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Revolutions ahead in international student mobility

Revolutionary changes are likely in higher education internationalisation in the immediate future, largely as a result of the dramatic political changes that have taken place in the aftermath of Brexit in the United Kingdom, the advent of the 'Trump era' in the United States and the rise of nationalism and xenophobia in Europe, manifest in countries such as Hungary and Poland, and in increased support for extreme right parties elsewhere.

Upcoming elections in France, Germany and perhaps Italy may exacerbate these trends. Further terrorism on the European continent or in North America may also have a significant impact.

We have argued before that the broader societal trends increasingly evident now in the United States and the United Kingdom will create major changes in how students, academics and universities interact with each other and with the world.

In the 24 February edition of University World News, Hans de Wit wrote that this could be considered as an acceleration of a trend already in the making. We argue here that we are already able to see the outlines of the realities and challenges of the coming period.

The academic community

It is clear that all parts of the academic community are resisting the tide of reaction overtaking some societies.

Universities remain committed to internationalisation. They understand that knowledge is global, that international students are important both to the education mission and in some cases to the financial 'bottom line', that hiring the best brains available globally to serve on faculty is necessary not only to ensure quality and to bring intellectual and social diversity to an institution, but in some cases to fill hiring gaps where domestic scholars are unavailable.

It is quite unlikely that the academic community will give up on internationalisation and cosmopolitanism even if their governments do so.

Yet, the academic community does not operate in a vacuum and is significantly affected both by societal trends and, even more importantly, by governmental policies that will inevitably affect their ability to function as international players.

The scandalous proposal of the right-wing government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary against the Central European University is a clear example. But it is unlikely that the arguments of the academic community, however compelling and logically put forward, will have a significant impact on governments in countries determined to follow a nationalist path.

Likely changes in mobility

Trends are emerging that, in our view, will significantly change the international higher education landscape, at least in the medium term:

  • International student mobility: Close to five million students study outside of their native countries and most estimates expect eight million by 2025. We do not anticipate a major decline in global student mobility, but we expect that the rate of increase of internationally mobile students may slow noticeably in the coming few years for several reasons.

    There will certainly be a significant change in the destinations of mobile students. The main beneficiaries are likely to be other major English-speaking countries – Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand. There may be more intra-European mobility as students on the continent look for alternatives to the United Kingdom, which will to some extent 'price itself out of the market'.

    The number of English-taught degree programmes may increase in Europe as a way of attracting students who would earlier have chosen British universities. The increase in international student numbers in the Netherlands and the expectations of an increase in Ireland, as mentioned in University World News last week, illustrate this trend. And there will be an increase in intra-regional mobility in other parts of the world.

  • The two major host countries, the United States and the United Kingdom, accounting for close to 40% of global mobile students in 2016, are likely to see a further decline in their proportion of the total and now also in absolute numbers. Several opinion surveys of potentially mobile students have already indicated a decline in the desirability of the United States and United Kingdom as study destinations.

    Further, access to these countries will definitely be more difficult as they tighten border controls, instituting 'extreme vetting' for visa applicants. Perception is of great importance as well – as the United States and the United Kingdom are perceived as unfriendly to foreigners, many students will go elsewhere or stay home.

    Both countries will tighten requirements for graduates to stay and work following degree completion and this will further deter significant numbers from coming in the first place.

    Asia, and in particular China – which now attracts 400,000 international students, bypassing the United Kingdom, Germany, and France – will have greater success. But nearly all these international students are short-term language and credit-seeking students. Further, there are problems with infrastructure (accommodation and other services) and academic quality beyond a few top universities, and academic freedom. These issues limit the potential of increasing the number of degree-seeking students.

    The same is the case for India and also for Russia, Turkey and Egypt. Other Asian countries, such as Japan, Malaysia and South Korea, are more likely to be successful.

  • With regard to faculty mobility, it is less likely that faculty from other countries will choose to apply for work in the United States and United Kingdom – in part because of perceptions of problems and unfriendliness and partly due to tightened visa and immigration regulations.

    Universities that actively recruit internationally may continue their efforts, but will have less success. Patterns of international faculty mobility are likely to shift – perhaps toward European Union countries or Asia.

    Some have argued that there will be major shifts toward Asia, and especially toward China. Even before 2016, China focused on luring back Chinese academics who had settled abroad and for the first time is attempting to hire international faculty.

    We do not think that China can achieve quick success without significantly changing its academic system. Top faculty are not attracted by salary alone. They require academic freedom, an open academic culture, easy access to information and participative faculty governance.

    Japan and South Korea have had some success attracting international faculty, but in those countries a somewhat insular academic and social culture creates problems. India is far from being able to attract international faculty – even significant numbers from the large Indian diaspora.

Transnational education

Over the past two decades, we have witnessed a gradual increase in the number of transnational education initiatives of Western universities (branch campuses, franchise operations, education hubs and articulation programmes) in developing countries.

We are now witnessing a shift, which is still little studied and acknowledged. Many new transnational activities are initiated by institutions within the developing world, even in some cases targeting the developed world.

Tecnológico de Monterrey has campuses and study sites all over Mexico, in many other Latin American countries and in the United States. Universities in India have also initiated educational activities in other countries. An interesting example is Iran, which according to Wagdy Sawahel, is rapidly expanding branches of its universities in the Arab world, with a clear soft power objective.

In our view, a revolution is taking place in international mobility. As in other revolutions, there will be ups and downs and a lot of chaos, before the winners are sufficiently prepared to capture its opportunities.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and founding director and Hans de Wit is professor and director, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College, United States.
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