Nationalism will trigger a new wave of student mobility
Rahul Choudaha, executive vice-president of global engagement, research and intelligence at StudyPortals
The new political order has started impacting the mobility choices, patterns and directions of international students. On the one hand, the top two leading destinations
– the US and the UK – are facing uncertainty in maintaining attractiveness for international students; while on the other hand, countries such as Canada, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands are all experiencing an increase in enrolments. How is the future of student mobility likely to shift?
To understand the future trends, let us look back at the recent waves of student mobility.
Wave I of international students has its origin in the increasing demand for highskilled talent, especially in STEM subjects at master’s and doctoral level. During this wave, many institutions were motivated to attract international students for research and reputation – and were willing and able to provide funding and scholarships to lure global talent.
However, the events of 11 September 2001 changed the dynamics – and the tightened visa requirements made it more difficult for students to study in the US. Around the same time, the Bologna Process and the European Higher Education Area started taking shape to create more comparable and coherent systems of higher education to foster student mobility within Europe. Towards the end of Wave I, several countries including the UK, Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland gained at the expense of the US.
Wave II has its origins in the global financial recession that started in the US. The cascading effect of the crisis resulted in severe budget cuts in the higher education sector in many countries around the world. This compelled institutions to start looking for alternative sources of revenue. One of the sources was to recruit full fee-paying international students.
The narrative of Wave I of “attracting global talent” changed to “recruiting international students” in Wave II. This time, neither universities nor governments in many destination countries had the resources to offer financial support to international students. The growth of China’s middle class provided the much-needed enrolment momentum to many countries around the world, with the leading English-speaking countries including the US and the UK as the most significant beneficiaries.
Wave III is shaped by the uncertainties triggered by a new political order with nationalistic overtones. The outcome of the UK’s referendum on membership of the European Union and the result of the US presidential election surprised many – both positively and negatively.
Anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies triggered concerns of finding post-graduation career opportunities among many prospective international students considering study in the UK and the US. In contrast, countries such as Canada and Australia pursued policies to enable pathways for finding work and career advancement opportunities.
At the same time, competition from English-taught programmes in Asia and continental Europe have been gaining traction as they continue to improve in quality and gain from some students turning away from the US and the UK.
Higher education institutions that aim to be globally competitive in attracting international students in this third wave must pivot to a goal of innovating to attract the best-fit international students and delivering on the promise of value for money.