Disruption the new norm

There are few corners in the world where rapid change is not occurring, geopolitically, economically and politically. The worldwide higher education sector is not immune to change and is likely to experience more and varied disruptions in the year ahead.

This article is an attempt to suggest how international student mobility may change in a world shaped by ongoing terrorist attacks.

I do not pretend to have a crystal ball. It is my intention to present some current trends in international student mobility and project how these trends are likely or unlikely to change after recent terrorist attacks.

I hope the information will form the basis for discussion on your campuses and in your organisations.

Current international student mobility statistics

If you read recent Institute of International Education and OECD – Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – reports you already know the following:
  • • In 2015, the number of students who studied outside their home countries was 5 million. In 2000, the figure was 2.1 million;
  • • The majority of international students are from Asia;
  • • Last year, 712,000 Chinese tertiary education students studied abroad, the largest cohort, by far, of any country;
  • • The United States received the largest number of international undergraduate students followed by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany and New Zealand.
Some current changes in student mobility

Although the United States still enrols more international students than any other country, there are signs that the rate of growth is slowing and that the US continues to lose market share. The rate of Chinese enrolment, for example, is changing. The number of Chinese students enrolling on postgraduate programmes in the US has declined for three years in a row.

Public opinion polls in Germany, Greece and many South American countries point to a decline in US prestige and influence and recent mass shootings present a safety issue for international students and parents.

No one knows for certain what effect the economic slowdown in China will have on Chinese students studying abroad. What is known is the focused attempts of the Chinese government to become a net importer of students in the near future. In recent years an increasing number of students from Indonesia and Korea have enrolled in Chinese universities.

China has budgeted 2.5% of its gross domestic product, or GDP, to fund its higher education initiatives and there is some evidence that the funding is having a positive impact. In December 2015, Times Higher Education reported that Chinese universities topped their latest ranking for emerging economies. Of the top 10 universities ranked, five were in China.

Asia is the region of growth for future international students. Both Japan and Malaysia have set ambitious goals of enrolling students from abroad. Malaysia, for example, experienced a 100% increase in the number of international students. In 2007, there were 45,000 international students studying on Malaysian campuses. In 2015, the number was 110,000.

African colleges and universities are poised to become major players in international student mobility, as are certain South and Central American countries, like Brazil and Mexico, whose governments have invested heavily in scholarship programmes for college and university students.

Likely international recruitment trends

Perhaps the most significant impact of recent terrorist attacks is political. At least in the United States the rhetoric of many political candidates has created an atmosphere of suspicion of 'foreigners'. Throughout Europe there is evidence of the rise of nationalism.

Many countries are likely to introduce tighter student visa requirements and monitor international students more closely after graduation.

Other predictions include:
  • • Many international parents and students will take into account the location and safety of colleges and universities around the world.

  • • The current dominant players in international student enrolment – the US, the UK, Canada and Australia – are likely to be challenged by competition from China, Japan, New Zealand, Malaysia and Singapore.

  • • Regional hubs, especially in Asia, will increase future enrolments from students in that region and keep students closer to their home countries.

  • • Global partnerships are likely to replace branch campuses, as are increased international articulation and joint degree programmes.

  • • More students will enrol in online courses and MOOCs – massive open online courses. The number of students enrolled in MOOCs doubled last year. Currently there are approximately 4,200 MOOCs offered by more than 500 universities. Six universities are in talks to create a global credit transfer system for online courses. International students, especially from Africa, will opt to enrol in MOOCs for at least part of their educational programme.
Clearly, the turmoil in the Middle East and the refugee population in Europe will affect the future enrolment of students in those parts of the world.

There are too many variables at this time, in my opinion, to predict how the current political situation will play out and the effect it will have on a future generation of students in the region. For example, will the decline in oil prices and the projected Saudi budget deficit affect the number of Saudi students studying abroad on the King Abdullah Scholarship Program?

New world order

The recent terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States make it necessary for college and university officials either bringing students to their campuses, or sending students abroad, to re-assess their international policies and recruitment plans.

International administrators should review all of their study abroad agreements and assess the safety of each of their sites. It may be necessary, at least for a time, to cancel any location that is considered unsafe.

It is also critical to review all of the safety measures in place for international students. Are the plans comprehensive and have the procedures been shared not only with students but also with their parents? Is there a hotline for international and study abroad students and their parents? Would parents and students have 24-hour access to campus officials in case of an emergency? Has the legal team reviewed the policies and procedures?

Are there comprehensive procedures in place for staff who recruit internationally to international fairs and conferences? Are you recruiting from locations no longer considered safe? If so, new plans will need to be written with a new and different set of safety considerations.

Enrolment managers, international deans and recruiters, international agents, consultants and educational organisations around the world will be forced to accept the reality of a new world order and plan for a future based on change and disruption.

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.