Moment of truth in International Higher Education

International student migration ebbs and flows. We have seen the tide rise just before the
pandemic and just after. But what goes up always comes down.


The international student flow is a big industry where fortunes have been made. The sector
has its conferences, awards, rankings, Gurus, retreats, and the works! It has grown manifold
over the years and expanded in lockstep with the growth of China, India, and the rest. The
middle classes grew precisely at the time when managerialism and retrenchment of public
funds hit the universities in Europe, North America, and Australia. So, Champagne flowed!


The sector is built on a set of interlocking stories: The destination countries, such as the UK,
get access to skilled professionals. The diversity of the student population helps the
universities and students get opportunities and exposure. Last but not the least, most students
eventually go back, and their home countries gain in expertise and enterprise that come with
education and exposure.


None of these are completely true, however.
 

A large part of the student flow is often connected to lack of economic opportunities in the
source countries. A large proportion of the students are looking to use education as a path to
legal migration. The courses offered are often at a very basic level, and ‘cheap labour’ rather
than ‘skilled professional’ would be the most appropriate description here. The sector’s
impact on research output is disproportionately small – research scholars come through other
channels – and the private institutions that thrive on international students are often mono-
culture, serving one or another geographical region.
 

The impact on the source countries is also often negative. The international student flow
causes an immediate outflow of foreign exchange, which cannot fully be justified by the
prospect of inflow at a future time. Large student outflows also lead to systematic
degradation of the country's higher education infrastructure, as every dollar sent abroad for
higher education is, in theory, not spent at the home country's institutions. The argument that
the home country institutions are not as good as the foreign ones - hence the students go
abroad - got the logic backwards: A country that actively discouraged students from going
abroad, Malaysia being a case in point, has seen its domestic higher education infrastructure
improve.


In the meantime, the universities and their officers often don’t know – and in some cases,
don’t care to learn - who the international students are and what they do. For them,
international student fees are just a line item, mostly unrestricted funds which can be used for
vanity projects and to plug the gaps elsewhere. Over time, this has become a dangerous
addiction. The new nawabs, those who run the international offices and partnerships, have
reshaped the priorities of the universities, helping create subpar degrees and waving through
pathway qualifications without the usual checks and balances. In practice, the practices have
evolved into a combination of a neo-colonialist cultural enterprise and sharp-elbowed
commercial practices and led to the corruption of the institutions from the inside.

Finally, the students themselves are often the victims of the system. Most are destined to toil
in minimum-wage jobs for many years, jumping from one visa to another. They have
minimal rights to have an everyday family life or prospects of integrating into the local
community. Since no one cares for them, their stories usually don't make it to the
newspapers. They also want to keep telling the fairy-tale to their parents back home, who
might have mortgaged the family land to send them abroad. However, with the cost-of-living
crisis and the prospect of recession, their stories are spilling over on social media.


Therefore, no one should be surprised that the party is now ending. As the destination
countries struggle with housing and public services, they are turning their back on
international student flows. It is now common for Ontario food banks to discourage
international students, as the media in Australia to blame the students for runaway rents in
large cities. Consequently, Canada has now capped its international student numbers and
asked its universities to find different growth mechanisms. Australia is looking to limit visas
and tax international student incomes to pay for the expansion of tertiary education for the
Australians. The UK has started by taking away the rights of international students to bring
their families and is now reviewing the graduate visa options. The for-profit sector, which has
been driving the international student numbers, has been severely curtailed everywhere.
 

But when I speak to people in the sector, wilful blindness prevails. No one believes that the
changes are permanent or significant. In the past, countries played the game of musical
chairs: If one country became more stringent, the other allowed students to come easily. And,
then, the argument that there will always be enough demand. That this is different this time -
the countries are all closing their doors in unison, and the demand may be faltering.
 

Also different is the behaviour of the source countries, which are seen as passive players in
the discussion on international education. They are no longer inactive. China has taken an
activist stance in stemming the student flow. There is significant legislative activism in India,
and given its size, this will shape the international education sector globally. However, the
traditional players are too absorbed in themselves to pay attention.
 

Overall, the sector is currently rearranging the proverbial deck chairs while the ship is
sinking. Except the usual arguments around international students' contribution to the
economy (slightly muted now with the issue of rising accommodation costs) and the clamour
for graduate visas, there are no serious strategic conversations. There is very little
commitment among the university leadership to rethink their proposition and rewire the
institutions for the changing marketplace for higher education. The alternatives in their
arsenal, such as twining or branch campuses, do not work without a proper understanding of
the labour market of the students' home countries, or a proper redesign of the qualifications.
 

Therefore, everyone is searching for ever newer bottles to serve the same old stale wine.

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