A perfect storm for international student mobility?

In my recent article, “Three Waves of International Student Mobility (1999-2020)”, published in Studies in Higher Education, I analysed the past, present and future of international student mobility from the lens of three overlapping waves spread over seven years between 1999 and 2020.

Wave one was shaped by the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the enrolment of international students at institutions seeking to build research excellence. Wave two was shaped by the global financial recession which brought financial motivations for recruiting international students. Wave three is being shaped by the slowdown in the Chinese economy, the United Kingdom’s referendum to leave the European Union and the American presidential election.

The number of globally mobile international students doubled to reach 4 million between the period 1999 and 2013. In the same period, the number of international students enrolled in universities and colleges at the top two destinations – the United States and the UK – grew by 74% and 80% respectively. Every third globally mobile student was studying at an American or British institution of higher education.

Political and economic challenges

The new political order in the top two destinations is likely to have a significant impact on the future of international student mobility. These two destinations have been the preferred choice for many international students. However, unwelcoming rhetoric and immigration policies are likely to make it more difficult for international students to stay post-graduation in these countries and recover part of their investment in studying abroad.

In terms of the source countries, the number of international students coming from China grew by 480% and those coming from India grew by 230% between 1999 and 2013. These two countries were responsible for 35% of the growth in globally mobile students between 2000 and 2013. In the same period, Saudi Arabia witnessed a growth of 615%.

New economic challenges are brewing in these leading source countries. China is witnessing an economic slowdown that would decelerate the growth of Chinese students going abroad. India is facing challenges of demonetisation of its currency, which is affecting the ability of many students to arrange for finances. Finally, Saudi Arabia is still hurting from the decline in oil prices and subsequent cuts in the government scholarship programme.

The political changes in leading destination countries are colliding with the economic challenges in source countries to create a perfect storm. Many institutions that have benefited from the rising tide of demand from key source countries will be the first to lose in this wave of declining international enrolment.

A segment of institutions that are not perceived to be high-ranked or are not in the major metropolitan areas will be the first to get hurt. Institutions must prepare for an uncertain and turbulent time for the next couple of years.

The trends suggest that institutions are under increasing financial and competitive pressure to attract and retain international students. To overcome challenges posed by the perfect storm of changes in source and destination countries, institutions must innovate to grow international student enrolment within resource constraints and support student success.

Rahul Choudaha is co-founder of DrEducation and interEDGE. He researches, speaks, writes and consults on international student trends and their implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education, a masters in business management, and a bachelor degree in engineering. He is reachable at and @DrEducationBlog. He will be moderating an upcoming free webinar of global experts hosted by University World News in partnership with DrEducation and StudyPortals on 12 April that will discuss these emerging trends, their implications for higher education institutions and how they are adapting to the new environment of hyper-competition.