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Luring overseas students in a more nationalist world

All of the numbers are yet to be recorded, but what we know today is that many of the predictions about international student enrolment for the autumn 2017 term at United States institutions have become reality.

This is what we know so far: in a report published by ICEF, a survey of US colleges and universities revealed that only about a third expected to meet their enrolment targets for September. And 40% expected declines in international student numbers for the autumn. Eighty-five percent of senior admissions staff reported being very concerned about reaching their institutional targets for the next academic year.

Early reports reveal a decrease in the number of applications from Chinese and Indian students, two of the most important markets for US colleges and universities.

According to the Canadian Bureau for International Education, Canadian colleges and universities report an increased number of applicants and enrolments from students from China, India, South Korea, France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Japan and Brazil.

While there are no final enrolment numbers for universities in the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, China, Japan, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, early application numbers indicate an increase in the number of international student applications to all of the countries listed with the exception of Great Britain.

At least in the United States, international enrolment managers and recruiters will probably engage in attending more international fairs, hire more agents, create new social media outlets and host more webinars in an attempt to increase international enrolments for 2018.

The impact of nationalism on recruitment

I will not argue with the validity or productivity of this type of international student outreach. However, I believe there are other factors at play that will make an impact on future international student recruitment and enrolment. One is the rise of nationalism around the world, and specifically in the United States, the UK, China and certain European countries, like Hungary, Turkey and Poland.

I believe that before embarking on doing more of the same, international enrolment managers and deans should first consider the impact of nationalism on future international recruitment plans.

The impact of nationalism on international higher education has already been felt in the declining number of applications from international students to the United States and European Union students to Britain.

It would be easy to blame the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote as the reasons for the declines. But both the election and the vote were outcomes, not causes, of the votes. People around the world fear they are losing out because of free market globalisation. They believe their borders are too porous and they fear losing their sense of national identity.

In his book, Ruling the Void: The hollowing of Western democracy, the author Peter Mair suggests reasons for current populist sentiment. Elected governments, he writes, have conceded powers to non-elected agencies, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization.

In many countries in the Middle East, political turmoil and changing alliances have created new higher educational partners. While the United Arab Emirates continues to enrol increased numbers of international students, the tension between Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the conflicts in Syria and Yemen do not bode well for the future of international recruitment in those countries. And then there is the increasing influence of Iran in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to consider.

China is flexing its nationalistic muscle not only politically and economically, but also in higher education. Since coming to power, President Xi Jinping has intensified efforts to build what he refers to as “cultural confidence”, beginning with a nationwide education programme to preserve traditional Chinese culture and minimise the influence of ‘Western values’ on Chinese society.

In April, the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, called for an amendment to the National Higher Education Law that would make it impossible for the Central European University, or CEU, to operate. CEU, founded in 1991, is a private graduate school with 1,000 students from over 100 countries. The prime minister wants to change its US accreditation so that it can become free of “nefarious liberal influences”.

How to prepare

What can international enrolment managers, deans and recruiters do to prepare for a world that may increasingly be defined by borders and nationalism? Here are some suggestions:

  • Use research as a starting point before writing the next international recruitment plan. Read everything available on the geopolitical changes taking place worldwide, but especially in the countries of current and future enrolment.

  • I suggest reading: The Economist, The Financial Times, Times, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Australian Times, The Australian Financial Review, Khaleej Times, The Times of India, China Post, China Daily, China Report, Toronto Globe and Mail, The Japan Times, Money Week, New Statesman, Bloomberg Businessweek and Ian Bremmer’s column in Time magazine.

  • After reading, connect the dots. What did you learn that could be applied to your university’s international recruitment programme? Will China’s nationalistic and geostrategic plans to challenge United States’ leadership in the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia have an impact on your university’s recruiting in those countries?

  • What could be the impact of 1 billion mobile phone users in Africa on your university’s online recruiting practices? In the Middle East, the expanding influence of Iran in the region and the political and economic uncertainty in Saudi Arabia will certainly change how your school recruits in that part of the world.

  • Determine your research goals in terms that can be measured. Don’t outsource this part of your recruitment plan. Good research is the compass needed to guide the construction of future international recruitment plans.

  • Take a fresh look at your university’s international student committee. Do you have an economist or a political scientist on your committee? Their level of expertise can assist international enrolment managers and deans in making wise decisions about the political and economic headwinds in countries of interest.

Nationalist movements have the potential to threaten and disrupt the global and collaborative nature of higher education and also to disrupt the enrolment and financial stability of colleges and universities around the world. Current recruitment practices may no longer be as relevant tomorrow as they were yesterday. Or today.

Marguerite J Dennis has been a higher education administrator for more than 40 years, at St John’s University in New York, at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and at Suffolk University in Boston, United States. She is a consultant to colleges and universities in the United States and around the world on higher education administration, enrolment, retention and international programmes and is the author of five books on higher education, college admission and financing and international strategic planning. Parts of this article are excerpted from her new book, International Student Mobility and the New World Disorder, to be published in December 2017.
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