The past several decades have seen consistent increases in the numbers of students studying abroad. More than 4.3 million students studied abroad in 2011, more than double the number of mobile students a decade earlier. Many assume that expansion will continue indefinitely—and indeed that has been the trend in the era of massification of enrolments and globalization. Yet, international student flows can be quite volatile. The more countries and institutions think of international students as commodities to be traded, the more this volatility may have consequences for budgets and academic programs.
Yet, for the first time in several years international student enrolments in UK higher education institutions fell by 1% last year, with enrolments from India down by 25% and down 17% from Pakistan. Many reasons are suggested for this decline—tighter visa regulations, removing the right to work for two years after graduation, and a general anti-immigration sentiment from Britain’s ruling coalition government. After September 11, 2001, American immigration policies were dramatically tightened, and international student enrolments declined for several years before rebounding. Racist incidents against Indian in Australia resulted in a steep decline in South Asian enrolments in that country.
Political, social, and economic forces can create variations in mobility. The Iranian revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979 reduced what had been a large flow to the US from Iran to a trickle. Japan’s long economic recession has reduced the number of Japanese students going abroad. In both cases, these declines seem to be long lasting. South Korea became a major sending country as the country developed economically in the latter decades of the 20th century. South Korea has also developed its own higher education capacity during that period, and as a result, Korean international student numbers abroad have declined.
Of course, the biggest development in international student mobility has been the rise of China. As the demand for access to higher education in China increased, domestic capacity was inadequate, and many of China’s best students sought education abroad—and significant numbers chose not to return home. China now supplies about 17% of the world’s internationally mobile students. If, for any reason, Chinese overseas student numbers decline, figures for global student mobility will be affected. China is expanding capacity in its best universities, and this may cause more bright Chinese students to remain at home. If the Chinese economy slows down, fewer families will have the resources to send their children abroad—the large majority of internationally mobile Chinese students are funded by their families. If Chinese government policy relating to overseas study changes, this could drastically affect mobility. India, for example, has seen a modest economic slowdown, and a serous decline in the exchange value of the rupee, and as a result fewer Indians are studying abroad. Several countries, including Saudi Arabia and Brazil, have recently ramped up large nationally-funded scholarship programs for their students to study abroad, and such initiatives can boost international mobility.
Several of the host countries now count on international students to help support the domestic higher education system. Australia and the United Kingdom are especially dependent on income from international students—who are charged high fees. Some individual US private universities are increasingly dependent on income from international students, and several US states, including New York and Washington, are considering charging higher tuition to international students.
An entire industry has been built around international students. English language programs, some offered by universities and many sponsored by private companies, are a significant part of the mobility nexus. Agents and recruiters, some of them with questionable ethical standards, increasingly funnel students to universities abroad. Transition programs that prepare undergraduate students for overseas study have sprung up in many countries. All of these providers depend on a growing flow of internationally mobile students.
In the past decade or so, we have seen significant changes in international student mobility. We have seen dramatic growth but also some volatility in the patterns of expansion. We have seen the emergence of a wide range of ancillary services—many of them driven more by commercial opportunities than educational goals. And we have seen international students, to some extent, become another commodity to be traded on global markets with the aim of earning a profit.