Finding a sustainable future for student mobility

In 1995, Jane Knight and Hans de Wit wrote: “The danger of isolationism, racism and monoculturalism is a threatening cloud hanging above the present interest in internationalisation of higher education.” 

Despite the threat, internationalisation matured in its processes and expanded in scope. Specifically, the number of globally mobile students grew from 2.1 million in 2000 to 5.1 million in 2017 – an increase of 143% – according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

While internationalisation of higher education is not just about global mobility, this remains its most visible and dominant form. More than two decades later, internationalisation of higher education is again threatened by nationalism and other factors. 

International student mobility is faced with several serious political and economic changes, risks and challenges. Will the growth momentum of international students continue over the next 25 years and remain sustainable? And will it be an elitist opportunity for a few or accessible for many? 

Affordability underpins mobility growth

The aspiration for studying abroad is driven by a complex interplay of many variables. However, one of the key determinants of translating aspirations into reality is the availability of financial resources to study abroad. Affordability is enabled not only by self-financed resources like loans and savings but also external resources like institutional or governmental scholarships or funding. 

As a result, the bulk of globally mobile students come from high- and upper middle-income countries, who account for 27% and 40% respectively of total outwardly mobile students. Lower middle-income and low-income countries made up 33% of outward mobility in 2017, according to University Information Services.

In 2004, the number of globally mobile students from upper middle-income countries surpassed the mobility of those from high-income countries – an indicator of the increasing aspirations and abilities of students from upper middle-income countries to study abroad. 

The proportion of outwardly mobile students from upper middle-income countries increased from 31% in 2000 to 40% in 2017, while the proportion of those from high-income countries reduced from 43% to 27% over the same period.

Nevertheless, high-income countries enrolled 76% of all globally mobile degree-seeking students as compared to 19% of upper middle-income countries in 2017. This dominance of high-income countries as an internationalisation destination has remained strong over the years.

UNESCO statistics reflect the mobility patterns of degree-seeking international students and do not capture the trends linked to credit mobility. Credit mobility is especially dominant among high-income countries (for instance, Erasmus in Europe and study abroad of American students). This suggests that as the income level of a country increases and the quality of the local higher education system improves, students are more likely to pursue international credit mobility.

In order to maintain their future competitiveness to attract international students, universities and nations must become proactive in demonstrating ‘value for money’, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “reasonableness of cost of something in view of its perceived quality”. In other words, increasing budget pressures should not result in mobility becoming an ever more elite phenomenon.

The growth momentum of student mobility is under threat not just from nationalistic policies but also from increasing barriers to affordability.

Barriers to affordability

Evidence from tuition fee reforms for international students suggests that the number of international students coming to a country can fall dramatically following an increase in tuition fees. For example, Denmark (in 2006) and Sweden (in 2011) introduced tuition fees for international students from outside the European Economic Area and experienced a sharp decline in the number of international students, by 20% and 80% respectively. 

However, there is another segment of international students who are less price-sensitive. For example, the Big Ten Academic Alliance, a consortium of leading American research universities, experienced an increase of 74% in international student enrolment between 2007-08 and 2014-15, even when average tuition fees increased by 29% in the same period to over US$30,000 a year.

This also indicates the importance of recognising the diversity of international students. Previous research from World Education Services identified four segments of international students based on their academic preparedness and financial resources. 

‘Explorers’ and ‘Highfliers’ have more financial resources and can afford overseas education as compared to ‘Strugglers’ and ‘Strivers’.

A confluence of trends indicates that studying abroad is going to become more expensive. Tuition costs are going up, currencies in middle-income countries are devaluating and scholarships are drying up. 

This is likely to result in a decline in the number of ‘Strivers’ and an increase in the number of ‘Explorers’ who are globally mobile. Unsurprisingly, students from low-income and lower middle-income countries will find it even more difficult to access overseas education.

On the positive side, it will expand opportunities for upper middle-income countries like China, Russia and Malaysia to become destinations for attracting ‘Strivers’, who may be priced out of high-income countries. 

A prime example of this scenario is the rise of China’s growing ability to attract students from low-income countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. This means that high-income countries may lose out on students from such regions due to their high tuition fees and low number of scholarships.

Given the changing landscape of international student mobility, sustainable growth will require proactive action by universities and policy-makers to deliver value for money.

Ensuring sustainability of student mobility

A report by Studyportals identified a set of transformative changes or megatrends that are expected to push higher education institutions in high-income countries to discover ways of offering more relevant, affordable and flexible academic programmes that offer more career-relevant and cost-effective experiences. 

Institutions will therefore need to complement traditional student mobility with innovation in programme offerings and delivery methods, including transnational education, institutional partnerships and online learning.

A sustainable future for student mobility hinges on the interplay between two primary levers at institutional and policy levels. Institutional strategies must ensure that international students do not become ‘cash cows’. 

This means that institutions must do more to reinvest part of the additional tuition fees back into enhancing outreach, offering scholarships, supporting student success and widening access to students who may be unable to afford to study abroad. This is critical not only to maintain a diverse student body but also to hedge against risking dependency on one or two source countries.

Likewise, immigration policies must align with economic need and demographic reality, which suggest that rising above short-term nationalistic viewpoints will help countries in the long term. It is important to create pathways for international students to gain work experience and recover a part of their investment. A subset of these students may become long-term migrants and contribute to economic development and innovation.

At the same time, countries and higher education institutions need to avoid overdependence on a few sending countries, given the fact that political, economic and demographic factors are playing a more important role in student mobility than ever before. 

Concerns about political tensions between the United States and China, the drying-up of scholarship funding for students from Brazil and Saudi Arabia and the declining student population in South Korea and Japan indicate that managing risks and diversifying international enrolment should be a priority for receiving countries, especially high-income countries. 

In conclusion, the current threats of nationalism coupled with the affordability crisis may put the brakes on student mobility and the ideals and aspirations of internationalisation of higher education. Institutions and policy-makers must ensure a sustainable future for student mobility by leveraging strategies and policies that not only focus on attracting the best-fit segment of students but also deliver on the promise of value for money.

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