The new dynamics in international student circulation

Over the past 10 years, the dynamics of international student mobility have intensified and become more diverse and complex due to political, educational, social, cultural and economic reasons. Travel bans, Brexit, immigration flows, nationalism and populism, and also rankings and concerns about costs have become key factors in international student mobility.

In 2008, I co-authored the publication The Dynamics of International Student Circulation in a Global Context. This was an analysis of international student flows, the collective research of five scholars from different parts of the world.

Its purpose was to develop a better understanding of the dynamics of international student circulation and internationalisation of higher education in a global context, to assess their implications for higher education and to create a framework for action.

Until then, most studies on international student flows focused on South-North and North-North mobility, but we also looked at South-South flows of students and the influence of various push and pull factors on these flows. We challenged the existing assumption that student mobility was primarily a South-North and North-North phenomenon, and that South-South flows were rather marginal.

It is time to see if international student flows have evolved – or not – over the past decade and to assess what the main trends in push and pull factors will be in the next few years.

Trends in international student mobility

In the period 1965-2005, international student flows increased enormously. In 1965, approximately 250,000 students were studying in another country than their own. By 2005, the number of internationally mobile students had reached 2.5 million. Ten years later, this number had almost doubled (to 4.5 million) in keeping with the increase in total enrolments.

Interesting shifts took place between 1965 and 2005 with regard to the main countries supplying international students. In 1965, most countries in the top 20 were developed countries, with China still absent. In 2005, the picture was more diverse, with China, India and South Korea becoming the leading sending countries.

In 2018, these three countries are still the leading sending countries, although the numbers of outbound students from South Korea are declining (a result of an expanded local offer of higher education) and those of other developing countries are increasing. This trend reflects the ongoing massification of higher education and related unmet demand in developing countries.

As for the receiving countries, the global picture has changed less. There were three main receiving countries in 1965: the United States, France and Germany. The United Kingdom joined the club in 1985 and Australia in 2000, both after introducing full-cost tuition fees in the 1980s and developing a strong recruitment policy.

Currently, the position of these ‘Big Five’ remains stable, with some distinguishing features. In terms of the percentage of the total student body, Australia and the United Kingdom have a far stronger share of international students than the United States, which in absolute numbers is the largest receiving country with one million international students in 2017.

The market share of the Big Five – and in particular of the Big Two at the top, the United States and the United Kingdom – is declining. Canada is currently the country with the biggest increase in numbers of international students as a result of its lower tuition fees and political developments in the United States (the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and related anti-immigration policies) and the United Kingdom (Brexit).

Competition for international students is increasing, with more active recruitment policies in Continental Europe (offering courses in English), Russia and the developing world.

In 2008, an increase in the number of international students in developing countries, such as China, Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa, was already starting, a trend which continues today. Another observation from 2008 was the growing trend toward the regionalisation of study abroad. This is still happening today, with Latin America and the Caribbean as newcomers over the past decade.

Several developing countries, including China, Colombia, Malaysia and Singapore, have adopted explicit policies to attract international students. Most recently, in 2018, India entered that market with a ‘Study in India’ plan targeting neighbouring Asian countries and Africa.

Sending countries are increasingly becoming receiving countries. The clearest case is China, which in absolute numbers is still the biggest sending country worldwide and receives close to 500,000 incoming students. It is rapidly catching up with, if not already overtaking, some of the aforementioned Big Five.

While the trend toward regionalisation in South-South circulation is continuing, there is also a broader trend of circulation between developing regions. The changing global political climate, the high cost of study in the developed world and the increased capacity of higher education in the developing world are all new factors affecting these trends.

Emerging shifts in push and pull factors

What are the key push and pull factors influencing international student flows now and over the next few years?

With respect to pull factors, the English language will continue to play a crucial role, which will benefit the English-speaking world, and it will be interesting to see if this will benefit English-teaching countries in the developing world, for instance, India.

It will also be interesting to see if increasing concerns about the quality and dominance of teaching in English in countries like the Netherlands will impact their attractiveness as study destinations.

The same applies to capacity concerns and issues about the student experience in the Netherlands, Canada and other destinations that are experiencing a strong increase in international student numbers.

Reputation and branding will also remain important, an advantage for Asia where the reputation of some universities is steadily improving, certainly in combination with the lower cost of higher education – another pull factor – compared to studies in the United Kingdom and the United States.

A more recent pull factor is a welcoming environment for international students, with Canada and Malaysia in leading positions. Geographical proximity appears to be another pull factor as we can see from a general trend toward increased mobility between neighbouring countries.

With respect to push factors, low quality and limited access remain the most important, penalising developing countries despite a steady increase in the provision of (mainly) private higher education. The poor quality of many of these new providers and restricted access to the few local world-class universities drive outbound mobility. China is a clear example.

Political and economic instability continue to be strong push factors, particularly in Africa, but far less in Asia and Latin America (exceptions such as Myanmar and Venezuela notwithstanding).

In other words, although the main push and pull factors have not changed, global contexts have and will continue to do so, resulting in growing global competition for international students and a further increase in South-South student flows – although this will be gradual and involve limited numbers of students.

The lack of a sufficient offer of quality higher education and infrastructure and services in most countries, including China and Russia, and the lack of fluency in English as the language of communication and teaching, are obstacles that limit the attractiveness of these countries as student destinations compared to the traditional destinations in the ‘old’ world.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, United States. Email: The Dynamics of International Student Circulation in a Global Context (2008), edited by Hans de Wit, Pawan Agarwal, Mohsen Elmahdy Said, Molatlhegi Sehoole and Muhammad Sirozi, is published by Sense Publishers, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.