, given the needs of growing industrial economy. People will sell gold to invest in education. Life becoming expensive may, therefore, have only very marginal effect on student decision making.

What still affects the decision making is the reversals suffered in 2009, when the country, seen as a dynamic, multicultural society, suddenly got publicity for racially aggravated incidents, backed by tough rhetoric from politicians playing to the domestic audience. The tightening of the visa regime only reconfirmed the perception. I do think this will take a few years to reverse, though Knight Review is a great leap forward (and I hope the UK politicians learn something from it).


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