A new age in international student mobility

Rob Brown of the global education group Navitas told an international conference in September 2016: “Disruption will happen in higher education like nothing we have seen before and first-world institutions are going to suffer the hardest. The real opportunities exist in the developing world.”

International higher education is a big business. In 2015-16 international students contributed US$32 billion to the world economy and that amount is projected to reach US$1 trillion over the next decade.

The current number of internationally mobile students is more than five million and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that, by 2025, more than eight million students will study outside their home countries.

Regional vs global mobility

Where will these students study and what global trends will contribute to future international student mobility?

For decades the United States and United Kingdom have claimed the top spots for international student enrolments. But over the past decade the United States has lost nearly 10% of market share of international students. There are a number of reasons contributing to this decline, including competition from other countries, high tuition costs in the United States and an increased number of programmes taught in English outside the US and UK.

One cannot also underestimate the impact of the 2016 US presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum on worldwide perceptions, but these were in part a response to worldwide seismic changes, including: geopolitical competition among the major powers, the challenges and realities of globalisation, massive migration, income inequality, cybersecurity issues and technological innovation.

While Donald Trump’s presidency and Brexit may have attenuated international student preferences in both countries, it is my belief that even without them, future international students’ enrolment patterns would have changed in both countries.

In the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, The World in 2050: Will the shift in global economic power continue?, the authors estimate that in a short while the world will be very different in terms of the global ranking of national economies and the major drivers of economic growth.

The report notes that China overtook the United States in 2014 to become the world’s largest economy on purchasing power parity and by 2028 the authors project that China will surpass the United States’ gross domestic product in market exchange rate terms.

Countries with the fastest growing economies, populations and growing middle classes in Asia, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, will dominate economic growth in the region. The Asian middle class is expected to increase from 600 million in 2010 to more than three billion by 2030, representing 66% of total middle-class population.

International student mobility, by extension, will be impacted by this new economic reality. I think it safe to predict that regional mobility will grow in importance over global mobility.

While China will remain a leading exporter of students, it will increasingly become a major importer of students with a goal of enrolling 500,000 international students by 2020. China’s international strategic marketing and enrolment plan is supported by political and economic goals and substantial funding. It is no accident that the majority of students currently enrolled in Chinese universities are from ‘Belt and Road’ countries.

Another big factor in changing global dynamics is the role of technology in educational delivery. The internet has rendered geography irrelevant and digital options, especially in India and parts of Africa, are changing the way higher education is consumed in those countries.

Students will continue to study abroad, but they may do so without ever leaving their home countries. The numbers are impressive, and change daily, but according to the report, Digital Learning Compass: Distance education enrollment report 2017, 30% of students worldwide are enrolled in at least one online course.

Keeping up with change

Yet, despite the challenges of recruiting and enrolling international students, it is important to remember that less than 2% of the global student population is mobile and only 5.3% of all students enrolled in US colleges and universities are international. There is still room for growth, albeit growth that is different from that in previous years. At the intersection of challenge and fluidity is opportunity.

The world is changing. Fast. And there are many segments of international higher education recruitment, enrolment, progression and graduation that are not nimble enough to meet the headwinds of change.

For example, how many international deans and recruiters have created marketing messages aimed at Generation Z, the first ‘phigital’ generation: students who do not make a distinction between an online classroom and a bricks and mortar room. The internet has rendered geography and financing options irrelevant. Surely that fact demands a new way of marketing to international students.

Active learning classrooms, online degree programmes, data analytics, student success planning systems and artificial intelligence have changed the educational landscape. How many of these strategic technologies are part of international strategic plans?

Artificial intelligence, in particular, has the potential to change how colleges and universities serve international students and speed up international administrative processes.

It is no accident that on 2 April 2018 China’s Ministry of Education launched an artificial intelligence training programme to train 100 teachers and 5,000 students over the next five years.

Russian President Vladimir Putin wrote: “The country that controls artificial intelligence will control the world.” This opinion underscores the importance of artificial intelligence, including its impact on international student recruiting, enrolment and graduation.

In the book, Blue Ocean Strategy, Renée Mauborgne and W Chan Kim define two types of oceans: Red oceans already exist and are populated by similar companies (universities) and compete for the same markets (students). Supply, in red oceans, exceeds demand.

Blue oceans are defined by untapped markets, not currently in existence. Blue oceans create demand to create new and uncontested markets. How many international recruiters are fishing in red oceans?

How many international strategic plans include collaborations with companies like the partnership between the University of Washington and China’s Tsinghua University with US$40 million in funding from Microsoft to establish the Global Innovation Exchange, a 15-month master of science degree with a focus on technology, innovation and entrepreneurship?

How many strategic plans include online degree programmes as an integral part of future international student recruitment?

In 2017 an agreement was signed between the 380-member Association of African Universities and Africa’s largest online platform, eLearnAfrica. This arrangement will allow approximately 10 million African students to access higher education through online courses offered to member institutions. How would such an arrangement change current international recruiting plans?

Ambitious, forward thinking and agile universities will take advantage of the disruptive changes in higher education and create unique opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation. Future international strategic plans will be both creative and flexible.

Successful international recruiting in the future will require international deans and recruiters with agile and open minds who are both curious and creative and engage in what Amit Mrig, the president of Academic Impressions, which provides training to higher education leaders, calls “horizon thinking”.

In my opinion it is no longer possible to create international strategic plans and recruit future international students without taking into consideration the political, economic, technological and societal changes taking place.

The dark alchemy of worldwide disruption and unpredictability demand a new way of thinking and planning and expanding the marketplace of ideas. Change, the flammable liquid in today’s world, is obdurate. We can either succumb to change or manage it. The choice is ours.

Marguerite J Dennis is an internationally recognised expert in international student recruitment, enrolment and retention. She has more than 25 years of experience consulting with colleges and universities in the United States and around the world.