In 2006, I arrived in the United States as an international graduate student. By 2016, I had started working in the realm of international higher education, specifically in international admissions. It was in this role that I first encountered Rahul Choudaha’s research on the three waves of international student mobility spanning from 1999–2020. As Choudaha conceptualized it, the first wave (1999–2006) was shaped by security concerns following the Sept. 11 terror attacks, while the second wave (2006–2013) came as a result of a global recession that prompted institutions to rapidly grow their international student bodies for financial reasons. The third wave (2013–2020) was marked by the growth in nationalistic politics in the U.S. and elsewhere and increasing competition around the globe for international students.
This research, emphasizing the changes that international education has witnessed over the course of two decades, always held a special fascination for me. In my own role in international admissions, I constantly delve into data that highlights the social and economic factors that will undoubtedly wield significant influence in shaping international student mobility in the coming years. To propel the conversation forward, from 2020 into the fourth wave of international student mobility, I will try to compartmentalize emerging themes into five points of discussion.
- COVID Policies and Implications: In 2020, the world grappled with the travel bans, and, in 2021, the introduction of vaccines marked a turning point. A spectrum of COVID strategies emerged from various corners of the world, from stringent zero-COVID policies to other, more laissez-faire approaches. The commencement of the fourth wave of international student mobility has been indelibly marked by the influence of COVID. This era has illuminated both the resilience of international higher education and laid bare the underlying geopolitical tensions among nations. The COVID experience has also underscored the fragility of international student mobility, as any major global issue can disrupt the flow of students across borders.
- China and India: Shifting Dynamics in International Student Mobility: China and India have been the leading nations for inbound international student mobility to the United States and many other Global North countries for the past two decades. However, while this trend persists, noteworthy shifts have developed during the COVID era. For India, 2022 and 2023 stand out as exceptional years, with record-breaking numbers of student visas issued by the U.S. Mission. On the other hand, for China the overall student visa trends have declined, particularly in 2022. Several factors have contributed to this decline, including COVID-related policies that prolonged the closure of the U.S. consulates and the underlying political tensions that have emerged between the United States and China.
- The Era of Protectionism: Historically, education has unified nations. However, in the age of “us” and “them,” even educational policies and programs are vulnerable to the impacts of protectionist policies. The ending of the Fulbright program for China and Hong Kong in 2020 and the closing of “nearly all” of the Confucius Institutes at various U.S. higher education institutions are examples of protectionism evident in the era of the fourth wave. Consequently, international student mobility in this decade may be oriented toward students from certain groups of nations that may be geopolitically aligned with the host nation.
- Employability Takes Center Stage: The opportunity to find experiential learning opportunities and to network with potential employers, and the promise of finding jobs and internships, has become a primary driving force behind prospective international students’ choices. For many international students, educational mobility is not merely about getting a degree but also the opportunity to migrate. Hence, higher education institutions that emphasize pathways to employability and foster connections with industry will likely become more attractive.
- Retention: Rethinking Priorities in International Education: A combination of factors, including the decline in the number of international students coming from China and the emergence of diverse study abroad options worldwide, have created a more challenging recruitment landscape for U.S. universities. Furthermore, higher education institutions in the U.S. and other countries in the Global North face challenges related to student costs and sustainability, as many prospective international students struggle not only with the cost of tuition but also living costs. As affordable housing becomes an increasingly challenging factor, higher education institutions need to ask whether the focus should shift from recruitment to retention.
In the end, international student mobility is influenced by everything from geopolitics to global health dynamics, from trade considerations to security concerns, all factors that defy easy assessment. Even so, the themes above speak to key elements that are already shaping international student mobility, and will likely continue to do so over the next decade.