Student mobility: Can the US correct its loss of primacy?

It may seem contradictory, but the United States, long the leader in absolute numbers of inbound global student degree mobility, has lost its primacy, but at the same time remains, and will continue to be, in absolute numbers the leading destination for international students.

Well before the COVID crisis, US numbers were in decline. Competition has increased from the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada (all English-speaking countries) along with the two other big recipients, France and Germany. Increasingly, there is also competition from other European countries such as the Netherlands, and recently Asian countries, but not only China.

As Karin Fischer and Sasha Aslanian point out in their article, “Fading Beacon. The US will never regain its dominance as a destination of international students”, published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, it is particularly opportune to look at the future international prospects of higher education in the United States.

The recent positive statement from the US Department of State and Department of Education stressing the importance of America’s international higher education role reflects a sharp contrast with the rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration.

Historic US dominance

American dominance of international mobility is easy to understand. While the US has been overtaken by China and India in terms of sheer size of their higher education systems, the US still hosts many of the best academic institutions in the world.

Additionally, its academic system is highly diverse, offering a full range of programmes and institutions, from ‘open door’ two-year community colleges to the world’s top research universities – and everything in between. American universities in general have good infrastructures for international students.

Of course, the US uses English, the world’s primary academic language and the primary or secondary language of many international students. And degrees from many American colleges and universities are recognised everywhere, often as a consequence of previous generations of US alumni who returned home to enjoy the benefits resulting from their American education.

In addition, historically, US immigration policies have been relatively open, allowing foreign graduates of US universities to find jobs and obtain visas. As a nation of immigrants with a large multicultural population, international students have found the US both open, and for the most part, welcoming.

But much has changed

The global landscape of higher education, international mobility and internal American reality have all changed in recent years, largely unrelated to the COVID pandemic.

Globally, in the context of massification and globalisation, higher education has become much more diverse and multipolar. No longer do the major English-speaking countries dominate. Research universities flourish around the world, and many offer degrees in English – Russia, China, the Netherlands, Japan and many others among them.

The rise of China is well known, and China now hosts more than 500,000 international students while it remains the largest sending country.

America’s problems

It is important to assess the challenges the US faces in the world of international higher education.

As noted earlier, the US faces increased global competition. While the US hosted more than a million of the world’s more than 5.1 million mobile international students, its proportion of the total has dwindled as other countries compete. Nor does the US hold a monopoly on quality – outstanding universities are increasingly common elsewhere.

The US is no longer seen as a stable country. Extreme political polarisation and increasingly uncivil rhetoric, especially during the Trump administration, has made many potential students, postdocs and faculty members question whether the US is the best place to study or work.

The attempted coup on 6 January 2021 was perhaps a confirmation of national instability. Even with the new calm projected by the Biden administration, the threat of instability remains.

With some justification, the US is seen as unsafe. A combination of the proliferation of guns, a rising crime rate and well publicised and frequent mass shootings create a sense of fear. The truth is that, with the exception of a small number of urban neighbourhoods, the crime rate, while higher than many other advanced countries, is lower than in the past and not increasing.

Over the past year, racial conflicts, including aggressive incidents of anti-Asian hate, have created the impression that the US is a racist country. While the US has no monopoly on racism, as illustrated by anti-African incidents in China and anti-Indian violence in Australia, US racism has come to dominate the front pages and social media.

Geopolitical tensions with the main sending country, China, might negatively impact numbers of incoming students to the US and to other receiving countries.

Mobility might be further affected by visa and immigration restrictions placed on sending countries. Persistent reports of visa delays and denials, especially from countries seen as ‘controversial’, such as Iran, will not only limit numbers but send a negative message worldwide.

And the economic crisis resulting from the pandemic negatively impacts the possibilities of students and their families in most sending countries to fund study abroad, something impacting institutions in the United States, given the high cost of tuition and housing compared with some of its competitors.

Pushing against the tide

The picture presented confirms that the United States is in a disadvantaged position to attract future international students due to an increasing number of competitors as well as a variety of domestic issues. Although Australia and the UK also face challenges, it is likely that the US market share will decline substantially in the near future, even though absolute numbers will likely remain stable.

China will become increasingly important as a host country, although without English as a significant language of instruction, and with an increasingly restrictive political and cultural situation, growth will be hindered.

More likely, European Union nations will expand international enrolments, while other players in Asia (Japan, Malaysia and Singapore) continue to attract international students or start to become active in recruiting them (such as India, South Korea and Taiwan), as is the case with Russia.

Will the policy of the Biden administration to welcome international students and scholars improve prospects for US higher education? It certainly gives a more positive message, but the impact will be determined by the details of the policy. At the same time several factors are beyond the control of the federal administration and, as competition for students and scholars is increasing, the US is pushing against the tide.

Revenue generation cannot be the priority of national policy for the continued internationalisation of US higher education. International collaboration and understanding in the interests of a free, open and responsible global society is what should be driving the development of a welcoming agenda for international education.

Philip G Altbach is research professor and distinguished fellow at the Center for International Higher Education (CIHE) at Boston College, United States. Hans de Wit is professor emeritus and distinguished fellow at CIHE, Boston College.