The year 2011 was a time of confusing and contradictory signals in the internationalisation of higher education. The OECD published data on increased international student mobility worldwide (3.7 million students) and the Institute of International Education and Council of Graduate Schools in the United States reported 5% growth in the number of international students going to America, with China and Saudi Arabia recording the biggest increases in mobility.
In Europe in 2011, the Academic Cooperation Association published an analysis of international students in 32 countries over the 2006-07 period indicating an all-time high of 1.5 million students. This made Europe the leading recipient of international students, with 50.9% worldwide and a larger number coming from outside Europe than from inside.
Canada also announced an increase in international students in 2011. And China, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, for a long time primarily sending countries, are likely to become future leading destination countries.
But behind these booming figures and the prospect of ever-increasing numbers of students studying outside their home country in the years to come, there have been some critical and disturbing developments.
Australia, a benchmark over the past decades in attracting international students, faced serious threats to its leading position in China and India due to incidents, bad press and restrictive visa regulations.
By adopting, at the end of 2011, the recommendations of the Knight Review of the student visa programme, which addressed these problems, the government of Australia recognised the potential risks for its economy of international education, the country's second biggest export commodity. However, it might take years before the damage is repaired.
As a result of higher tuition fees and more severe visa regulations the UK, another leading country in attracting international students, risks losing a big part of its international student market (both European and non-European) and seeing an outflow of its own students to other countries.
In a third leading country, France, concern is rising about the impact of tighter rules of residence and employment for non-European students and graduates on the future number of international students. These measures are being applied precisely at a time when international student numbers have gone up, following joint initiatives by the government and the higher education sector in the past years.
In the United States, an intense debate is taking place about the pros and cons and the ethics of universities and colleges using agents to try to maintain their share of increased international student recruitment.
In Canada, the federal government and provincial governments have taken a more active approach than ever in positioning Canada as a country of destination not only for students but also for skilled immigrants, with Australia as its main competitor and example. There is, however, concern about the risks of such an approach, in particular now that Australia is facing serious problems.
And looming above all this, the dark clouds of the global economic crisis and of increasing political tensions in the world generate uncertainty about the future and how it will impact on higher education and student flows worldwide.
Questions for the future
Will higher education need to compensate for budget cuts by raising tuition fees for (inter)national students, a trend that is already taking place and might see higher rises in fees, as the UK's example shows?
Will students and their families still have the means to invest in study abroad when unemployment and study costs are on the rise? Or will governments take a long-term view and invest in higher education and the knowledge economy?
Based on these contradictory signals and the confusing times we are living in, one can ask if internationalisation as we know it is coming to an end, as Uwe Brandenburg and I did at the start of 2011 in a provocative essay in the newsletter International Higher Education, or whether it will continue to boom as the statistics seem to indicate.
Will the emerging economies in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa make an even bigger leap forward in positioning themselves as future higher education providers in the world? The coming year might give an indication.
It is not likely that things will move fast, but there will be a definite trend in that direction.
The leading position of North America will not drop that quickly. But Europe and Japan in particular might have more difficulty keeping their leading role than the other players: their economies face bigger challenges, budget cuts in higher education are more likely than investments, and there is more popular pressure against immigration, skilled or not.
Canada might be the country, among the traditional key players, that will benefit most from current developments. Its economy seems less affected by the current crisis, it is open to skilled immigration and attracting top talent, and its national and provincial governments as well as universities - after years of uncoordinated efforts and initiatives - seem to be ready to work together and position Canada as a suitable destination for study abroad.
At the same time, there is enough critical sense in Canada to avoid the danger of moving too far too fast. It might be this combination of a critical assessment of values and ethics and an entrepreneurial spirit that will set the tone for the year to come.
* Hans de Wit is professor of the internationalisation of higher education at the Centre for Applied Research in Economics and Management (CAREM) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
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