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​Will Australia overtake the United Kingdom as the No. 2 destination in the world for international students?

Will the No. 1 destination, the United States, lose substantial numbers of students to Canada?

Is the recent order by the Saudi Arabian government that its citizens studying at Canadian colleges leave the country within a matter of weeks simply the most extreme manifestation of what two international education experts describe as a new period of "profound instability in international higher education"?

Or are recent fluctuations simply emblematic of the dynamism of the international education landscape, in which some countries see increases and others decreases in international student flows -- until a shift in policy or demand somewhere shifts the pendulum again?

Student visa data show that the number of international students at U.S. universities declined last year after years of substantial growth. Professionals in international education attribute the decline to a range of factors, including reductions in scholarship programs sponsored by foreign governments, issues of cost and affordability, uncertainty about visa policies and the future availability of poststudy work opportunities, concerns about physical safety and, yes, perceptions of the U.S. as a less welcoming place to foreign nationals under the Trump presidency.

The president reportedly called "almost every" Chinese student in the U.S. a spy at a recent meeting with CEOs. And various Trump administration policies on immigration have been broadly seen by many in U.S. academe as unwelcoming and counterproductive to the cause of recruiting talented students and scholars to American campuses. Among them: the travel ban barring entry to the U.S. for nationals of multiple Muslim-majority countries, new restrictions on the duration of visas for Chinese graduate students in certain high-tech fields and changes to how "unlawful presence" is calculated for international students and exchange scholars in the U.S.

Around the world there have been shifts in where internationally mobile students are going, with some countries -- most notably Canada and Australia -- seeing increases, while the traditional top destination countries, the U.S. and the U.K., see falling or stagnating numbers. And the sudden ordered withdrawal of thousands of Saudi students from Canada has served as a sober reminder for colleges of the geopolitical risks of relying heavily on any single population of international students for tuition revenue. Nearly half of all international students in the U.S. come from just two countries -- China and India.

Writing for Inside Higher Ed's "World Views" blog, Hans deWit, the director of Boston College's Center for International Higher Education, and Philip G. Altbach, a research professor and founding director of the center, say they "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 U.S. and the U.K. -- 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."

The question for universities in established study destinations -- many of which have grown to depend on the tuition revenue from growing international student enrollments -- is, will the students keep coming?

The total number of students crossing borders for higher education has grown rapidly over the past 35 years, from 800,000 students in 1978 to 4.5 million in 2013, according to estimates from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. But a recent report from the British Council projected a slowdown in mobility over the coming decade.

The higher education researcher Janet B. Ilieva thinks established study destinations will see a slowdown in growth as a result of a number of factors, including improved domestic higher education systems and increasing pressures on government funding that have resulted in cuts to scholarship programs that fund students abroad. Another possible factor is the growth in intraregional mobility -- with the emergence of regional higher education hubs like China, Malaysia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates -- though Ilieva cautioned that more research is needed to determine whether those countries are attracting students who would have otherwise gone to places like the U.S., U.K. and Australia.

At the same time, Ilieva said, short-term student mobility -- e.g., study abroad -- is rising. Ilieva also noted that in the U.K. there's been a growth in transnational higher education -- primarily dual or joint degree programs operated with partner universities abroad and taught in English. For a recent report she wrote for Universities UK, Ilieva noted that the majority of international students enrolled in a U.K. degree program -- more than 60 percent -- are actually studying outside the U.K.

"HE systems globally are maturing and as such, they will demand more equitable engagement," said Ilieva, the founder and director of Education Insight, an international education research company. "I see the future competition in global higher education likely to be for good international partners and, through them, access to their networks. This is both challenging and exciting. These multilateral partnerships will widen opportunities for both research collaborations, academic and student mobility across the partner HEIs. International student mobility (degree mobility) will continue to be a part of global higher education, but it will not dominate these relationships."

Below is a look at some of the major trends and developments in international student mobility in major destination countries around the world.

The United Kingdom

In the U.K., the No. 2 destination after the U.S., numbers of international students enrolling in higher education have been fairly flat -- rising by just 4.1 percent over the five-year period from academic years 2012-13 to 2016-17 -- and there are concerns that the country could see substantial drops in incoming international students from other European Union countries after Britain's expected exit next year from the European Union, known as Brexit. Statistics from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that U.K. universities hosted 442,375 international students in 2016-17, of which about 30 percent came from other E.U. countries.

So far, the number of students from other E.U. countries studying in the U.K. has not fallen -- application numbers suggest they may actually be trending slightly upward -- but that's not especially surprising given that the government has guaranteed that other E.U. students who start their programs through 2019-20 will continue to be eligible for U.K. domestic tuition rates and U.K. loan funding for the duration of their programs.

But what happens after that? Simon Marginson, director of the Centre for Global Higher Education at University College London, recently published an article in which he projected that Australia will soon overtake the U.K. as the No. 2 destination for international students.

He wrote that the news for international education in the U.K. is not good "after more than half a decade in which U.K. migration politics and Home Office regulation have conspired to hold international students in a flatline trend." Via email to Inside Higher Ed, Marginson listed some of those regulations (edited slightly for concision and clarity): "(1) relative cost of student visas into U.K., (2) slow visa processing, (3) interviews to establish bona fide student status (where it seems more difficult for prospective students from some countries than others), (4) two-tier system of providers whereby institutions with visa refusal rates reckoned as too high were placed in second tier with greater limitations on numbers, especially a problem in vocational education, (5) Home Office approval is required by institutions to increase their number of student visas and this can be refused, (6) high level of surveillance for non-E.U. international students during study, including monthly reporting which must be policed by institutions under threat of losing their Tier 1 status; the surveillance generates a strong sense that the students are not welcome or trusted, (7) poststudy work visas very difficult to obtain."

All of the above policies currently affect students from outside the E.U., who, unlike E.U. citizens, need visas to study and work in Britain -- but Brexit is looming.

"The U.K.’s global No. 2 position [as a destination for international students] in 2015 rested on its strong position in Europe," Marginson wrote. "The U.K. was the leading attractor of European students. This was sustained by conditions now disappearing -- pre-Brexit free movement within the E.U. and the provision of U.K. education to European students on the same tuition basis as U.K. students. After Brexit, European students will have to pay full-cost international student fees, not U.K. fees, and will no longer be eligible for tuition loans, meaning they pay up front in the year of study."

Dominic Scott, chief executive of the UK Council for International Student Affairs, said that Brexit is an opportunity for the U.K. to revisit its rules and regulations for international students. "The government is having to look at a whole new immigration system for E.U. and non-E.U. students and citizens in the next few years. We’re saying this is an opportunity to rationalize and simplify all the rules for students," Scott said.

Chief among the rules he'd like to see changed are those that relate to poststudy temporary work rights. The U.K. scaled back its poststudy work options in 2011, around the same time Australia expanded its opportunities for international students to stay and work. Graduating students can still switch to what's known as a Tier 2 visa to stay and work, but it's not as easy to stay as under the old system, and students need to secure a job with an employer licensed by the Home Office that pays a certain minimum salary.

“When we had what we call poststudy work the last year recorded, there were 84,000 students who applied to stay on in that scheme, and at the moment there are 6,000 who are getting Tier 2 visas. Six thousand is not an insignificant figure, but you can see compared to the gradating cohort it’s quite a modest subset," Scott said.

Scott cited research by Ilieva that found a strong positive correlation between the availability of temporary poststudy work opportunities and growth in international enrollments. Using data from UNESCO (the same data source Marginson used), Ilieva found that "between 2012 and 2015, international student enrollments grew by 0.7 percent in the U.K. compared, with 18 percent in Australia, 26.9 percent in Canada, 16.3 percent in Germany and 22.5 percent in the U.S." -- all countries with more generous poststudy work opportunities than the U.K.

“Some of those competitor countries offer an easier path to citizenship," Scott said. "We're not advocating for an easier path to citizenship because we want people to come here to study, but we do realize that allowing people to work for a year or two after studying is essential if we want to be an attractive destination."

Still, even without more generous work rights, there are indicators that the U.K. may have seen something of a surge in international students last year. Nationwide enrollment data for 2017-18 isn't yet available, but the number of visas for study in the U.K. rose by 8 percent from 2016 to 2017, including a 15 percent increase in the number of visas granted to Chinese students and a 28 percent jump in the number granted to students from India.


Australia, meanwhile, has seen growing international student enrollments. The number of international students enrolled in Australian higher education institutions surged by 14.7 percent from 2016 to 2017, to a total of 350,472 students. The numbers have been steadily climbing for the past six years, and Australian higher education providers now rely on international students for 29 percent of their enrollments and 19 percent of their total revenue, according to a new report from the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency.

"We’ve done well, because compared to a study destination country like Canada and New Zealand, they still offer much more significant [permanent] migration outcomes than Australia is offering," said Phil Honeywood, the CEO of the International Education Association of Australia.

That said, Honeywood is not sanguine. He raises the concern that tensions in the China-Australia relationship could negatively affect international enrollment. Australia is highly reliant on students from China, who account for slightly more than 30 percent of Australia's international students.

"Anecdotally, there’s evidence that Chinese students are being encouraged [by agents] to study in countries other than Australia, particularly the U.K. and Canada," Honeywood said.

"In all of this is another factor and that is that China itself is becoming a major international student study destination," Honeywood added. He referenced other rival education hubs within the region, not only in China, but also Malaysia, Singapore and Japan.

"We have to acknowledge that Australia may have to pitch itself in the future as more of a postgraduate study destination country rather than its traditional reliance on undergraduates," Honeywood said. "It's a lot cheaper for an Indian student to go and study at a Malaysian university for their undergraduate degree and then think of Australia for their postgraduate."

"I think there are many reasons why Australia is strong in the international student market," said Andrew Norton, the higher education program director at the Grattan Institute, a Melbourne-based think tank. "While Australia lacks the global brand universities of the U.S. or U.K., it does offer universities that are seen as good quality. Admission into these universities is relatively easy." Norton noted that the University of Melbourne, Australia's top-ranked university, has more than 20,000 international students -- a figure that's close to the total enrollment of Harvard University.

Other factors contributing to Australia's success in recruiting international students, Norton said, include the availability of two- to four-year poststudy work visas, proximity to major source countries in Asia, and perceptions that Australia and, in particular, the major cities of Sydney and Melbourne, are welcoming, with many restaurants and shops that cater to Chinese customers.

"Domestically, a flat undergraduate market, including a cap on funding for the public universities, and a declining postgraduate market may have caused some universities to offer more places to international students," Norton said via email. "And there is strong marketing in the source countries, supported by both the national government and the states, both of which are primarily seeing international students as an export industry" (the country's third largest, as articles in Australian newspapers about international education frequently mention).

All that said, Norton said he doesn't believe growth in international students will continue at its current rates. "At the university level, there must be a point at which capacity is an issue. The Australian National University has already announced that it is not going to grow any further. There are regular concerns raised about overreliance on Chinese students. And arguably international students are not getting the education they hope for if they come to Australia to find classes largely made up of people from their own country."

"I believe the politics of international education are changing," Norton continued. "For the most part, this is not a concern about international students as such, but rather issues around congestion and housing prices in the big cities that is turning attention to the role of migration in population growth. International students are the biggest driver of increases in net overseas migration. The government has to date focused on the permanent migration program, but there is growing awareness that this isn’t the largest source of additional people (partly because many permanent migrants have already been in Australia for years on temporary visas)."

Still, for the moment at least, Australia is riding a high.

“Theresa May in the U.K. and Donald Trump in U.S. have been massive assets for Australia,” said Honeywood. “Those two political leaders’ negativity towards international students has been to Australia’s advantage.”


Perhaps no country has been taking more advantage than Canada, where politicians and university leaders alike have seized on the opportunity to brand the country as a proudly multicultural, welcoming destination. The number of international postsecondary students in Canada increased by 20 percent from 2016 to 2017, to a total of 370,975.

All told, when you add in students at all educational levels, the country hosted 494,525 students in 2017, surpassing a national target of hosting 450,000 international students by 2022 five years early.

​Canada has comparatively friendly international student policies, including expedited visa processing for certain qualifying students from China, India, the Philippines and Vietnam. It also offers poststudy work visas that can last up to three years and has made it easier for international students to immigrate. Since November 2016 Canada has awarded extra points to international graduates of Canadian colleges and universities who apply for permanent residency through its points-based skilled immigration system. It also earlier this year announced the expansion throughout the Atlantic provinces of a "Study and Stay" program that started in Nova Scotia.

The ability to work temporarily after graduation and potentially immigrate are important considerations for international students. A new nationwide survey conducted by the Canadian Bureau for International Education last spring found that 70 percent of international students want to work in Canada after graduation, and 60 percent want to apply for permanent residency -- a big jump from the 51 percent who indicated a desire to seek permanent residency in a 2015 version of the survey.

"It’s likely that we will continue to see a sizable number of international students at Canadian universities," said Paul Davidson, the president of Universities Canada. "China continues to be our largest source country, and we have seen significant increases from India (where people tell us the U.K. is less appealing because of Brexit and recent changes to the student visa regime) and Mexico (where parents are looking for alternatives to the United States). We remain in competition with countries like Australia and New Zealand, but the opportunities to work and study and stay for a period after graduation helps in our efforts."

There's been much talk about whether Canada is enjoying a "Trump bump" in international students -- and indeed there was that 20 percent surge in international postsecondary students from 2016 to 2017. Students from countries like Iran that are covered by the travel ban may well be turning to Canada due to difficulties in getting visas to come to the U.S. -- indeed, there are anecdotal reports of that happening -- and students from price-sensitive markets like India, for example, may be increasingly choosing Canada over the U.S. in part due to the promise of seemingly more stable poststudy work opportunities and clearer pipelines to immigration. (There have been no significant changes to date to the poststudy work system in the U.S. -- known as optional practical training, it allows international students to work for one to three years after graduation while staying on their student visa -- but it's become a target of anti-immigration groups and labor unions alike who are concerned about its impact on American workers, and the Trump administration has signaled plans to propose a new rule overhauling the various practical training programs for international students as early as this fall.)

The relative weakness of the Canadian dollar -- which keeps the price of tuition lower for students converting their currency -- may also be a factor in increasing international enrollments. The number of international postsecondary students in Canada has risen steadily since 2000, when it sat at just 58,125 students.

“It’s really hard to disassociate Trump’s effect from this growth in Canada that had been occurring," said Creso Sá, the director of the Centre for the Study of Canadian and International Higher Education at the University of Toronto. "University underfunding by provinces has incentivized Canadian universities to recruit international students. It's the same story that you see in other countries."

In Sá's view, Canadian officials have seized too easily on the Trump effect as an explanation, part of what he describes as a "national boosterism" about Canada's image as a multicultural and open place. It's a factor, he suggests, but not the only one. His own research on international student flows across four major destination countries -- Australia, Canada, England and the U.S. -- from 2000 to 2016 found that numbers in all four countries grew steadily but that the growth appeared to be "decoupled from political and policy changes."

"Much of the reporting I follow on international education, it’s focused on what is happening right now, what is going on in the current recruitment cycle. Has Trump had an effect? These are all very short-term considerations. I approach this from a different perspective. I think that international students make commitments about studying abroad through a long-term decision-making process; I don’t think these are spur-of-the-moment, haphazard decisions."

Experts say the Canadian higher education landscape as a whole has ample capacity for continued growth in international students, but some institutions in the metro areas that are the most popular destinations for students are starting to ask just how much growth they can handle. Kwantlen Polytechnic University, which is located in the metro Vancouver area, saw a 110 percent surge in international enrollments from summer 2017 to summer 2018 after the introduction of expedited visa processing for students from India, and has temporarily stopped accepting international applications for most of its programs while it completes an analysis of its capacity.

​"I guess that’s a desirable place to be to a certain extent -- but when you go beyond capacity, it creates a number of pressures both for the students and the faculty and the operations that we have to be careful with," said Sal Ferreras, Kwantlen Polytechnic's provost.

For all the growth in Canada, however, the recent announcement by the Saudi government that all its students must leave Canada within four weeks stands out as a sobering piece of news for the higher education sector. The order by the Saudi government came after it took offense to statements by Canada's foreign minister about its arrest of human rights activists.

Not only will the edict profoundly disrupt students' lives and courses, but it also stands to have a negative financial impact on universities that were counting on Saudi students' tuition. With Saudi students representing only 2 percent of Canada's international student population, the financial impact isn't going to be catastrophic -- though certainly some institutions will be hit harder than others. But the credit rating agency Moody's wrote that the development "highlights geopolitical risk universities face as they focus on international students to support revenue growth."

"Although we do not expect that the withdrawal of Saudi students will place an excessive burden on the universities’ financial health, this development will expose Canadian universities to geopolitical risk and a loss of revenue. That is because we believe the universities will be unable to immediately replace these students with other international students given the close timing to the start of the new academic year."

Smaller English-Speaking Destinations

In New Zealand, there's been a substantial decline in international enrollments in the vocational and technical education sector, where there have been concerns about fraud. But growth in the public university sector remains robust, up 7 percent from 2016 to 2017. According to Education New Zealand, a government agency that promotes the country as a higher education destination, there were slightly fewer than 30,000 international students enrolled in New Zealand's eight universities in 2017, and the top source countries were China (by far, with 12,911 students), the U.S. (with 2,732 students), India (2,002), Malaysia (1,585) and Japan (528).

Over all, international enrollments in New Zealand higher education rose by 26 percent at the bachelor's level and 63 percent at the graduate level between 2013 and 2017. New Zealand has long had in place a policy of extending lower domestic tuition rates to international Ph.D. students. Ph.D. candidates and their spouses or partners also have the right to work full-time in New Zealand, and their children are eligible for free public education.

Earlier this month the government introduced a new international education strategy focused on improving the student experience, supporting "sustainable growth" and increasing the number of New Zealanders who study abroad. It also issued new rules for poststudy work that will make university students who study at a bachelor's, master's or Ph.D. level eligible for a three-year open work visa (before, students were eligible for a one-year open visa followed by a two-year "employer-assisted visa" tied to a specific employer).

“You do see a very welcome streamlining of the poststudy work rights in the university sector, and that’s actually something that we had requested," said Brett Berquist, the international director at the University of Auckland. "That moves us right to the forefront of poststudy work rights in the main English-speaking countries, which is a really positive thing."

Ireland, meanwhile, is reporting steady growth in international enrollments, up from 19,679 students in 2014-15 to 23,127 in 2016-17, according to the Higher Education Authority. The Irish Independent in its coverage noted that international enrollment numbers are "expected to rise even more rapidly post-Brexit, when, apart from Malta, Ireland will be the only English-speaking country in the E.U."

Continental Europe

Outside the major English-speaking destinations, some countries in continental Europe are also reporting increases in international students -- and are seeing opportunities to grow further, particularly through the growth of degree programs taught in English, the lingua franca of global higher education.

France hosted about 325,000 international students in 2016-17, a 4.6 percent increase over the year before and a 12.2 percent increase over five years. Forty-five percent of international students in France come from Africa, including countries that are French-speaking former colonies. The top 10 countries of origin for international students in France are Morocco, China, Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, Senegal, Germany, Spain, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon.

"With countries increasing their investments and deploying aggressive attraction policies, including through scholarship programs, but also leading countries now challenged (President Trump's United States, the United Kingdom in the Brexit turmoil, Australia facing a sluggish growth of Chinese outward mobility), France may be able to take advantage of the changes to establish its popularity on the global mobility market thanks to its strategy and important assets," reads a Campus France press release that accompanied the release of the data.

German universities hosted 359,000 international students in 2017, an increase of 5 percent over the previous year. The increase means that Germany exceeded its federal target of recruiting 350,000 foreign students by 2020 three years early.

Germany has substantial diversity in its international student population. The largest sending country, China, accounts for 13.2 percent of international students. After China is India (5.8 percent), Russia (4.3 percent), Austria (4 percent) and Italy (3.2 percent).

"I think in the past the language was a hurdle to come to Germany compared to English-speaking countries. But as the number of English master's programs has increased, it’s possible to study in English, so people who wouldn't have considered to come here and learn German first -- they can more easily come here," said Julia Hillmann, a senior desk officer in the section for research and studies for the German Academic Exchange Service.

“It also cannot be denied that the lack of tuition fees is something that’s attractive compared to other countries," Hillmann said. German universities generally do not charge tuition to international students, save for in one German state, Baden-Württemberg, where tuition for international students from outside the E.U. is just 1,500 euros (about $1,720) per semester.

Hillmann said no recruitment target has been set so far to replace the one that has been reached. "I think it’s also necessary to focus on the quality after focusing on the quantity for now," she said. "Dropout rates are rather high among international students compared to the German students. This is a task for the future to focus on -- to make sure that the expectations of the students who come here to study are clear and realistic and also that foreseeable problems can be avoided, and make it easier for international students to adapt to the new system and to the learning style and teaching style and these kinds of factors."

The Netherlands also reports growth in international education: in 2017-18 it reported 122,000 international students, about three-quarters of whom came from within the European Economic Area.

One factor in this increase in international students in the Netherlands has been the growth in English-language degree programs; at research universities, one in five programs at the bachelor's level, and three in four at the master's level, are offered in English, according to a report on international enrollments from Nuffic, the Dutch organization for internationalization in education. The report states that around 80,000 Dutch students and 40,000 international students are enrolled in programs taught exclusively in English.

But when the report came out about the Netherlands having its highest international student numbers ever, the Dutch Student Union issued a press release urging universities to be cautious about managing growth. The union raised concerns about housing shortages for students and about the "anglicisation" of education as a way to recruit students and earn revenue.

Geertje Hulzebos, the chair of the Dutch Student Union, said the position of the union is that programs should be taught in English only when there is an educational benefit for doing so.

“We are really positive about internationalization because we believe it can really contribute to the quality of education, getting to know other cultures, other people," Hulzebos said. "I genuinely believe it is a good thing in essence, but I think where things go wrong is when teachers and students are often not capable enough in English. And also with respect to the housing, a lot of international students are in a very vulnerable position in the Netherlands. Their parents do not live here, they don’t have any family and friends, so they’re very vulnerable to being exploited in a sense."

"For us we are very positive about internationalization in itself, but it can only have positive effects when international students feel at home here and when students and teachers have cultural skills in order to cope with cultural differences."

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