Universities face sharp decline in international student growth rate

The UK is expected to increase its intake of overseas students by 30,000 in the next decade, outpacing the United States, its greatest competitor.

But a significant slowdown in the rate of growth means UK universities and education policy-makers should rethink their strategies, a new report warns.

New opportunities in international research collaboration and educating more overseas students in their home countries are among suggestions in the report, published by the British Council.

The study of macro-economic and demographic trends, carried out by the British Council with Oxford Economics, says attracting a further 30,000 overseas students in the next 10 years would represent a much smaller rate of growth than UK universities have enjoyed over the past decade.

The prediction comes at a time when most universities are aiming to increase international enrolments to compensate for cuts in government funding.

The fast-paced growth in cross-border tertiary enrolments and mobile students has closely followed world trade growth and has far outpaced global GDP growth over the past 20 years.

Increasingly, this expansion is being seen by governments as a means of delivering on national priorities and contributing to economic growth, the report says.

In the nine years from 2002-03 to 2010-11, the number of international students going to the UK to study rose by 180,000. But this is more than six times the rate of growth predicted in the next decade.

A report on the study’s findings, The Shape of Things to Come, was launched at an event in London on 13 June. It identified emerging markets and the nature of the opportunities they present to UK higher education, business and industry.

Leaders in the field of global education speaking at the event said that the global education market is shifting away from the 'Western concept' of recruiting students from countries with less established higher education systems.

A new emphasis on mutually beneficial collaboration in teaching and research, the setting up of overseas campuses, and joint ventures to create new institutions on foreign soil are broadening the concept of internationalisation and presenting new market opportunities.

But UK universities will only be in a position to benefit from these changes if they are ready quickly to re-balance their international activities, and if they are backed by supportive government policies and research funding mechanisms.

The report says that about a third of all academic research produced globally is already carried out through international collaboration – and this is expected to increase.

The study found that around 80% of a country’s research impact is directly related to its level of international collaboration.

Research produced through international collaboration had a significantly higher citation rate, a proxy for quality.

Dr Jo Beall, director of education and society at the British Council, said: “Nobel prizes are increasingly won by researchers working in a country other than their country of birth. Over 60% of the winners in 2010 and 2011 had studied or carried out research abroad.”

Countries expected to provide the best opportunities for research collaboration with the UK are the US, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Australia. Multinational companies will increasingly be looking for international research partners, with companies in the US, Europe, India and Latin America presenting the best prospects, says the report.

Dr Janet Ilieva, the British Council’s senior advisor on education research and a co-author of the report, said the increase in international research collaboration is being driven by academics across the world becoming more connected and forming global communities.

“This indicates that internationalisation of higher education appears to be moving into a new stage, where international students will continue to play an important role, but research and joint delivery of education independently or with overseas partners will have growing prominence,” she said.

The report says that despite the number of internationally mobile students rising from 800,000 in the mid-1970s to over 3.5 million in 2009, the rate of outbound mobility ratio has remained remarkably stable from the early 1990s onwards at just over 2% of tertiary enrolment per annum. This reflected a stable propensity to study abroad among the tertiary-age cohort.

Since demand for tertiary enrolment is directly linked to economic growth, the current slow or negative economic growth in many countries could lead to a fall in demand for university places and a knock-on effect on the growth of international student mobility.

Tertiary enrolments globally reached 170 million in 2009, but are expected to grow by a mere 1.4% per annum over the decade to 2020, compared with 5% per year in the two previous decades, the report says.

Four countries alone – China, India, US and Russia – have a combined share of 45% of total global tertiary enrolments.

Other emerging economies with significant numbers of tertiary enrolments include: Brazil (6.2 million), Indonesia (4.9 million), Iran (3.4 million), South Korea (3.3 million) and Turkey (3.0 million).

The major origin countries for internationally mobile students include China, India, South Korea, Germany, Turkey and France. However, while China and India together account for 29% of global tertiary enrolments they contribute only 21% of the international students, the report says.

Globally outbound mobility varies wildly from 50% in Botswana to below 1% for the UK, US, Australia, Russia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Egypt and Brazil.

Singapore, Ireland, Nepal, UAE and South Korea have above global average outbound mobility ratios, as do many European countries due to high mobility within Europe.

Currently, most international students are studying in a relatively small group of countries. The US, UK, Australia, France, Germany, Russia, Japan and Canada together host 60%.

But other countries are playing an increasingly important destination role at regional level: South Africa (for Sub-Saharan Africa); Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia (for South East Asia); and South Korea (for North East Asia).

“It is possible in the long run that countries like China, Singapore, Malaysia and some Gulf States will become the fastest growing study destinations,” the report says.

In addition, China, Malaysia and India are expected to be among the top 10 host countries in absolute numbers by 2020.

The report predicts that some Asian and Gulf State countries will play an increasingly important role as education hubs attracting increasing numbers of international students, in direct competition with traditional destination countries.

Recognition of this trend is “critical for understanding how the global higher education landscape will look in 2020”.

The report says a notable development is that student flows from China to the US, Japan and the UK; Japan to the US; and Greece to the UK, are predicted to fall most sharply in absolute terms.

“Markets with rising tuition fees are also likely to see declines in inbound student flows.”

By contrast, the largest absolute rises in outbound students are forecast from India to Australia, the UK and US; China to Australia; and Nigeria to the UK.

In Europe factors contributing to shifts between countries include changing policies on tuition fees, and the trend towards increasing the number of postgraduate courses taught in English, which is making non-English speaking countries more attractive.

The report predicts that transnational education programmes will continue to be developed in established host country markets such as Malaysia and Singapore – especially as they also have ambitious international student targets – while China and India will inevitably generate further interest, subject to continuing legislative uncertainties and artificial barriers to market entry.

Although rates of international research collaboration are much lower in the US and China than in smaller, more economically interdependent countries such as Switzerland and The Netherlands, volume dictates that the majority of future research collaboration opportunities to 2020 will continue to come from the major players such as the US and China, the report says.

The countries generating the highest average citation impact per document include Switzerland, The Netherlands, the Nordic countries, the UK and the US.

At the institutional level, demand for international collaboration strongly follows quality, and Harvard produces the highest number of collaborative research articles, followed by Toronto and Oxford.

The UK is well placed with “at least eight universities with an average research citation impact, more than 80% above the global average, and will continue to be a desirable global collaboration partner,” the report says.

However, there is “more scope for more effective application of research excellence into commercial activities, and this could strengthen future economic growth potential”.

The report says universities remain an underused resource for generating inward investment and research income from global companies, though it varies from country to country.

Universities should particularly be looking to collaborate with countries leading on internationally filed patent applications, for example, the US, China, Japan and South Korea; those with the highest rates of commercial joint-working, for instance, India, Australia and Brazil; and those involving smaller, research-intensive countries that excel in niche technological growth markets, such as Switzerland, the Nordic countries and Israel, and have research citation impact significantly above the world average.

The report concludes that the next decade will herald significant change in the higher education landscape that will both intensify competition and provide opportunities for strengthened collaborations globally.

“Just as the world economy is shifting east and south, the evidence suggests, with a lag relative to the shift in economic power, the global tertiary education sector is now starting to move east, but at this stage less so south,” the report says.

Universities in advanced economies will need to look in that direction if opportunities are to be exploited.