Stormy times lie ahead for universities dreaming of attracting thousands of international students from around the world


Hong Kong was rocked by student protests in 2019

International higher education is facing the new decade with the certainty that nothing is going to remain unchanged as technology transforms old ways of studying & working and concerns about the impact of climate change makes students question the need to fly halfway across the globe for their degrees.

Add to that the upheaval that is taking place – from police storming university campuses in Hong Kong after prolonged student protests to the threats and counter threats following the US assassination of General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad and it is clear that the world faces challenges that put little local difficulties like Brexit into perspective.

So what are the “known-knowns” that should influence the direction of global higher education and international collaboration in research?

Asian challenge

Well, Asia will continue its rise economically and the demands of its young people for an education that will equip them for the best employment opportunities will spur on universities in their own countries to challenge the supremacy of traditional world-leading institutions in the West.

Greta Thunberg has put climate change top of the agenda

Coupled with a growing understanding, especially among the Greta Thunberg generation, that air travel is hugely damaging for the environment and the giant strides being made in harnessing open and distance learning technology, old assumptions that traditional international student mobility will go on rising are far from certain.

This is especially true of the old model of students from countries like China joining the East-to-West brain drain to native English-speaking countries like the UK or USA for their study abroad experience.

African attraction

Perhaps the brain drain could be switched to attracting more students from African countries with the fastest growing populations and emerging middle classes; but cost factors together with immigration controls and visa restrictions are likely to get in the way, especially with the rising tide of nationalism and popularism sweeping countries like the USA and many in Europe.

And anyway, isn’t it only going to be a few years before Africa’s economies start to challenge the Asian tigers and create greater wealth and job opportunities for their own talented young people without the necessity of going abroad?

Leading pundits from the global student mobility scene all foresee big changes, with Dr. Vicky Lewis, the UK-based international education strategy and marketing consultant, predicting much more regional mobility closer to students’ home country.

Over-reliance on China

This has already happened with China now attracting increasing numbers of international students from its near neighbours to its rapidly improving universities.

Lewis says: “Traditional recruiting countries like the US, UK and Australia need to work hard to diversify their markets, particularly for popular subject areas which are currently heavily reliant on students from China.”

And not before time, I say! For what is the point of Chinese students travelling halfway round the world to be a class of Chinese students making up most of the international cohort.

Many UK universities are over reliant on Chinese students                                        Photo: Study London

The declining university-age population in China makes over reliance on Chinese mobile students even more risky and universities in a number of countries will only have themselves to blame if they fail to diversify their international intake.

 This is a special challenge for British higher education, which is already over-reliant on recruitment international students from a small number of non-EU countries, as Dr Janet Ilieva, founder and director of Education Insight, points out.

“With the UK expected to leave the European Union at the end of 2020, the ability of EU students to access student financial support and lower tuition fee levels is in doubt. If visas are required for EU students, expect significant declines in EU mobility to the UK and even more reliance on the Chinese student market,” she warns.

Given the volatility of the geo-political landscape, especially in the Middle East, and the possibility of sudden changes in the dynamics of inter-governmental relationships, it must make sense not to put too many eggs in one or two baskets for international student recruitment.

Environmental questions

Universities and nation states also need to be better prepared for particular 21stcentury challenges, whether through better careers support for both home and international students or by demonstrating their environmentally friendly credentials.

This has led some, including the Climate Action Network for International Educators, or CANIE, to question a key foundation on which the international higher education business model has been built – namely “binge-flying” by those involved with teaching and studying abroad. In a provocative piece in University World News (11 January 2020), Hans de Wit and Philip G Altbach ask if short-term student mobility should be curbed if flying is involved. I’m not sure this will help widen participation to those who can’t afford to spend half-or-a-whole year studying overseas, but they make a reasonable point!

Another 21st challenge is the need to rethink international qualification recognition for global refugees escaping conflicts like the Syrian crisis, with Germany’s experience of managing one million refugees having lessons for us all. See this blog from the EAIE.

Latest figures show German universities had nearly 375,000 foreign students in 2018, with a quarter achieving their HE entrance qualifications in Germany. The country’s academic exchange service DAAD is responding to the new challenges with a fresh focus on the impact of the internationalisation of Higher Education for society and is organising a conference on the theme in Prague in April.

Become more data-driven

Carmen Neghina, senior marketing analytics consultant with Studyportals, the study abroad options comparison platform, believes part of the answer for universities facing new demands is to become “more data-driven”.

Carmen Neghina from StudyPortals

She says: “They should follow the private sector and use data more to make informed decisions. Universities already gather large volumes of data, but they don’t necessarily connect different data sources or spend time analysing it – apart from when it comes to rankings. Those that become data-driven will surely have a competitive advantage in the coming decade.”

Despite the growing competition for the finite number of potential international students, Neghina believes the use of English as a medium of instruction will continue to expand.

“More and more countries are providing English-taught full degrees, both at the Bachelor’s and Master’s level. And not just as a means to attract international students, but also to keep talented students in the country by providing them with global skills. Countries like China would prefer to keep the best of the best students in country and traditional study destinations will need to find a new way to stand out and position themselves,” she believes.

Proper partnerships

As for how this might be done, one solution is developing proper partnerships between East and West in international higher education.

Researchers around the world have long realised the value of true cooperation and now teaching is developing new models of collaboration.

Old approaches, such as the sometimes neo-colonial methods of transnational education, or TNE, to export higher education are no longer working – with British universities reporting the first fall in TNE numbers. (See my blog on ‘The scale of UK TNE 2017-18).

Just launching a British university branch campus in the middle of an exotic sounding location somewhere in South East Asia is no longer working!

A much better alternative is the new UK-China partnership between Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, or XJTLU. It has gone way beyond traditional approaches to TNE by establishing an independent Sino-foreign university, which now has 13,000 students, with top achievers able to split their four-year degree, if they so wish, between studying in China and the UK.

  • Main feature photo by Callum Shaw on Unsplash