Diversity is the key to international recruitment success

In 1978 I was at Georgetown University and at that time Georgetown was one of the United States institutions with the largest number of Iranian students. After the fall of the Shah, those students were ordered to return home. What I learned all those years ago was never to rely on a single country when recruiting students.

Diversity is the currency of successful international recruitment plans. There are many other examples of how internal and external politics have impacted international student mobility and will continue to impact the movement of students from one country to another.

In a 31 January 2023 article by Nick Cuthbert, when higher education administrators were polled and asked to select their most pressing issues, 50.8% listed financial performance, followed by geopolitics and macro factors at 44.3%.

My interest is in exploring how international student mobility has been impacted by internal political decisions. I will not list all of the current movements of international students impacted by politics, country alignments and geopolitical tensions. The United States, for example, is not included as I believe that current American national policies require separate consideration.

That means I will not include how China’s international alignments and geopolitical tensions with the United States have impacted the movement of students from, and to, China.

We do know that in February 2023, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a directive stating that they would no longer recognise online degrees from overseas colleges. This impacts not only Chinese students enrolled in colleges and universities abroad, but also those students who have been studying online in China.

United Kingdom: Brexit impact

While enrolment of international students in the United Kingdom continues to increase (it was 12.4% in 2020-21), enrolment of students from the European Union decreased by 21.4%; 53% fewer first-year students enrolled from EU countries in 2021-22 than in the prior academic year.

Before the Brexit vote in 2016, EU nationals made up 5.5% of students studying in the UK, generating £3.7 billion (US$4.6 billion) for the British economy and supporting 380,000 jobs.

Until this past academic year, EU students were able to pay the same fees as UK students and they had access to certain UK student loan programmes. Now they are charged the same as all other international students.

Today there are nearly five times as many non-EU students as EU students enrolled in UK higher education. China, India and Nigeria are primarily responsible for the increased growth. Prior to Brexit there were 66,680 EU students studying in the UK. In 2021, the number was just 31,000.

The current Conservative government is considering ways to introduce new restrictions on international students, including reducing post-study work terms from two years to six months. (This comes at the same time as the Canadian government recently announced an 18-month work permit extension for international students.)

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is considering only allowing the UK’s ‘top universities’ to recruit international students. In March 2023, the UK’s Foreign Office barred more than 1,000 scientists and postgraduate students from working in the UK. Chinese scientists and researchers accounted for the majority of those denied permission to work and conduct research in the UK.

Visa restrictions for Ukrainians eased

According to the latest available figures, in 2019, there were more than 80,000 international students studying in Ukraine. This was no accident. Prior to the outbreak of the war, the higher education system in Ukraine was considered among the most affordable.

Since the invasion, the UK, Canada and Ireland have eased visa restrictions on Ukrainians and the EU has launched the Temporary Protection Directive which guarantees access to education and accommodation for refugees.

American and European universities have cancelled exchange programmes with Russian universities and requested their students leave Russia.

When 180 Russian rectors issued statements of support for the invasion of Ukraine, 80 UK universities suspended their memoranda of understanding with Russian universities and the EU broke relations with Russia regarding academic exchange.

India: ‘the next China’?

I recently listened to a recruitment commentator ask: “Who will be the next China? Is it India?” With decreasing numbers of Chinese students studying abroad, international deans and recruiters are searching for the next China. Many have turned to India.

The Indian government has recently passed higher education laws that support this increased attention. For example, in 2022, the UK and India signed an agreement officially recognising each other’s higher education qualifications. The 2030 Roadmap for India-UK future relations is designed to create a “comprehensive strategic partnership”.

Foreign universities are now permitted to set up their international campuses in the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, without having to follow Indian regulations.

Australia: 450 partnerships with India

There are currently 70,000 students from India studying in Australia. The country has signed a mutual recognition agreement with India, a first step in recognising education credentials.

In addition to the Mechanism for the Mutual Recognition of Qualifications, additional memoranda of understanding were signed between the two countries, including an Australia-India Working Group on Transnational Partnerships. Currently, Australian and Indian universities have more than 450 formal partnerships between them.

Finally, Deakin University will become the first international university to open a branch campus in India.

Germany facilitating exchanges

Germany has recently initiated the Comprehensive Migration and Mobility Partnership agreement which will facilitate the exchange of professionals between Germany and India. Currently, more than 17,000 Indian students study in Germany and higher education administrators are working in both countries to publish a guide for double and joint degree programmes.

Beginning next year, the Danish government will open new pathways allowing international students to gain post-study work in areas where skilled labour is needed in Denmark.

Switzerland and Netherlands eye restrictions

The Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology in Zurich and Lausanne are examining whether to restrict the number of international students. In 2022, both institutes had enrolled 37,000 students, half from other countries.

In January of this year, the Dutch Minister of Education announced that he will propose a plan to lower the number of international students enrolling in Dutch universities and urged Dutch colleges and universities to stop actively recruiting international students.

Spreading the risk

Internal political decisions as well as country re-alignments and geopolitical tensions are impacting higher education decisions and international student mobility. International deans and recruiters, taking the long view, should not look for the next China or India, but should carefully select two or three countries to research and if appropriate, allocate staff and financial resources to selected countries.

Specific and concentrated planning is vital for successful recruitment strategies; fixed five-year strategic plans are not. Neither is ignoring countries’ internal politics. Our world is too interconnected and today’s apparent enrolment opportunities may not be valid tomorrow.

Marguerite 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.