Not only are more students than ever before travelling abroad to realise their higher education ambitions, they are also increasingly gravitating away from traditional educational hotspots in order to do so - and this trend looks set to continue, with competition for international students growing worldwide.
Over the course of a decade, the number of tertiary students enrolled in programmes outside their home countries has almost doubled, from just over two million in 2000 to nearly four million in 2011.
This staggering increase may among other things be a testament to successful implementation of governmental higher education strategies and policies. But emerging patterns of distribution, belying general global economic and social trends, are perhaps even more worthy of note.
A key finding of the Institute of International Education's (IIE) recently published Project Atlas report, Student Mobility and the Internationalisation of Higher Education, is a continued shift from the dominance of a few countries to the emergence of many host destinations around the world.
Thus while the top hotspot for mobile students in 2010 remained the United States, which attracted more than 720,000 of the 3.7 million international students worldwide, this total represented a decline in the US total market share from 28% in 2001 to 20%.
Rather than charting the ascendancy of one or more other leading host countries, the Project Altas data demonstrated that mobile students are increasingly dispersed across more countries.
Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of the IIE, related this phenomenon to an emerging "proliferation of educational hubs" around the world. What this means is that students are pursuing higher education in locations other than just "traditional hotspots like the US, UK and Australia".
NAFSA: Association of International Educators' recent International Student Enrolment Survey confirmed the same trend for American students.
Said Ursula Oaks, senior director of media relations and strategic communications: "In general we have been seeing a gradual increase in students heading to 'non-traditional' destinations." But, she added: "The biggest statistical take-away is the paltry overall number - less than 2% - of American college students [who] study abroad in any given year."
UNESCO and the OECD
Regional averages from UNESCO's Global Education Digest 2011 offer insight into directional patterns of mobile students. Notably, it revealed that while nearly 60% of all students travelled to North America and Western Europe in 2009, the majority of these students came from within the region.
Moreover, global international educational exchange balance statistics suggest that North American and Western European students are globally among the least 'internationalised' insofar as they are not likely to travel outside their home region in pursuit of higher education. Indeed, the ratio between inbound and outbound students was about four to one in 2009.
By contrast, the numbers of students sent by and received by most other countries and regions is more evenly apportioned. The exception is Sub-Saharan Africa, where countries are more apt to send rather than to receive students - at a ratio of about three to one.
OECD statistics for 2009 in its Education at a Glance 2011 report revealed an added dimension to these statistics: that is, the number of foreign students enrolled in the OECD area was nearly three times the number of students hailing from OECD member nations.
Indeed, 83% of all international students were enrolled in G20 countries and 77% in OECD countries in 2009.
Exploring the alternatives
What the data cannot chart, or anticipate, are dramatic shifts in numbers.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the migratory patterns of Indian students. Indeed, the number of Indian students attending institutions in the US dropped by 1% between 2009 and 2010, according to the IIE's Open Doors 2011 report. But more striking was the 77% decline in those attending institutions in Australia over the same period.
Visa restrictions and racial intolerance are among the direct causes of these declines, and Blumenthal characterised the response as "individual scholars voting with their feet" and going elsewhere to study. For Indian students this has not been difficult, when presented with attractive offers from countries like Singapore and Canada.
Are Chinese trends sustainable?
China continues to send more students to study abroad than any other country in the world: its more than half a million students in 2009 represented slightly more than 15% of the entire global share of mobile students and more than double that of the next biggest sender, India.
But with China achieving the status of fourth top host country (after the US, UK and France) in 2010, countries that have pegged growth in their tertiary sectors on a sustained influx of Chinese students would be wise to rethink strategies.
The managing director of the international academic consulting firm Illuminate Consulting Group, Daniel Guhr, concurred. Relying on 1.9 million data points and 120 variables, the firm analysed the impact of changing economic circumstances in China on the future of student flows.
Cautioning traditional host countries not to place quite so much stock in the sustainability of recent growth figures, Guhr pointed to several factors including high numbers of self-funded students, an inflated real estate boom tying up family resources, an estimated 22% underemployment rate among Chinese graduates, and the availability of more affordable tertiary opportunities in China and other Asian countries.
With these impacts certain to limit the number of students travelling for education, institutions will face hyper-competition dynamics.
That said, Guhr added: "It would be as wrong to say that levels of Chinese students seeking educational opportunities worldwide are about to decline as to say that this group is on an unhindered upward trajectory."
For this reason, he urged higher education policy-makers to "build multi-modal, multi-channel, diversified and risk-balanced recruiting strategies" in their efforts to attract the best and the brightest in the coming years.
English as the academic language
Another interesting trend, noted Blumenthal, is the growing popularity of English instruction programmes in non-English countries. Indeed, increasing numbers of mostly graduate engineering and business courses are being conducted in English in order to attract a wider range of students.
"Global English is becoming the lingua academica - a good command of the English language is becoming a precondition for excellence in higher education," she observed.
Although Germany is usually cited as the case in point, this strategy can be said to account for the large increase in American students taking full degree courses in China over the past few years. More notably, not only are international students opting for English-language instruction, but more and more native students are also doing so.
Higher education is big business
With international student education estimated to generate between US$80 and US$90 billion in revenues for host countries, it is hardly surprising that governments are working hard to garner as large a share of the pie as possible.
Indeed, huge dividends can be realised by adopting policies that combine effective recruitment strategies with investing in the internationalisation of domestic students.
Recent notable examples include Brazil's scholarship programme Science without Borders, which intends to send as many as 75,000 Brazilian students to study at the world's top universities by 2014. Many countries are planning to cash in on newly mobile Brazilian students.
Similarly, in endeavouring to make Saudi Arabia a knowledge society, the government has invested heavily in scholarships for as many as 120,000 of its citizens to study around the world. In total, 12% of the national budget has been allocated to higher education initiatives.
The facts speak for themselves, said Guhr: "International education has become a very large global industry." But for countries seeking to capitalise on this, the only problem is that the industry's shape and major players are constantly evolving.
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