Maximising diversification is not always the best policy

Diversify with Data: Insights for higher education institutions, a recent report by Studyportals, provides an overview of the study origins and destinations of international students and ranks countries by the diversity of their international student profile.

The report urges universities to diversify recruitment efforts to include students from countries where demand is growing.

Diversification of enrolment appears to be a sensible move. Scholars and administrators have long warned about the risks posed when universities focus their recruitment efforts on a handful of countries, such as China or India. This approach not only creates fiscal vulnerabilities for universities, it also negatively impacts the student experience.

But diversification is more than just smart investing by governments and institutions. The impact on the quality of education must also be considered: a more diverse student body does not necessarily equate to a better quality of education and inclusion of international students.

In itself, the report provides intriguing and relevant data on the issues of diversification of international student recruitment, but it does not address critical dimensions of the data and the methodology, although it correctly acknowledges difficulties with the UNESCO, OECD and national databases that it builds on.

Our commentary provides additional context to the report’s data and a more nuanced view of the intricate dynamics influencing the past and future of student mobility.

Forces of diversification

Ranking countries based on diversification fails to account for clear definitions of and diversity in types of international students, as well as mobility barriers and inherent disadvantages such as geographical distance.

Multiple factors impact student mobility, including proximity to multiple countries, historical connections, rankings and reputation, language of instruction, agent use, visa policies and the affordability of higher education due to exchange rates and volatility.

Western Europe, for instance, ranked as the ‘most diverse’ region on the list, draws a substantial number of non-degree study abroad students from the US and credit-seeking students from within the region through the Erasmus+ programme.

Countries such as Italy, France, Portugal and Spain all benefit from these same advantages. They also benefit from degree-seeking international students from their former colonies (this is true for France, Portugal and Spain) and diaspora (true for Italy) based on a common language, but these two different types of mobility should not be used as one category to address diversity.

Countries like Austria, Switzerland and South Africa primarily rely on neighbouring countries when it comes to diversification. On the other hand, the US, Canada and Australia are popular based on a combination of reputation and the dominance of the English language, as is the UK which can also build on its colonial past, but they lack in other aspects of diversity because of high costs of tuition and living expenses.

This is something that increasingly applies to Scandinavia and the Netherlands as a result of their having introduced full cost tuition fees for students from outside the European Economic Area, making access for students from low-income countries more difficult.

A flawed approach

Ranking countries based on diversification is a flawed and potentially harmful approach. Rankings assume that all countries have equal opportunities and reinforce established norms of dominant powers. Wealthy countries have the advantage of favourable policies, funding and resources to establish their reputation and pursue diversification.

In contrast, lower income countries struggle to develop diverse student profiles due to a lack of these advantages. Moreover, not every country benefits from maximising the number of countries it attracts students from. In some cases, diversification may even hinder academic exchange within a region. Focusing on diversification over fostering exchange between regional partners could potentially harm international recruitment efforts.

For example, India has not been able to effectively recruit international students from all over the world. Instead, its international student enrolment is primarily made up of students from neighbouring countries in South Asia, such as Nepal and Bhutan.

The same is true for Egypt which has a long history of higher education and has a number of well-respected universities. Its international student enrolment is primarily made up of students from neighbouring countries in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.

If diversification of international student enrolment became a normative goal for Egypt, it could result in focusing limited resources on growing enrolments from countries where Egyptian universities might be less competitive and at the same time less inclusive for students from neighbouring lower income countries, rather than focusing on building deeper connections with existing countries where there is potential for growth and exchange.

The lasting impact of colonialism must also be considered. The report, for instance, illustrates the UK’s enrolment of more first-year students from Nigeria than from the EU, which may stem from the difficulties faced by UK higher education post-Brexit. However, it is crucial to acknowledge the historical context and not overlook the colonial legacy in their relationship.

Geopolitical shifts in diversification

Macro trends and geopolitical changes that shape the field must inform universities’ diversification efforts and help determine if diversification is the appropriate goal for their recruitment strategies. Marketing efforts alone cannot guarantee diversification. Over the past 20 years, geopolitical forces have dramatically altered the landscape of international student mobility.

A recent longitudinal network analysis of 20 years of UNESCO data, conducted by one of us and Natalie Cruz, shows the emergence of a multipolar structure for international student mobility, with new education hubs in Asia and the Middle East playing a more significant role.

In summary, more countries are exchanging students at more equal rates. The core-periphery dynamic persists, but the composition of the core countries has diversified and expanded. This analysis aligns with the report’s view that countries with more connections exert more influence in the network. However, maximising diversification may not be the best policy for every country or institution and ranking them based on diversification is misguided.

New mobilities

The report relies on data from UNESCO and OECD, which concentrate on long-term mobility and are limited by the inconsistent definitions and methods used by self-reporting nations. Furthermore, UNESCO and OECD data, as well as other prominent reports, fail to account for diversity in and new forms of mobility, such as virtual mobility, short-term exchanges and enrolments at international branch campuses and franchise operations worldwide.

In addition, the type and level of education are also important considerations when addressing diversification. For example, more students from middle-income countries, particularly in Asia, are pursuing graduate level education in high-income countries as access to undergraduate education and the number of research universities in these countries grows.

The report highlights critical issues for US universities: despite a surge in international student enrolment after the COVID-19 pandemic, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have low diversity and mostly rely on fee-paying students from a limited number of countries and high-income families.

Cost as a significant factor

The cost of attendance, including tuition and living expenses, is a significant factor contributing to this issue. Many top-ranked universities are located in cities with skyrocketing housing costs, causing student protests as they struggle to find affordable housing. The rising cost of food and other necessities adds to the financial burden.

In uncertain economic times, families who see the value in paying a premium for higher education in these destinations may question the return on investment as affordability and job prospects become uncertain. The Studyportals report provides a useful comparison between higher-ranked and other universities, but the family income of the students is likely to be a more important factor.

Nations and institutions are crucial in shaping student mobility, and the data in this report, as well as those from UNESCO and OECD, offer valuable insights into trends and patterns. However, there are many other actors and factors that impact why, what and where students study. To create a more diverse and inclusive international student population, it is essential to acknowledge and understand the rich diversity of these factors.

Chris Glass is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of International Students and a professor of the practice in the department of educational leadership and higher education at Boston College, United States. E-mail: Hans de Wit is distinguished fellow and professor emeritus, Boston College Center for International Higher Education, US. E-mail: