The case for optimism on internationalisation of HE

Of late, there have been increasing notes of concern sounded about the fate of higher education internationalisation. In particular, there is a fear that a host of political changes around the world pose a threat to internationalisation, a suggestion which was made by Hans de Wit in a commentary and together with Philip Altbach in another commentary in the pages of University World News over the past few weeks.

I don’t think it’s arguable that institution-to-institution co-operation between institutions in democratic states and ones in countries undergoing an authoritarian turn is going to decrease. Universities in the OECD will likely sign fewer partnerships with Chinese universities, for instance (maybe fewer with Russian and Turkish ones, too, though there were less of these to begin with).

But on what is probably the most visible and most important metric of internationalisation – that is, student mobility – I believe there is much less cause for concern. Not only does demand for higher education remain high more or less across the board (though financial pressures are reducing outflows from Brazil and the Persian Gulf), but the concern that host countries will turn their backs on internationalisation due to domestic pressures may be overstated.

In fact, one can easily make a pretty optimistic case for continued rapid increases in student mobility, simply by looking at the major international destination countries.

In Oceania, Australia and New Zealand are both expecting annual increases of more than 10% in international student numbers for the next few years. These increases are accompanied by various concerns – educational quality and Chinese ‘penetration’ of universities in Australia and housing prices in New Zealand – but in neither country is the status of higher education as an export industry genuinely under threat.

In Asia, Japan, China and South Korea are all seeing similar jumps in international enrolments. Between the three of them, they will be home to over one million international students by the end of the decade – more than double what the figure was in 2010.

Similarly, Malaysia is heading towards 200,000 international students, again double what it was a decade ago and the United Arab Emirates continues to grow as a kind of centre for offshore higher education. More or less all across Asia, international student enrolments are rising.

Internationalisation optimists

In the rest of the Anglosphere things are somewhat mixed. Canada, of course, continues to see double-digit annual increases in enrolment, and in most of the country (British Columbia apart, perhaps) there is very little political push-back to these increases.

The United Kingdom – despite Brexit – continues to attract international students. True, acceptances of undergraduate students from the European Union fell slightly in 2017, but this was more than made up for by an increase in acceptances from other parts of the world. The number of international students in the UK as a whole is now approaching a half-million every year, and this is in addition to the hundreds of thousands of students taught by UK universities on a transnational basis.

The problem, of course, is the United States, where the election of President Donald Trump has undoubtedly created something of an image problem for the country. Still, a year after Trump’s election in the US student numbers continue to grow, albeit slowly: the December 2017 SEVIS release indicated there were 1.21 million international students in the country, compared to 1.16 million 18 months earlier, in May 2016.

True, this is less than it could be – stories continue to appear regarding declining applications (at some but by no means all universities) and increasing numbers of visa rejections (particularly for Asian students). But there’s still a very optimistic case to be made here.

Universities want to accept more students; the only obstacle is sitting in the Oval Office. If you think Trump is unlikely to gain a second term (or perhaps even not finish his present one), then implicitly you’re an internationalisation optimist. Remove Trump and the floodgates will open.

Continental Europe

Where there is a problem, really, is in continental Europe. The Danes are making a fuss about international students coming to abuse their student aid system; the Austrians continue to be upset that they have to open their open-access medical schools to German students.

A number of countries – Italy, for example – are in the midst of quite legitimate debates about whether they want to see more of their programmes delivered in English simply to attract international students. And in the Netherlands, where universities have seen their per-student expenditures decline by 15% over the last decade, there are definitely concerns that international students are taking up too many spaces and may be doing so at the expense of local students.

But one should not overstate the extent of these problems. Among many smaller countries such as Romania or Greece, the challenge is not too many international students but too few. Germany and France both appear to be solidly in favour of continued acceptance of international students; significantly, neither of their right-wing movements (Germany’s AfD and France’s National Front) have suggested cutting foreign enrolment.

The problems – such as they are – are confined to European countries a) which are relatively small players internationally and b) whose international student bodies are primarily European. In fact, one might even suggest that to the extent that there is a crisis, it exists precisely where the financial model for internationalisation rests on the willingness of a host government to indefinitely subsidise foreign students on the same basis as domestic ones.

The fees debate

Having international students pay a premium for attending not only delivers institutions a financial bonus which they can use to expand enrolment, but it dispels the public perception that international students are a drain on public resources. It is notable that one of the German states that is one of the biggest destinations for foreign students, North Rhine-Westphalia, last year introduced fees for non-EU students for more or less these reasons.

However, the inability of governments within the European Union to charge differential fees to students from other EU countries makes it difficult in countries which are net importers of students to avoid the perception that international students are in competition with domestic students.

But look at the big picture: of the 10 countries with the largest numbers of international students – the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Australia and Canada – fully eight of them are still trying as hard as possible to increase their international student numbers and by and large are succeeding in doing so.

In the other two – the US and the UK – institutions desperately want to see more international students, but their efforts are being damaged by governments which are desperately unpopular and which may well be replaced in the very near future.

Events could, of course, radically change this picture. It’s conceivable – though at the moment not terribly likely – that China may at some point slam the brakes on its students going abroad, which really would have massive repercussions on university internationalisation around the globe. Trump could win a second term. War could break out on the Korean peninsula and alter all sorts of international travel and migration patterns.

But on the balance of probabilities, the likeliest future is still one in which student mobility grows.

Alex Usher is president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, Canada.