The Guessing Game: Where Will Your International Students Come from in 10 Years?

Megan Brenn-White looks at the next decade of international student recruitment.

November 19, 2015

Many institutions think about international recruitment as hitting numerical targets for the coming year, but what about longer-term plans?

A British Council report on graduate mobility by 2024 projects that the quickest growing markets for the US between 2012 and 2024 will be Nigeria (+9.4%), India (+8%), Saudi Arabia (+6.3%), Pakistan (+5.4%), and Indonesia (+5.3%). A report by the World Education Service says that Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Vietnam, and Turkey are the next four big “emerging markets”. Clearly this matters for long-term planning.

And yet anything from economic trends to political tension to bad press can dramatically – and quickly -- shift international student flows, so having a “diverse portfolio” is not only good for the classroom but for the risk. So what else do we actually know that can help us plan for the future?

What everyone agrees on: there will be more internationally mobile students

One thing that seems to be taken as a given is the ongoing and incredibly rapid growth in international student mobility. The most recent OECD data counted 4.5 million students “enrolled in tertiary education outside their country of citizenship” in 2012, up from around 2 million in 2000. Higher education researchers and organizations such as IDP Education Australia and UNESCO have projected increases to over 7 million by the 2020s.

Global tertiary enrollments are expected to grow by an additional 21 million students between 2011 and 2020, according to a report by the British Council on The Shape of Things to Come. So while market share may continue to fall, the outlook is still strong – if competitive.

And, yes, most of them will come from China and India – maybe

China and India are both hugely important markets for US universities. Where and if these students will study in 2016 and beyond is the kind of question that keeps university administrators up at night.

According to a recent report by the US International Trade Administration, China represents 40% of international students in the US, and no one would disagree that this is the most important market for US institutions.

India is the second largest market for international students in the US, projected to have 113 million tertiary-aged population in 2024 – and to represent 54% of US growth in inbound graduate mobility between 2012-2024, according to the British Council in the abovementioned report.

While it seems as if the projections are still quite rosy that these two countries will dominate international student mobility in the coming decade, factors from economic slowdowns, shifting exchange rates, increasing competition, or even the quickly growing (and improving) higher education landscape in China could quickly shift this. Diversification, even for schools with established markets in these regions, is important.

Consider shifting government funding

According to the Open Doors data from the Institute of International Education, the number of Brazilians in the US grew by 22% between 2012/13 and 2013/14, a figure that was undoubtedly impacted by the Science Without Borders scholarship program set to send over 100,000 Brazilians abroad for study over a few years. The King Abdullah Scholarships Program (KASP) in Saudi Arabia funds 125,000 students to study abroad each year – and students from Saudi Arabia make up the fourth largest group in the US according to the same Open Doors report.

What happens when the KASP program ends in 2020, when it is currently set to expire? A long-term plan would take this into account. Will the Brazilian government be able to continue to fund as many students during an economic slowdown?

Maybe the more interesting question is which countries are creating similar programs. The Mexican government’s Proyeta 100,000 was created in 2013 with the goal of enrolling 100,000 Mexican students in US universities (up from 14,000 currently, according to the most recent Open Doors data).

So which baskets do we put our eggs in?

While the US is still the number one destination for international students, the market share has actually decreased from 28% in 2002 to only 20% in 2014. English-taught programs are increasing by the thousands, opening new opportunities to study in English around the world.

As more opportunities to study in English arise, students won’t have to travel as far to access higher education, and intra-regional international mobility will almost certainly become more important. These regional mobility trends are already evident within Eastern Asia/Oceania and Europe, according to the OECD indicators. Continuing to develop recruitment channels in Canada plus Central and South America could make sense for US institutions.

If you already have a strong foothold in major sending countries such as China and India, it looks like they will be a safe bet for the near future. But with the whole world seeking students in these two countries, looking to emerging markets or countries or regions where your institution has strategic goals or existing ties is necessary as well.

Ultimately where your international students come from should primarily be tied to the mission of your institution, its academic goals, and whatever plans for “internationalization at home” may be in place. Although we treat international students as an “export” in economic terms– and their tuition dollars are critical to many of our institutions – it’s equally important to remember that they enrich our institutions and our lives beyond the financial aspects.

Megan Brenn-White has nearly two decades of experience in international education and content development, most of which has been helping higher education institutions communicate more effectively online with international audiences. She founded The Brenn-White Group in 2010.


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