International student mobility – questioning future scenarios

In the context where an increasing amount of higher education institutions in USA and UK are increasingly dependent on fees and having to become “self-sufficient”, the question of international student mobility is becoming increasingly important for these institutions.

According to a recent article in University World News, “China and India alone will see their aggregate urban consumption increase seven-fold and six-fold respectively from 2005 to 2025“. In the article, this is used as an argument that there will be an increasing pool of potential international students in terms of quantity, and that this would also allow institutions to be more selective rather than being dependent on any student coming. As such, the article presents this transformation as a huge potential for higher education institutions in the West – and especially for USA and UK that would need to have clear strategies on how to gain from this situation.

Though, the picture might be as clear cut, and some issues one might want to consider include that Asian own higher education institutions are on the rise, and there is increased focus on cross-border education and branch campuses that seems to be the preferred mode, instead of sending out students. In addition, one can expect increasing competition from other European countries, as the EU is soon to issue its new internationalisation strategy for higher education with third countries (as indicated by a Commission representative during the recent ESMU conference in Brussels). 

So, what kind of evidence is there that this increase would also mean an increase in terms of international students from Asia? Earlier research we have reported here on the Hedda blog has indicated that the massification of higher education in China has had an adverse effect on equity, created issues with graduate unemployment and contributed to institutional stratification.

Another question is whether the Chinese system can absorb an even higher number of graduates? Or shall an international degree become the new necessity for the elites to be competitive on the labour market? In a system that becomes massified there will nevertheless be a need for a filtering function to distinguish between graduates on a particular subject field in the labour market. This can either take place through acquiring higher level degrees, increased institutional stratification in terms of quality, or perhaps through getting an international degree. Which one of these three best explains the trend is an open question – since it is not given that international education assures quality.

In addition, from the UWN article it would appear as if it is an open market for US and UK institutions. However – the ever increasing tuition fees in the USA might reach to a level that will be difficult to cope with even with a strengthening middle class in China and India. Considering the relatively lower (or non-existing) tuition fees in Europe – might it be the case that it will not only be UK but whole of Europe that will be able to compete on this market as well?

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