• The World View

    A blog from the Center for International Higher Education


Dilemmas of Student Mobility Policies

Emerging and developing countries that are promoting inbound and outbound mobility should be more realistic about their prospects of attracting international students.

May 17, 2015

More and more governments and institutions of higher education are becoming obsessed by the potential economic and political benefits of the recruitment of international students. For many decades the traditional divide was between the industrialised world that recruited international students and the developing world that sent them, but the world has become more complex. Recently, Egypt announced that it will enter the international student market, following the footsteps of countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China. Egypt sees potential in the continued demand for higher education in the neighbouring countries and their emerging middle classes.

A recent article in Al-Farnar Media (04 May 2015) by Sara Mohammed Ibrahim is illustrative of this trend. The new Egyptian international student recruitment strategy seeks to increase the number of foreign students from 55,000 to 200,000 in the next three years, according to the Supreme Council of Universities. The strategy will focus on improving the country’s international and regional higher education profile and on enhancing teaching, research and residential infrastructure on campuses. To increase Egypt’s share of the student market, universities will not only create entertainment clubs, offer dormitories and health care, but also lower the required examination scores for international students. It is expected that the students will come mainly from surrounding Arab and African countries and contribute hard currency to the Egyptian economy and to the higher education sector.

In several cases many countries, Turkey being the most recent case, encourage their own students to study abroad, in order to increase the capacity of graduates to contribute to national development when they return home. They are selective in providing scholarships to students who go abroad to study only in universities that are high in the rankings: top 100, top 200 or top 500. In this way they assume they can guarantee the quality of their investment in these students. These countries that are making scholarship placements based on rankings, at the same time that they recruit international students without being equally selective. Inevitably, placement based on rankings implies that students go primarily to Northern America, Europe and Australia, as these countries still dominate the rankings; an interesting dilemma is evolving. By sending national talent abroad to the top universities in the old industrialized world, and filling domestic capacity with less talented locals and students from neighboring countries, the risk of a widening gap is enormous.

In the case of Egypt, a country that is not only a recipient of international students but also a sender of students abroad (although in lower numbers than receiving), this might have negative implications. Even if the target of 200.000 international students could be reached (and there are, as the article in Al-Farnar Media notes, serious doubts, due to security, out-of-date infrastructure and quality of education) and even if the income generated by the inflow is used for improvement of higher education (also in doubt), in the end the impact might still be negative due to the lack of increased quality of the enrolled student body.

But there is another development that complicates the story. Countries like Turkey have recognized that students who have not been able to pass the entrance exams for the best local universities, were going abroad to study at low quality institutions and for that reason have introduced the barrier limiting study at top-500 ranked institutions. This is a trend in other countries also. China’s increase in study abroad is driven by those families whose children are not selected to the top local universities. 

There is no easy solution to these dilemmas, but the emerging and developing countries that are dealing with inbound and outbound mobility should be more realistic about their prospects of attracting international students; they should not – like Egypt is planning to do – reduce the entrance requirements for such students, and they should not become obsessed with institutional rankings. It is wiser in the long term to select students for scholarships for study abroad as well as for admission of international students at home based on national needs, the talents of the students and the right program for them, and at the same time to stimulate broader mobility rather than focus exclusively on the old industrialized world.  


  • As of September 1, 2015, Hans de Wit will become the director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. In his new role he will be a regular contributor to “The World View”.     



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