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The announcement that the Saudi Arabian government threatens to withdraw scholarships from 7,000 Saudi students headed to Canadian universities in a few weeks because of statements made by the Canadian foreign minister critical of human rights in Saudi Arabia is the latest, and perhaps most dramatic example, of profound instability in international higher education. For nearly a half-century, the order of the universe in global higher education seemed fairly clear—the top universities of the West dominated an international system and the rankings. Students, for many reasons, flowed from South to North, filling classrooms and adding to income in the Western countries where they enrolled. Australian, British and American universities established branch campuses and other programs outside of their borders. Prestige, future economic return, and opportunities not available at home motivated individual students, their families and national government programs on the sending side, and financial and diversity benefits drove national and institutional interests on the receiving side. There was little political resistance to these developments—indeed, governments were in general supportive and often participated.  

Now, this system is being upended in fundamental ways. The sudden rise in nationalism and populism in many countries has implications for higher education. The massive investments in higher education by China and to a lesser extent by South Korea, Singapore, and others has meant dramatic improvements in universities in those countries, threatening the hegemony of the traditional Western elite institutions. For example, the number of Chinese and Singapore universities at the top levels of the global rankings is increasing while Western dominance is declining, albeit very slowly. 

While international student mobility continues to grow—from 2.5 million in 2008 to 5 million in 2018, student destinations are changing. For the first time in several decades, new international student numbers in the US have declined. Brexit has resulted in a decline in the UK as well. According to a study on the future of UK as study destination led by Simon Marginson, Australia might take over the number 2 position, now held by the UK; other countries such as Germany, France and Japan, but also China, see their numbers rising, while countries such as Russia and India seek to become key players as well. 

Trumpism, which includes a tightening of visa regulations and increase in visa fees, as well as a ban on students from several countries, has created a general atmosphere of “unwelcomeness.” Trump’s recent statement that most of the 350,000 Chinese students studying in the US are spies, contributes to this narrative. China’s increasing restrictions on academic freedom and access to information may place limits on its emergence as a major host for international students. The implications of these developments, along with the rise of populist governments in Italy, Poland, and elsewhere are still unclear, but politics and ideology have clearly entered the international education equation, perhaps dominating it in some countries. 

The Devil is in the Details

Canada has been a positive exception to growing negativity. Economic factors, a welcoming policy for skilled immigrants and an open political climate, have made Canada the rising star in recruiting international students. Trump’s policies and rhetoric and Brexit, have helped Canada to become one of the most popular destinations for overseas study. The country will be relatively unaffected by the departure of Saudi students, as they represent only 2 percent of the international student population, and Canada (unlike Australia) is not dependent on income from foreign students to balance university budgets. Yet there will be a loss to cultural diversity. 

One has to wonder if the threat by the Saudis will be effective. It is one thing for the Saudi government to announce that they are withdrawing 7,000 students from Canada. It is quite another to implement it. There will be major inconvenience for the students involved—the very people that the Saudi government is depending on to implement its “Vision 2030” reforms. How can these students possibly be transferred to universities in other countries in the time remaining before the beginning of the next semester? Furthermore, will other countries and institutions be inclined to enter into agreements with the Saudis when there is a danger that arrangements can be upended suddenly by political tensions.

The Implications of Global Instability

Even if the direct consequences of the Saudi renunciation are not that significant, such as the impact on some universities that had planned to enroll large cohorts of Saudi students or on the Saudi students who have to quickly find alternative destinations, the case underscores the vulnerability of a receiving country to political threats from a sending country. 

We are convinced that we are now in an era of global instability in international higher education and that the certainties and truisms of the past are no longer applicable. What, for example, would be the fallout of China blocking the study of Chinese nationals in the United States as part of the trade war, or Russia’s doing so in response to American sanctions? What if Canada would offend the Indian government? All possible, although it looks like the most significant political actions to affect international student flows have been taken by the governments—the US and the UK—that receive the greatest economic benefits from mobility. The key message from all of this is politics play a crucial and increasingly volatile role in international higher education.  


Hans deWit is professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, US. Philip G. Altbach is research professor and founding director at the Center.


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