Optimism trumps ethics in student recruitment ‘comeback’

Are international student numbers rebounding to their pre-pandemic numbers? Is the current ‘bump’ the ‘new normal’? And what are the challenges and ethical issues involved?

One might have hoped that the COVID-19 crisis, not to mention the continuing challenges of climate and geopolitical tensions, would have stimulated some rethinking by the international education community. This seems not to be the case. Current international student numbers are close to the old, pre-pandemic normal of 2019.

Germany has announced record numbers, the Netherlands has seen further growth and the latest Open Doors report of the Institute of International Education shows an increase of 4% in 2021-22 and even of 9% in the autumn of 2022.

Mirka Martel of the Institute of International Education speaks of a strong comeback. “These findings highlight the continued resilience of international educational exchange and the commitment of US colleges and universities to host international students,” she told Inside Higher Education.

In the same article, Rachel Banks, senior director for public policy and legislative strategy at NAFSA (Association of International Educators), welcomed the news as “we’ve been increasingly out-manoeuvred by competitors who have moved aggressively to define their own national strategies”.

And in a recent survey by Times Higher Education among international education leaders who were asked whether they thought their institution would increase international student recruitment over the next 10 years, only 1% of respondents disagreed, while 2% were unsure. More than half (52%) strongly agreed. In other words, we are back to pre-pandemic optimism.

Challenges to optimism

There are major challenges to this optimistic view and, more importantly, there are ethical concerns that need serious consideration. Numbers might seem to be booming, but as Martel acknowledges, their increase might be strongly influenced by deferrals resulting from the pandemic. This is a temporary bump.

Second, the leading sending country, China, shows declining numbers of outgoing international students. Although some argue that this might be temporary, geopolitical tensions and the increased availability of quality higher education opportunities in China itself might indicate that this decline is permanent.

Third, high inflation and reduced funding for higher education in leading Western host countries, resulting in higher tuition fees, might have a negative impact on student mobility. Fluctuating currency exchange rates, and particularly the strength of the US dollar, also infuse instability into the international student equation, especially for rapidly expanding sending countries such as India and Nigeria.

And the fact that, for the first time, there are more international graduate than undergraduate students in the United States, is also an indication of decline – or at least of a significant change in the nature of mobility.

The expansion of international student numbers elsewhere also indicates significant shifts. With more than half a million international students enrolled before the COVID-19 crisis, China was moving up to a leading position among recipients of international students.

But as a result of its severe handling of the pandemic, numbers have almost come to a halt. Russia, another major player attracting international students (originating mainly from former Soviet countries, but also increasingly from elsewhere), is facing a decline as a result of its invasion of Ukraine and international sanctions.

In continental Europe, there is increased concern about the number of international students. In Norway, the government is planning to install differential tuition fees for international students, which might result in an 80% drop.

In Sweden and Denmark, as in the United Kingdom, the issue of international students is part of the debate on immigration policy. In the Netherlands, there is strong pressure to reduce the number of international students due to the decline in the quality of teaching and learning and in the availability of adequate services, accommodation in particular.

Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom consider international students mainly in commercial terms, as ‘cash cows’ – but show growing concerns about immigration.

Many countries in the Global North, including the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, Germany and the United Kingdom, struggle between regarding international students as a part of increasing immigration on the one hand, and as necessary talent for their knowledge economies, to compensate for a shrinking educated labour force.

In sum, there is considerable confusion and debate, and a lack of clarity, about international students.

Signs of a more ethical approach

While many institutions and governments seem to be excited about increasing recruitment, there are signs, in some countries, of a more ethical approach, focusing on such issues as service to society, climate change and sustainability and equity and inclusion.

As reported by University World News, speakers at the University Social Responsibility (USR) Summit of 16-18 November showed a strong commitment to the notion that universities have an obligation to work together to find solutions to address the current economic, social and environmental challenges.

NAFSA, for instance, is fully embracing the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular climate change, as central to its agenda. Yet at the same time, it is advocating the importance of international student recruitment for the US national economy.

Dutch universities are critical of the increase in international student numbers, but do little themselves to curb those numbers, such as putting a halt to teaching undergraduate programmes in English.

And in the Times Higher Education survey mentioned above, university leaders around the world appear to be surprisingly short-sighted: “Only 16% of respondents agree that their institution’s internationalisation ambitions conflict with its environmental goals, nearly half (45%) disagree, 12% strongly.”


There is quite a bit of hypocrisy in the approach of higher education institutions and other stakeholders with respect to international student recruitment. One can pretend to be optimistic, as the lead author of a recent report by the American Council on Education, Maria Claudia Soler, argued in Inside Higher Ed .

“Institutions are realising in a way that internationalisation goes beyond mobility,” she wrote. “The pandemic put us in front of that reality. It really pushed us to think more about what’s going on in other parts of the world and how we can work together to make the world better.”

Yet, as William Brustein, former vice-president for global strategies and international affairs at West Virginia University, states in the same article: “Of course, comprehensive internationalisation matters. But having been in senior administration, I know that the bottom line for investing in it was having high-paying international undergraduates ... As the promise of that revenue wanes, the commitment we had from senior administrators is no longer there.”

In other words, a more comprehensive approach to internationalisation is only considered as an added value; when revenue declines, so does comprehensiveness.

At the start of the pandemic, we anticipated that higher education would try as fast as possible to return to the old way of looking at internationalisation as a market and income source. This is indeed what appears to be happening.

The challenges resulting from, and exacerbated by, the pandemic and growing geopolitical tensions – in particular the high social and economic risks of such an approach – continue to be ignored, and ethical concerns neglected and even disavowed.

Hans de Wit is distinguished fellow and professor emeritus, Boston College Center for International Higher Education, USA. E-mail: Philip G Altbach is distinguished fellow and research professor at the same centre. E-mail: