Future international student mobility – The facts

I recently read an article about Bill Gates making a gift of the book Factfulness to every graduating senior from United States colleges and universities in 2018. My curiosity was piqued. I bought and read the book.

Factfulness is written by Dr Hans Rosling, founder of the Gapminder Foundation in Sweden, and is based on 18 years of research. The book did indeed, as the jacket cover promised, change my mind about the way I perceive the world and how I will conduct research and write articles in the future.

Dr Rosling wrote it to fight what he calls devastating global ignorance and to present data and statistics that challenge prevailing perceptions.

What relevance could such a book have for those of you reading this article who publish, conduct research or are responsible for creating international strategic plans and recruiting and enrolling international students?

Avoid single statistics

In the opening chapters of Factfulness the author states emphatically that the one thing we cannot do without is international collaboration. That certainly has relevance in your day-to-day work.

The author further states that the most important thing we can do to avoid misjudging something’s importance is to avoid lonely numbers, that is, using a single statistic to make a point. That certainly has relevance when planning future internationalising programmes or future recruitment. He urges readers never to leave a statistic by itself.

For example, there is abundant data to suggest that in addition to Asia, a significant opportunity to recruit international students in the future lies in Africa. One set of statistics may discourage international deans and recruiters from recruiting in Africa. They are based on the perception that most people in Africa are living below the poverty line and that wars and droughts have rendered many African countries unsuitable for recruitment.

Yet another set of statistics reveal that in a continent of 54 countries and one billion people, half of all Africans are living middle-class lives. Most have cell phones, and statistics on the number of African students enrolled on online courses are staggering.

There is a lot of data in the book about Asia, home to most of the world’s population. The United Nations forecasts that 20 years from now Asia and Africa will be the centre of economic gravity and world markets will shift from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean regions.

Many profitable investments will no longer be made in Western capitals but in the emerging markets of Asia and Africa. That information surely has relevance to international recruiters and deans. Taking the long view means planning beyond next year’s incoming class of international students. It means challenging perceptions.

Imagining change

There will be, I believe, some nasty enrolment surprises in the fall term. There will also be some pleasant surprises. One thing for certain is that there will be changes in why and where international students enrol. Shifts have already occurred.

Big change is always difficult to imagine. But instead of fearing change, international deans and recruiters should prudently use data to better understand the world’s globalised markets. As Dr Rosling makes clear in his book, globalisation is not a one-off. It is a continuous process. He urges readers to develop a fact-based worldview and base future decisions on the facts.

In today’s world its message to replace instinctive reaction with critical thinking is vital for all students. Perhaps it should be given to all incoming first-year students rather than graduates.

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.