A shift in student mobility from China and India by 2015?

The recent recession continues to redefine the funding model of public higher education. The top three destinations for international students – the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia – have all experienced budget cuts and a stronger emphasis on cost justification and self-sufficiency.

In these times of financial stress and the search for additional streams of revenue, undergraduate international students are emerging as saviours. They are less dependent on financial aid, as they are more likely to be funded by their families, and offer a longer stream of revenue (four years) compared to masters programmes (two years).

Large-source countries like China and India have become critical for recruiting undergraduate international students.

Scale and contrasting patterns

With more than 700,000 Chinese and Indian students enrolled in global higher education institutions, every third globally mobile student is from one of these two countries.

In the US, international student enrolment increased by nearly 175,000, between 2000-01 and 2010-11, and Chinese and Indian students contributed to nearly 84% of this growth.

These figures indicate the scale and role of these two source countries in global student mobility.

In my article, “Drivers of Mobility of Chinese and Indian Students”, in International Higher Education, I argued that Chinese and Indian student mobility was increasing due to a combination of demand and supply factors.

On the supply side, the ability to afford foreign education has increased, leading to a rapid expansion of the education pipeline. On the demand side, aggressive outreach efforts by universities and the adoption of a wider range of recruitment options are supporting the mobility of Chinese and Indian students.

However, the similarities between China and India in size and other factors have ended now, and contrasting patterns of mobility are beginning to emerge.

A major difference is that China has a much stronger growth momentum, at the undergraduate level, than India. The contrasting pattern is clear when juxtaposing the 8% decline of Indian undergraduate students to the 43% increase of Chinese students in the US.

This translates to an increase of 17,055 Chinese students, compared to a decrease of 1,188 Indian undergraduate students. For every one Indian student in the US, there are four Chinese undergraduate students.

This contrasting pattern becomes extremely important in view of the current economic woes faced by public institutions and their search, on an increasingly limited budget, for international undergraduate students.

But are these trends among Chinese and Indian undergraduate students sustainable, and what are future trends?

Reversal of trends for 2015?

I estimate that beginning in 2015, growth trends in the undergraduate market for China and India will experience a reversal. This is the time when India may surface as a major growth country for undergraduate student recruitment, while China could start losing its growth momentum.

However, in terms of absolute numbers of undergraduate enrolment, I predict China will continue to outpace India. My estimate for a reversal of recent trends is based on four interrelated factors.

Demographic shifts

The Chinese population in the 15-19 year age bracket is projected to decline by 17% between 2010 and 2015, translating into 18 million fewer college-going youths, according to US census data.

By contrast, India’s college-going population is projected to increase by five million, or 5%, over the same period. This means that in 2015, India will have nearly 20 million more college-going people in the 15-19 year age group than China. Demographic patterns in China and India will influence the supply of potential undergraduate students.

‘Self-financed’ students

China already surpasses India in terms of the wealth and size of its middle class, which can fund foreign undergraduate education. For example, China had 535,000 individuals with investable assets of US$1 million or more, while India had 153,000 in 2010. Furthermore, the single-child policy in China has allowed family resources to concentrate on one child.

However, the children of wealthy middle-class Indian parents who started working in new-age industries, like information technology, in the mid- to late 1990s will start graduating from 2015 onwards. This segment of ‘self-financed’ students will expect quality and have an ability to afford international undergraduate education.

Pace of education reforms

Both China and India have their share of problems in balancing quality and access.

Given China’s track record of aggressively expanding its higher education system and welcoming foreign institutions, it is more likely successfully to enforce quality. This will mean more quality choices for Chinese students at home.

By contrast, the pace of reform in India has been very slow and embroiled in politics rather than policy. It is unlikely that Indian higher education can keep pace with the demand for quality education. This inability to absorb demand will increase the demand of ‘self-financed’ Indian students for foreign education.

Campus concerns

Given the over-reliance of the US on Chinese undergraduate students, concerns are growing about campus diversity and the role of agents in driving this growth.

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education referred to the large number of Chinese students on some campuses thus: “what seems at first glance a boon for colleges and students alike is, on closer inspection, a tricky fit for both”.

It added, “though the agents act as universities’ representatives, marketing them at college fairs and soliciting applications, that’s no guarantee that colleges know the origin of the applications, or the veracity of their grades and scores”.

Campus concerns, such as diversity and the potential threat to integrity of the admissions process due to fraudulent agent behaviour, may lead universities to consider ways of becoming less dependent on Chinese students.


Public higher education in leading destinations for international students is clearly shifting towards self-sufficiency, resulting in pressure to recruit more international undergraduate students as an additional source of revenue.

China and India are large source countries for international undergraduate students, but their mobility patterns are expected to show different trends, beginning in 2015. Given that undergraduate recruitment requires a significant amount of seeding and relationship-building, institutions should start preparing for these shifting patterns.

However, institutions should not let fiscal urgency and the quest for numbers make them lose focus on the quality of students recruited, the integrity of their admissions process and issues of campus diversity.

Dr Rahul Choudaha is the co-founder and CEO at DrEducation and He researches, speaks, writes, and consults on international student trends and its implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver. He is reachable at and @DrEducationBlog.

* This article was earlier published in the Summer 2012 edition of the journal International Higher Education, published by the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, as “Drivers of Mobility of Chinese and Indian Students”.